SCENE: A yoga class. Students are standing in Mountain Pose like a Buddhist “army.”
Teacher: Breathe in…
Class: (A subtle, yet audible “sucking” sound is heard.)
Teacher: And breathe out…
Class: (A subtle, yet audible “whooshing” sound is heard.)
Teacher: Good. Now three more deep breaths just like that.
Class: (They are audibly compliant until…)
Teacher: Now step your right foot back.
Class: (The sound of 25 left feet strike the pose, and no more breathing is heard.)
Teacher: What, no more breathing? Let every movement be a prompt to remind you to breathe for the next 90 minutes.
Class: (Sound of breathing is amplified again, and class proceeds smoothly until … well, the class forgets to breathe again. And again. And again sporadically throughout the class.)
What’s going on here? Why do so many of us forget to breathe? Did you actually finish breathing?
It seems laughable, the notion of “finishing breathing.” Our nervous systems are actually built in such away that breath happens automatically, without us prompting our breathing muscles every few seconds. Think about it, a lot of mental energy is actually required to control every single breath (instead of letting it happen on its own), and our brains have a zillion other tasks to balance. But the breezy thing about breathing is that we can control it, and in so doing we can deliberately impact every system of the body.
Peep into any of the thousands of yoga classes across the globe and you will find that students are donning more than just yoga outfits. In addition to the latest leggings and tank tops by Zobha, Gaiam and Alo, you’ll also find students of every age, both male and female, sporting a different kind of accessory. These, however, are not made from lycra, mala beads or precious metals, but rather from an overzealous nervous system.
Glance around the room after the teacher calls out “Twisted Half Moon” (Pavritta Ardha Chandrasana) and you’ll see students with arms akimbo, clenched toes, fingers curled and faces contorted beyond recognition. These students are “accessorizing” their poses with parts of their body that don’t actually need to be involved.
The first time I took a live yoga class, at age 12 or 13, I remember hearing some strange, prayer-like, exotic word come out of my teacher’s mouth. Everyone echoed it back, and it made me uncomfortable. It didn’t stop me from going back, but I did kind of feel “left out,” as I didn’t know what they were saying, what it meant, or if it was the name of a god or other deity. Frankly, it sounded kind of religious, and I was definitely not into god-stuff at that point in my ’tweendom.
When my teacher told me what Namaste meant (“I bow to the god within you”) and how to pronounce it (Nah- Mah-Stay), it didn’t necessarily make the phrase any easier for me to embrace. But the social pressure of “call and response” soon won me over. I attended very small classes in Santa Fe, and any non-compliant Namaste’ers would be very obvious to the teacher and other students. At first it barely rolled out of my lips, a garbled rumble of vowels with slight hiss in the middle. I had no way of knowing that a decade later, I would be the one at the front of the room offering the same salutation to my classes.
Do you find it especially difficult to get out of bed these days? As winter approaches, and the days are shorter than ever, it is so hard to “up and at ‘em!” The bed is comfy cozy and it’s dark and cold out there…. Can’t we all just hit a global “snooze” button and wake up when it’s spring?