Wave of Breath
Breathing! We do it all day long. It is literally our connection with life. And yet most of us take it completely for granted. Many Eastern contemplative traditions do not. They revere the breath as a magical doorway into our inner world. In the yogic traditions, for example, the breath is seen as the bridge to the energy body, and to the emotional body (or prana body), which is an aspect of it.
Yogis describe the breath as lying precisely at the boundary between the body and the mind. This is hardly surprising. We all have experienced the breath as a direct link to some aspect of our inner world. Most of us have experienced the shallow breath of terror, or the long deep sighs of melancholy. We have experienced the attempt to control our breath to choke back tears and sobs. Or perhaps we've noticed the tender attunement of our breath with a lover as we sleep.
The body's breathing apparatus is the only physiological function which is both voluntary and involuntary. It lies at the boundary between the conscious and the unconscious. Breath connects the inside of the body with the outside world taking the outside world in, and expelling the inside world out.
For yogis, the breath's position as a kind of "switching station" between the physical body and the energy body is exemplified by the role of the diaphragm, the primary muscle of respiration. The muscles of the body are of two primary types skeletal muscles which are striated and under voluntary control, and smooth muscles which make up our internal organs, not usually thought to be under our conscious control. The diaphragm, unlike any other muscle in the body, is a semi-striated muscle, and, as such, it partakes of both the conscious and unconscious functioning of the body.
When the breath is fully open, relaxed and free, and when all of the breathing apparatus lungs, diaphragm, muscles of the rib cage and chest are unconstricted in their movements, we have full access to our internal emotional experience. This pattern of breathing is called "abdominal-diaphragmatic breath" because the wave of breath moves unobstructed through the lower abdomen, the mid-lung and the top of the lung. It is characterized by a slow, rhythmic rate of respiration, with a large "tidal volume" of air. Yogis call this the "full yogic breath." It is, essentially, the normal human breath the breath the healthy infant breathes.
Because the breath is so intimately connected with the emotional body, any attempt to inhibit awareness of feelings, sensations, and thoughts is immediately reflected in the breath. All defensive maneuvers involving what psychologists in the West call "the false-self" inevitably involve some suppression of the breath, because they require dissociation from the emotional body. Many of us cannot bear to let the wave of breath move naturally through our body, and so our breath is chronically held, shallow, restricted.
Full breathing can be restricted and most of us unconsciously rely on at least one of these defensive maneuvers. The most common is called "chest breathing" or "thoracic breathing"which is the body's automatic response to fight or flight and to all sorts of overwhelming stress. In traumatic situations, as we all have experienced, the diaphragm is constricted and we breathe only part way down into the lungs. The lower lobes of the lungs are then split off from the breath, and there is an uneasy sense of the breath not being fully satisfying. The rate of breathing is somewhat more rapid and irregular, and there is a much lower "tidal volume" of air than in normal breathing. "Chest breathing" may be accompanied by raised shoulders and contraction of the chest. Shallow breathing can also affect the voice, by narrowing the throat and thereby heightening the choke response.
Inhibition of full abdominal-diaphragmatic breath immediately cuts us off from feelings. But it also cuts us off from prana and deeply depletes the life force in the body. An increased reliance on chest breathing to supply the body's oxygen requirements produces chronic muscle tension in the chest and abdomen, but that's only the beginning. It also increases cardio-pulmonary stress, increases blood sugar and lactate levels, increases our perception of pain, decreases oxygen to the heart and brain, inhibits transfer of oxygen from hemoglobin to tissues, and increases our sense of fatigue.
The differences between deep diaphragmatic breathing and chest breathing are significant, both to the physical body and the energy body. Abdominal breathing can increase the amount of air we take into the lungs by 600 percent and this makes a huge difference in the oxygenation of tissues throughout the body. While humans can live for long periods without food or water, tissues begin to die almost immediately when deprived of oxygen.
The impact on the nervous system is similarly powerful. While chest breathing stimulates the production of shorter, more "restless" beta waves in the brain, full diaphragmatic breath stimulates the longer, slower alpha waves associated with relaxation and calm mind states. The slow, even, and deep quality of full abdominal-diaphragmatic breath relaxes of the chest muscles and creates a calm and relaxed state of mind.
