Awe and Wonder
I’m writing on a Friday, as storm Eunice rages outside… We’re not so great at extreme weather in London, the streets are very quiet. Most people are sheltering in place as we are used to doing these days. Normally I don’t like wind, it makes me feel antsy and ungrounded. However, I do love an epic storm, the excitement, the danger, the wildness!! The untamed force of Nature humbles us, reminds us of our softness and vulnerability. I wonder, if we were more frequently subjected to wild weather like this, would have more respect for Mother Nature’s power?
Energy From Wind
Wind farms are currently generating around a third of the UK’s electricity. The modernisation of the ancient practice of harnessing wind power brings me hope. Although far from perfect, wind turbine technology represents a more harmonious relationship with Mother Nature, renewable rather than extractive. Here, we are blessed with windy places on and offshore. In combination with creating a circular economy, and new modes of transport, wind turbines will enable humanity to breathe sweeter, cleaner air, well into the future.
These last few days, I’ve been studying breath with Doug Keller, one of my favourite Yoga Therapy teachers. Like me, he had asthma as a younger person, giving him a deeper, visceral understanding of the nature of breath. I spent many hours as a wheezy child focussing on how I could make my next breath, just a little bit more comfortable than the last one. Breathing is not something you are taught by the doctor or your parents. If you have breathing difficulties, it’s just something you have to work out for yourself… one laboured breath after another. This early breath awareness practice was great training for my yoga pranayama practices. I had no choice but to listen to the breath, to collaborate with it.
I look my first yoga teacher training with Jenny Beeken when I was twenty-nine years old. Despite no longer being asthmatic, I absolutely despised the pranayama lessons. It felt such an imposition to tell my breath what to do. To hem this precious life force energy into pre-prescribed patterns and rhythms felt like caging a wild and beautiful bird. So so oppressive, so sad, so utterly uninspiring. Forcing the breath to obey the mind and will, rather than allowing it to express its own fullness and magic is undervaluing our body’s own wisdom, in my opinion.
Breath as a Cosmic Force
In early yogic thought, the breath was seen as a vital cosmic force, that permeates all of creation.
As far back as 1000 BC in the Atharva Veda, Prana is praised as
“the lord of all…
of all that breathes, and does not breathe.”
In this ancient world, humans lived far closer to the Earth. There were no large scale industrial processes, and few complex chemicals – it must’ve been easy to sense the life force in literally everything.
Everything is Alive!
I am at heart, an animist, to me it feels as if everything has a spiritual essence, an energy or aliveness to it. Even the laptop I type on, made of composite plastics, minerals and metals, feels to me as if it has a kind of consciousness. All these materials are ultimately derived from the Earth after all. I am the kind of person who talks to my dishwasher. Even though it doesn’t breathe, it is an important part of the family and has a certain life force of its own. You might think me a little eccentric, yet my trusty dishwasher still going strong after over 20 years of daily service.
Breath as Life Force
As we have seen, in the earlier times of the Vedas breath (prana), rather than consciousness itself (atman), was seen to be the key to freedom and immortality. Later, during the Classical period exemplified by the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, prana came to be seen more as a power to be harnessed, and less as an animating, liberating force in and of itself. This led to the classical yoga pranayama practices that sought to control and contain the life force (prana).
Breath and the ANS
Breath can indeed be a tool, in a very modern sense, for tuning our autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS connects and balances our body, mind and emotions. The goal for the nervous system is to maintain homeostasis much of the time, whilst allowing us to be responsive and adaptable to the inherent ups and downs of life.
As we inhale we go slightly into a the active part of the ANS (sympathetic nervous system)
As we exhale we go slightly into the resting part of the ANS (parasympathetic nervous system).
By working with the breath we can influence the ANS directly.
Breath as a Bridge from the Conscious to the Subconscious Mind
Breath is unusual as a process, as it is both conscious and unconscious.
Conscious – we can decide how and when to breathe and not breathe, up to a point and
Unconscious – thankfully when our mind is focussed on other things, or when we are asleep or unconscious, our body breathes us, autonomously (via the ANS) without our conscious involvement.
Autonomous Not Automatic
Autonomic is often “translated” as automatic. However, this is a simplification that misses out on the nuance of what the Autonomic Nervous System does.
1. Not controlled by others or by outside forces; independent: an autonomous judiciary; an autonomous division of a corporate conglomerate.
2. Independent in mind or judgment; self-directed.
3. a. Independent of the laws of another state or government; self-governing.
b. Of or relating to a self-governing entity: an autonomous legislature.
c. Self-governing with respect to local or internal affairs: an autonomous region of a country.
