FREE THE BREATH
Eckhart Tolle says in A New Earth “Non-resistance is the key to the greatest power in the Universe.”
A couple of months after my concussion in 2012, I began having recurring panic attacks and without any basis of understanding what I was experiencing, I was terrified of what was happening to me. Chest pain, heart palpitations, inability to take in breath and a complete detachment from the reality of the present moment created a depth of aloneness that is hard to fathom. Feeling truly alone like this is a profound spiritual crisis. It is forgetting who and what we are: that is, inextricably connected to all beings. When we are afraid and lonely, we try to protect ourselves, an architect of survival that creates layers of armour, resulting in shutting out the world and the development of the sense that we have to go at it all alone. The ego-based notion that because I am alone, I don’t need others, actually cuts me off from my Self, rather than allowing myself to just have “me”. With each stratum that goes up between the core of who we are and the outside world, we become that much more disconnected from our Self. Paradoxically, what results is that we lack connection to our Self and others and thus we become truly alone, alienated from Source.
“If we do not know how to take care of ourselves and to love ourselves, we cannot take care of the people we love. Loving oneself is the foundation for loving another person.”
–Thich Nhat Hanh
Being triggered into panic attacks was a powerful catalyst for me to find the practice of yoga. Feeling as though I had no control of or access to my breath while being introduced to a practice with such a central focus on breath as our life force (prana), resulted in an obsession with my breath. When heart palpitations and high anxiety would come on in a situation, no matter where I was, I would desperately search for a technique to try to gain control: forcefully try the ujjayi breathing I had been taught in class, or count my inhalations and exhalations with extended exhales, alternate nostril breath, basically anything to try to find relief. In these moments, nothing would work.
What I found was that using pranayama practice in reaction to symptoms of anxiety and panic can be futile because if it is coming from the place of fear that is causing the discomfort, then it will feed that. Pranayama is a vastly powerful practice for our mental, emotional and physical wellbeing. It is not, however, a means to control the uncontrollable. Breath awareness, by opening the senses, feeling the body and observing how the body breathes itself naturally and organically, takes us out of the mind and fear and into the seat of awareness and presence, so that we can watch the miraculous body calm itself down, without effort. At the height of my anxiety, I had no idea that my breath would flow naturally and self-regulate without my needing to control it: my body breathing itself rather than me breathing it. I was afraid to do any cardio to increase my heart rate because of the fear that it would not come back down and I would be sent into a panic attack. I had never heard of the parasympathetic nervous system, our body’s built in calming response. Our minds, largely the layers beneath our conscious experience, create deep patterns of resistance that prevent our bodies from being able to do what they are designed to do: carry out the dharma, law of nature, and return to a state of balance. It is so important to know that you can trust your body. We are animals with a mind: if we can get our mind out of the way, nature can play its part.
“According to the Upanishads, prana is the principle of life and consciousness. It is equated with the real Self (Atma). Prana is the breath of life of all beings in the universe. They are born through and live by it, and when they die, their individual breath dissolves into the cosmic breath. Prana is the hub of the Wheel of Life. Everything is established in it. It permeates the life-giving sun, the clouds, the winds, the earth, and all forms of matter. It is being and non-being. It is the source of all knowledge.” – B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Pranayama
When accessing breath feels difficult, we don’t need to do anything but sit in the discomfort and surrender the need to control. Letting go in these moments is terrifying but if we are able to yield and stop the fight, we will be caught and lifted up. This takes tremendous courage. If the anxiety has escalated to the point of panic and it feels impossible to surrender, we must start by getting into the body. Engage the muscles that would naturally activate if the fight or flight response was carried out, shake out and discharge tension, ground into the Earth beneath you, release your tongue and jaw, release sound. Activate the senses. Discharging tension from our bodies by moving and releasing energy (e-motion=energy in motion), lets us allow this to occur so that we don’t freeze and store it in our body. Combining a physical practice of getting into one’s body, with becoming a witness to the body and mind, stepping back into the seat of awareness and creating space to observe that you are not this mind, not this body, not these emotions, allows all levels of our being to restore to a state of balance.
Another beautiful way to find vulnerability in the really difficult moments is to place a hand on your heart and start to talk to the scared parts of yourself, create some distance between you and the anxiety and nurture it with wisdom, support and love.
My relationship to my breath indicates my level of trust and how I approach life. After all, breath is our life force, it is primeval energy, and it is who we are at our essence. If we hold or try to control our breath it means we are fearful of accepting life, we are trying to halt that which is in constant motion, trying to diminish the limitless.
Sari teaches our 11am Vinyasa Flow and 12:15pm Cool Flow & Yin on Saturdays. Look for her wisdom and guidance each week as she takes your practice deeper with her soothing voice and beautiful flow.