If there’s one thing that almost every good yoga class will focus on, it’s breathing. The many forms of hatha yoga have developed amazing practices for the breath. They range from complex formulae of absolute control – in for 4 beats, hold for 2; out for 8; hold for 2; repeat for a total of 5 minutes – to beautifully free-flowing meditations on the flow of breath-related movement through the body:
…the origin of the breath is deep in the belly; the breath swells like a wave, widening the pelvis, rounding the belly; as the belly rounds and pushes downwards, the chest begins to rise and open, the collar bones float up and out, the head tilts slightly backwards, the palms of the hands and soles of the feet gently stretch…and then the movement reverses as the body closes behind the breath – collar bones and shoulder blades, then chest and back, then belly and pelvis, as the body rests for a moment on the turning of the tide…
I think you can probably guess which end of that spectrum I teach from. But nonetheless, breath control – pranayama – was one of the first skills yogis demonstrated to modern scientific observers . Freedivers have used yogic breathing techniques to improve their breath control for years. And more recently, many medical studies into the health benefits of yoga practices have started to focus in on the combination of mindful breathing and gentle movement as key to restoring the autonomic nervous system.
But few people know why hatha yogis became interested in the breath in the first place. One common belief in hatha yoga for a very long time was that each person had only a given number of breaths to take in a lifetime. Longevity, or even immortality, which was one aim of medieval hatha yoga in particular, could be affected by simply hoarding those breaths wisely. It’s a beguiling idea: if you only have a certain number of breaths to take, why not just breathe less often?
Of course, you, your body are not a simple machine with a set number of miles you can do, or a set amount of fuel in your engine. Nor are there celestial auditors out there whose job it is to count your breaths, or your days, or your smiles, or anything else, and call time on physical existence when you’ve had your due.
But although you never quite know how long you’ve got, neither can you live forever, as I think the medieval hatha yogis sadly discovered. And although our modern, late-stage capitalist, increasingly virtual and transnational culture holds to the tendency of reducing bodies (and almost everything else) to machines, it also holds to the contradictory, ancient myth that with enough will power, mental focus, and the right intention, you can keep that physical machine running forever.
It’s partly that combination of ideas that is behind the epidemic of exhaustion, stress and even rising inequality. After all, if success in all things is due to a combination of openly-held techniques for training the body, disciplining the mind, and maintaining clarity of intent and willpower – anyone can do it. Of course, the driving force behind this is towards a more productive society, and if you’re not contributing to ‘society’; if you’re not producing for the ‘economy’; then you’re a drain on the ‘hard-working families’ who are. Hard working. Families. Doubly productive, do you notice?
There’s an ageism as well as a sizism in our culture of health. You are expected to be in your physical prime for as long as possible, but once you’re over 65, some doctors still have a tendency to shrug at any degeneration or decline as inevitable. Faster, harder, longer at any cost is a really stupid way to approach your body over 40 or so, but the only fit older people we generally hear about are the kind of stories that say: this grandma took up running at the age of 67 and now she’s running a marathon a day, and raising thousands for charity along the way. The undercurrent seems to be: she’s productive. She contributes. She can do it. So why can’t you?
The truth, as ever, is somewhere else. I’m over 40 now, and I’m starting to look at exercise ‘advice’ with an ever more cynical eye. Yes, yes, you’re a 27 year old male gym rat telling me how I can improve my fitness. Come back when you’re 57 and tell me how your joints feel. I’m wondering, how many miles have I left to run before my left Achilles tendon gives me too much pain for it to be enjoyable? What can I do to protect this right hip from any further damage from hypermobility?
It becomes a meditation, a practice. If I have only so many massages to give, who do I want to give them to? If there are only so many more books I can read, which ones to I want to read? Reconciling with the finite is a natural process of inner development. This is the art of aging with grace. I am a busy person, but I am also often still and idle. What I am most clearly is driven. Life is finite, and I mean to live it, not in a breathless race to the finish, but as completely, utterly present to each experience as I can; moving as much as possible in rhythm with that which is granted me, and that which is taken away.
Of course, this grace is also the perfect metaphor for learning to live on a finite planet. If we can safely fly people for this many thousands of miles before the climate tips dangerously, do you really want one more package holiday? If there is a finite amount of precious fossil fuel in the earth, do we really want to use it making disposable plastic spoons?
It is echoed in the chaotic and approximate calculations that people with chronic illness and disabilities live with in some way all the time. If I have the inner resources to lift one heavy thing; to be physically close to one person; to mentally focus for one hour, today – what do I choose? And there, again, is one more advantage to breathing-as-meditation: most of you can do it. If there is nothing else you can do, pay attention to the breath. There are many children I work with who have no awareness of this endlessly renewing, supportive, life-forwarding flow in and out of their bodies, and very little awareness of their interdependence with the natural world.
When we meditate on the nature of breathing, we experience a visceral tension between that which is willed, controllable, and that which is unpredictable, capricious. The best pranayama is a dance between being breathed and actively breathing. It’s a dance of stillness, and of movement, in endless relationship. In this practice, more things are possible than you might believe. I can slow my heart rate. I can direct the breath through one nostril or another. I can change from secondary to primary breathing muscles, and therefore stimulate my body’s ability to rest and repair. In relationship with nature, and with my own physicality, I become capable of remarkable things. But my breath, my life, is still finite. And there is a freedom, an unexpected spaciousness and abundance in that knowledge. I meditate on the breath: if this was my first ever breath, how would it feel? If this was my last, how would I savour it? In that moment, my lived reality blossoms gloriously, effortlessly, and even timelessly. It may be the only infinity we will ever live. It is perfect. It is a gift. It is enough.
If you read just one book on breathing, let it be this one, by Donna Farhi