When we sleep, the breath does not switch to a mindless automatic program. The autonomic nervous system is independent and self-governing, it judges how the breath needs to be according to prevailing circumstances of temperature, position, health and sleep state. The ANS chooses, it decides, it has agency. Like any autonomous entity, it doesn’t always get things right, and it is liable to fall into habits. The ANS takes shortcuts to conserve energy. These shortcuts can lead to shallow breathing, which seems more energy-efficient, but in the long run, really isn’t.
A Collaborative Venture
However, if we don’t explore deeper breathing in a conscious manner, our ANS will not “know” that it is more efficient to breathe diaphragmatically at rest, and so it will use shallow breathing as a baseline. We need to teach the ANS, but we also need to be willing to be taught by it. It is a collaborative venture, like two scientists working together on a project. A similar collaborative venture is required with the sensory-motor nervous system and our movement patterns.
Our unconscious breath and movement habits are derived from our consciously chosen breath and movement explorations. This is why it’s so important to have a movement and breath practice.
Oppressing Our Nervous System
With the idea of being autonomous in mind, we can see clearly what an imposition it is to force the breath into certain prescribed pranayama practices. In the hope of feeling younger, more energised, more elevated or important we are literally oppressing our own nervous systems. I see this as bullying ourselves into a certain way of being. Imposing an upright sitting position on a person who feels tired, bored, or absorbed in a screen that is at the wrong height, is a cover-up. It works for a while, yet as soon as we take our mind off trying to sit up straight, we go back to being how we are. Our body slumps again, embodying the truth of how we feel and what we are doing, perfectly.
Imposing or Exploring
The breath is the same of course. We can do all the fancy pranayama practices we like, but if we are imposing these patterns, rather than exploring them, we are likely to do more harm than good. B.K.S. Iyengar saw the pranayama practices as more dangerous and arduous than asana (he was another former asthma sufferer). Perhaps this was because, as a student of yoga he was required to work with challenging breath exercises before his natural breath pattern had found a healthy baseline.
Explore Your Own Breath
Certainly, this was the case with me. I would get stressed and my heart would beat faster when exploring all but the simplest of pranayama exercises. So, I rebelled and refused to do them. Luckily my teacher (despite being trained by Iyengar herself) let me make my own discoveries. I would spend the time exploring three-part breath, whilst others would be doing the bellows breath, breath counting and breath-holding.
In the long run, this has served me well. Now my breath is pretty healthy. There is evidence of my asthmatic past, which sometimes becomes more apparent in the hay fever season. However, my baseline breathing is long, slow and steady. These days, I enjoy many of the pranayama practices I used to loathe.
Breath, Resilience to Stress and HRV
This gentle way of practising pranayama has a profound effect on the nervous system, that can be measured with an HRV monitor. Heart Rate Variability (HRV) is the measure of how quickly we can return to homeostasis after being exposed to a stressor. It is a great measure of our overall health and wellbeing relative to ourselves (so it doesn’t make sense to compare HRVs as we do with blood pressure). I find, that adding pranayama techniques such as ujjayi breath, when it is unforced and not overlayed over a disordered breath pattern, increases my HRV. HRV is a biomarker of our resilience to stress, our capacity to recover from stress. To find out more about this important marker for health, see my article Yoga for Stress Reduction: The Basics.
Discover Your Natural Breath Pattern
Finding your own natural breath pattern is indeed a long and winding road. Yet it is such a relaxing and enjoyable journey! It’s simple, accessible, you don’t need a special outfit and it is an easy habit to fit into your everyday life. Breath awareness practice should be a joy, not a chore. As you practice, your breath pattern gets healthier. I used to wonder how people could do 30 minutes of Ujjayi breathing when I could do barely three breaths. Now I look back and realise, it is simply regular practice.
Beware of Striving
Striving for an outcome prevents us from feeling the benefits of the process of our practice. Working with the breath in a restful way, one’s ordinary breath pattern becomes more calm and coherent. Rather than enforcing the ideal coherent breath pattern of 5.5 breaths a minute, simply explore how it feels to breathe, with the ultimate intention of feeling comfortable and relaxed. See your breath as your teacher, the mind is the student. With a relaxed approach, you will avoid difficulty. Your unconscious breath pattern will, over time, settle into your own approximation of this slower rhythm that balances the nervous system. Remember, this is not breath control, but breath awareness, breath collaboration. However, if you have any pre-existing chronic ailments it would be wise to consult a yoga therapist about establishing a regular breath practice.
Explore For Yourself!
Below my classes update, you’ll find two practice videos. How to do Ujjayi breath by me, plus a coherent breath soundtrack, from my partner Alistair Smith (he is a sound healer and composer). Try playing around with both techniques (they work well individually or in combination). Find out for yourself how your breath can comfortably settle, creating ease for both your body and mind.