I am often asked, ‘can I learn Yoga even though I am stiff, unfit and unable to sit cross legged?’. My reply is always the same, ‘if you can breathe, you can practise Yoga’.
The constant in our lives, our bodies, our being is our breath. The great Yogis realised this and passed on the gift and miracle of breath awareness. The postures are designed to aid the rhythmic flow of the breath, which in turn drives the flow of Prana; energy.
Observe how dogs and turtles breathe. Dogs take short chest breaths and live short lives, where as turtles breathe deeply and live long lives. Deep breaths increase the oxygen in the body, which in turn helps the internal organs as well as the external body. Exhaling deeply releases toxins built up in the body due to physical and emotional stress. That is why we often have the need to sigh loudly, especially when we are tired. It is a natural way of the body expelling strain and toxins.
When we feel peaceful, our breath flows according to our own unique rhythmic pattern. However, the breath can easily be strained, short, shallow or tight depending upon the physical, mental and emotional state of the body and mind. The body mirrors the quality of the breath. The muscles, organs, bones, glands and hormones are directly affected by the breath.
The breathing practices in Yoga are designed to cleanse the body of toxins and to balance, strengthen and purify the nervous system. The left nostril releases cool breath and the right nostril releases warm breath. The left and right sides of the body correspond to the breath. The left side connects to the moon and the right side connects to the sun. The sun and moon salutations are designed to balance both sides of the body and the brain.
The practice encourages observing and witnessing the breath. How we stretch, lengthen, twist, bend and invert the internal and external body directly impacts the breath, which in turn affects the emotions, the mind and the thought patterns. Slowly, one learns to use the breath to strengthen, heal, calm and decompress the body and mind.
When we are able to connect and relate to nature, we are able to connect with our breath naturally. Nature has its own unique rhythm and cycle, just like us. Yogis thousands of years ago lived in nature and in complete harmony with their surroundings. They followed the rules of the plant and animal kingdom, instead of trying to control them. They understood the direct connection between the raw nature and the raw emotions of humans. They experienced the individual truth as a realisation and not something to achieve or get. Rather than trying to control nature as we do now, Yogis understood that to live in harmony with nature was the only way to be balanced and peaceful.
One of the many gifts of the Practice is kumbhaka; breath retention. This is experienced at an advanced level, where you are able to experience no breath, where there is a minute gap between breaths. This is where, there are no thoughts and one is able to experience the existence of the other world, the higher power, the glimpse of transcendence to a higher plane. This is where the student of Yoga experiences pure silence. The restless nature of humans is calmed by the practice of kumbhaka. The duality that exists within is somehow brought to balance, even if it is for a brief second. This experience gently unties the knots that we hold deep inside, that we carry from the womb. The regular practice of Kumbhaka leads us towards Moksha; liberation from bondage.
My teacher, Swamiji, says, ‘students of Yoga have their own culture, called the breath culture’. Quite a breathtaking thought.