Malaga beach, September 2019, Reading ‘Guruji’ by Eddie Stern and Guy Donahaye
Finding the right breath, the breath is evolving, it is not what it was, nothing is!
As with anything done or learned by many people, the breath cannot be identical in everyone. The body and structural make- up, mind, character, diet, history etc of the practitioners are all unique arrangements. Think about food, routine, ambition, self- confidence, fear, weight, proportion, will, body awareness ….
It has taken me three, four years to suddenly realise that what I thought was right, isn’t so right at all. Ok, so we all know that the breath has many factors and variables, length, place and intensity are just a few of them, and that the type of breathing used will affect the body’s shape as well as the nervous system and brain. Just through breath we can excite or relax, agitate or calm, and we need to use this very carefully as we need different states of consciousness, mood or energy if you like to perform certain asanas, and to enhance them too. Poses such as Paschimottanasana, backbends or deep hip openers would be impossible or even dangerous without the correct breathing. (See Dena Kinsberg p296)
Ujjayi= breathing with sound. Apparently Guruji only ever said ‘free breathing’, does this mean a normal breath or simply to not hold the breath? Does ‘pranayama’ mean control of the breath or free- flowing breath? Breath being the life- force containing prana and yama meaning to restrain.
Breath is talked about a lot in the interviews in ‘Guruji’, and much like the case of the bandhas, all of the practitioners speak of it differently. This makes me wonder if that is because the breath is different in all of us and our practises? Maybe we are supposed to figure out the most efficient breathing style for our own separate arrangements of body, mind, character, tendencies…
Tias Little, in ‘The Subtle Body’ talks of the lungs as a great canopy and explains how we need to water all of the depths of this great canopy when we breathe; he uses the elements to relate to the different depths, or layers. It is obvious through practise that only breathing shallow breaths, that is into the upper lung will not create enough power, and instead can create stress or anxiety, and yet breathing too long means the practise becomes drawn out with slow moves, and in places where we need power, neither do we find it! So middle is the best?!
The middle reminds me of where apana and prana meet, the navel, the circle of fire, Manipura, Uddiyana.
Uddiyana and Ujjayi work powerfully through the solar plexus and create an almost addictive agility and strength, working obliques, serratus, diaphragm and abdominal muscles in a way that makes us light and sends energy soaring upward. The effect is so hypnotic that it is sometimes difficult to release the breath and belly at the end of practise, as we find ourselves in Savasana, meditation or pranayamas. We often need to mentally turn it off strictly!
So, the above has been my practise for years. I see my abdominals, hear my breath and grow my ribcage, but I have started to wonder: Is this too much effort? A friend of mine recently suffered a Serratus Anterior injury and I wonder some more…. In a gathering of ashtangis she asked the group ‘Is it normal to hurt all the time? The whole body?’ I thought Yes, it must be, but the answer was NO. We heard that it could be because she was breathing too much, bringing in too much oxygen, overfeeding and stressing the body! We talked about inhales vs exhales, oxygen vs carbon dioxide, heating vs cooling and it was very interesting indeed! (Thank you Candy!)
So, it got me thinking again… Tias says that the fire element relates to the middle lung, and we shouldn’t breathe only there ( or ‘only’ anywhere), as it will create too much heat and excitation. I feel this is what a strong ujjayi/ uddiyana combo is! I have a student who breathes very big and loud and exerts a lot, to fold he is stiff, yet whatever we try his back refuses to yield, he has even experienced back spasms, Is this purely because he is overworking the breath and the musculature involved in it’s mechanics?
Guruji said ‘breathe freely’, Sharath says ‘breathe with the sound’. I get the feeling we shouldn’t be trying to DO so much to our breath; to control, push, pull, stretch it so much… So long as we are WITH the breath in every moment; with it, AND it’s sound. It doesn’t have to be loud or extreme does it, it just has to be there, audible to only us. Too much sound is too much effort.
The practise just happens, ‘do your practise’, if we try too hard it just isn’t natural anymore, we end up imposing ourselves on it, and we have another form of Samskara. (Peter Grieve, p305)
In the book one of the students says he did ujjayi just because everyone else did it, he thought it was an Ashtanga ‘thing’. It’s funny how much we pick up from others, sometimes only subconsciously.
The teachers who arranged the ashtanga gathering I mentioned earlier also said how they have observed practitioners who breathe very heavy ( Darth Vador heavy) always burning out. I myself have observed on the other hand the very quiet and calm ones that move tidily and gracefully around their mat. I was always envious of them and would think WOW! they must have been practising for many years, or maybe they don’t work or use their body much apart from for practise, I always wanted to be like them.
Now I see! Those are the practitioners who have worked out the exact recipe that suits them, their quantity of effort and all the variables of breath are in perfect optimum harmony.
Had I been breathing too long? Should I not be making the breath so long and rich? Often my breath long outstayed the postures or move… Was I so focussed on my breath that I was indeed overworking it? Like over kneading a dough? Was I thinking too much again? CONTROL FREAKING AGAIN?! I was a little horrified. I tested out making my breath shorter. The result was amazing! The practise flowed with seemingly less effort or questioning by ‘me’, I joined the dot- to- dots of the practise very efficiently. Hmmm so I was wasting time indeed, inviting too much space to think, feel? Losing power? AHA!
Analogy- horses. An elegant horse with a long stride will perform Dressage well, and a compact horse with a short stride is fab for Jumping, what we need is the horse good for Eventing; the one who isn’t specialised, the triathlete, the resilient and steady one! It’s no good just being flexible or strong, the practitioner has to be adaptable and somewhere in the middle is the best place for that!
The length of breath in a led class varies from teacher to teacher and it is well known that Sharath has slowed the practise down, when I see videos of Pattabhi Jois I can see he counted much quicker. When I counted quicker, that is, made my breath shorter, my mind seemed to stray less... the samskaras were still present, although more like ghosts; they were always lurking in the corners. I feel like with this new discovery someone held out a hand to me, I feel positive that a consistent practise is closer.
So, to conclude, I am more than convinced that less is more! The hard part, or difficult era of this practise is done, I mean I have found my way into my body and the body is fairly familiar and comfortable with the practise. Now moving forwards I sense the practise is no longer about postures, it is about fluidity and getting over myself. The grace and ease I find through hopefully finding my own ‘formula’ will facilitate ease and consistency to aid me.