This article was originally published in elephant journal, November 2013
As an Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga instructor, I teach that Ujjayi Pranayama (the Victorious Breath) is the single most distinguishing aspect of our practice. I tell people to just think how inhaling is the first thing we do when we’re born, and exhaling our last breath is the final thing we do before we die. To me, the breath is magic, a direct conduit to another frame of mind that simultaneously transforms the conscious moment. Within asana, the breath draws the limitless nature of mind through the body and animates it while also healing the mind’s otherwise neurotic compulsion to know, to understand, to draw conclusions, to make life safe.
From the moment I began Yoga practice over twenty years ago, I felt sensitive to the divisive gap drawn by cultural bias that keeps practices like Yoga only marginally accepted in the West. Even though Yoga is now being practiced much more widely than when I started in the 90s, the essence and depth of it seems largely untouched and unnoticed. In recent years, the scientific community has begun researching how these beautiful practices transform our being on a physiological level, not only confirming what yogis have been experiencing for a long time but making these practices accessible and respectable to the Western mind.
I have long known from personal experience the impact good Yoga practice has on depression, health, sexuality, and creativity. As a young woman I encountered crippling depression, and although it took me several years to have enough will to accept a friend’s invitation to a Yoga class, I discovered immediate liberation from my mental oppression, a respite of joy. The health benefits, from strengthened immunity, and sensitivity to the body’s needs throughout life, to longevity, vitality, and even positive impact on our DNA structure, are not only evident but are now being scientifically confirmed. The refinement of the mind and body connection uncovers subtle and sensual awareness, allowing us to move beyond the confines of conventional thinking, and bringing us more completely into the experience of our sexuality and creativity as quite simply connected with all things.
My experience of breath is that it skillfully frees the mind of its own shackles. At some point in a practice, we begin to see how everything we experience in our body is a function of our mind within it. Of course that suggests the mind is neither separate from Nature and the stages of life nor the emotions that run as currents throughout us. Although, as far as I know, there haven’t been studies yet to demonstrate how it occurs, my supposition is that by freeing the mind of what it knows, or believes to be true, on the vehicle of breath, the mind’s limitlessness creates endless possibilities in our body and experience.
Yoga, ultimately, is a philosophical and spiritual discipline, or way of life, that values the physical world as an intimate and intrinsic aspect of our understanding. The physical world is the mirror in which we see ourselves. If you like philosophy, you can be engaged to your deathbed with completely nourishing material. Pranayama is discussed in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, and the Yoga Taravalli, to name a few classic Yoga texts. In practice though it is also the simple awareness of experiencing life, the physical form as the container for the boundless.
When I was giving birth to my third child I unexpectedly witnessed the marriage of the mystical and physical, the deep intelligence of the practice itself, and particularly pranayama. I was having twins, and my first baby of that day was born. About forty-five minutes afterward, the fetal heart monitor indicated that my unborn baby’s heart rate was dropping quickly. I had stopped having contractions right after the first birth, and because I was thoroughly engrossed with my newborn, I had almost forgotten there was another. When they took my nursing son from me and whisked me into the operating room, I was relieved–I didn’t know if I had it in me to have another baby.
While waiting for the Caesarean to begin, the anaesthesiologist bent down and asked me my normal body weight. After I told him and he walked away, I asked my doctor why he needed to know that. She explained there wasn’t enough time for an epidural and so he’d be giving me general anaesthesia. Having never been under and for the first time grasping the urgency of my unborn baby’s circumstances, I became intensely afraid. There were many people in the room doing things but only my doctor was there, quietly waiting with me. Even my husband, who’d already put on his mask and scrubs, was somehow not right there. Without thinking, I did what my teachers and the teachings had professed–I dropped in to pranayama, to what I knew, what had given me ground when there had been none so many times before, as a way to deal with intense emotion. I began to do ujjayi pranayama, dropping my exhale, and with it whatever awareness I felt I had within my grasp, to my little baby. The immensity of the fear channeled into breath and I focused entirely on my baby, that he would be well, because it was all I knew to do.
After several rounds of breath, my doctor put her hand on my knee and the two of us had a quiet conversation:
She said, “Whatever it is you’re doing keep doing it, because his heart rate is going up.”
I said to her, “I think I’m getting a little contraction, what should I do, should I push?” She said, “You use whatever you’ve got.”
Because on my third breath, I started feeling a contraction after not having had one since the birth of the first, and at the same moment his heart rate increased. I assume he was getting oxygen and improved circulation, but also the birthing process kicked in. Deep breathing with concentration is an excellent tool to calm the mind, generate wellbeing, and deepen sitting practice, but pranayama is something else beyond that. Pranayama shows the mind its vehicle, like waking up from a dream. Through pranayama we are given access to the central axis of the body. Listening to the sound of breath at the back of the throat, the gateway to our internal knowing is opened and we are given an unbridled view of ourselves. We can watch ourselves intimately as we notice how Nature and its patterns move through us. We can experience the mind in a non-judgmental state simply observing what is, be it vibrancy, fear, the thought process, emptiness. With pranayama we can use what is in the field of our conscious awareness, whether thought, emotion, or sensation, as the gateway past the very limitations those things present.
Pranayama, which denies no one, blended with the power of my fear to bring attention to the moment. And so this refined and esoteric practice which for thousands of years has been the domain mostly of men and monks, quietly and easily weaved its way into one of the most feminine of experiences, and perhaps the most common. Inside this most clinical of settings I took a long, sweet breath, savoring the moment, knowing that nothing else existed but this beautiful quiet right now, and with everyone’s back turned except my doctor’s, my little baby was born on a wave of pranayama.
“Everyone stop,” she said, “we have a baby.”