Yogis understood that even in the absence of any immediate stressors, "disturbed breathing," or thoracic breathing could perpetuate or recreate a state of sympathetic nervous system arousal, causing anxiety states, panic, and fear reactions. Because respiratory movements by the chest are biologically and instinctually tied to the emergency responses of fight or flight, they automatically tend to stir up these feelings.
Many of us, especially those who have been scared out of our bodies and those who don't feel comfortable taking up room in the world, have difficulty trusting the wisdom of the breath and the energy body it enlivens. We have trouble letting the "wave of breath" penetrate down into the heart, the belly and the abdomen the seat of deep feelings. The first task, in that case, is to learn to have a full experience of feelings in the body and to learn to tolerate the depth, range, and realness of this life force moving in us.
Yogis discovered that humans experience prana in the form of a wave a wave of energy, sensation, and feelings. In order to learn to attune to the wisdom of the breath and the prana body, we need to learn how to "ride the wave of breath," how to be present for the wavelike movement of energy acknowledging, experiencing, and bearing the inner world of sensation.
Here is a simple, yogic-based practice designed to use the breath to help integrate physical, emotional, and energy experience. It is a five-part technique which helps us remain present for the experience of the wisdom of the prana body.
1. Breathe. The first step in the process of connecting with the wisdom of prana is conscious breathing using the full yogic breath, or diaphragmatic breathing. The breath immediately penetrates the frozen structure of the false self. Says the poet Lao Tsu:
The softest of stuff in the world
Penetrates quickly the hardest.
Insubstantial, it enters
Where no room is.
Anything that brings us back to the switching station of breath has the potential to loosen our identification with the gross body and heighten our connection with the prana body. What happens when we redirect our attention to breath is that we immediately enter the world of energy, of movement, of arising and passing away, of constant change. There is no distance to travel to this world. We are right there. The technique of riding the wave both evokes this level of experience and helps us to be with it more and more fully.
Since the breath is the switch that integrates the emotional body/prana body with the physical body, conscious breathing opens parts of the body that may have long been shut off from the life force. And when the wave of breath moves into these exiled areas, the results can sometimes be instantly dramatic.
2. Relax. Muscular tension in the body can inhibit the flow of energy, sensation, and feeling, keeping areas of the body defended against the wave of energy. While intentionally riding the wave, it is usually best to find a comfortable posture that allows full, deep breathing and an open chest and heart, a posture into which the body can relax, and keep relaxing.
The most effective area to begin relaxing is usually the belly. I have found it helpful to repeat the mantra: "Soft belly." It's so simple. In the midst of the waves of life, just soften the belly. This is a brilliant device, because when we think, "soft belly," we immediately soften our breathing and take deep, diaphragmatic breaths. This automatically shifts our entire energy experience, cutting through obsession. It grounds us. We can feel energy flowing all the way down to the lower part of the body, to our feet and legs. Suddenly, what appear to be dense and solid thoughts and feelings become permeable to the wave of energy. They're broken up. They become transparent. They move. We feel alive again.
Full yogic breathing will help the muscles relax and will automatically cut through any "fight or flight" response. Areas of the body that continue to hold tension and constriction, and unconscious visceral attempts to choke back intense sensation and feelings will become obvious. We can move our awareness directly there to explore and to consciously relax as much as possible.
As the wave of breath and energy intensifies, we will surely want to get off, and we may repeatedly "tense up" in order to defend against it. We must remember that the tension of the false self is chronic and unconscious and that it constantly works against the spontaneous energy of prana. We must, therefore, consciously remember to relax and keep relaxing in order to stay with the wave.
3. Feel. "Feeling" in this technique is an active state. It does not mean just "having feelings;" it means moving actively toward the sensations, the energy, the emotions, and into them. We "breathe into them" as if we could send breath right into their epicenter. We develop the acuity of our awareness so we can begin to feel the whole range of sensations their color, their texture, their intensity, their mood.
Actively feeling means turning our attention minutely toward our moment by moment experience dropping what we think about what is happening, our evaluations and judgments about it, and becoming fully absorbed at the level of sensation, feeling, and energy. Learning to focus deeply on sensation in this way develops our capacity to be with sensation and feeling. We develop curiosity so that we're interested in the exact topography of the feeling. "Where in the body is the feeling most intense? What is the exact texture of the sensation? Are there patterns of movement?"
This kind of pro-active feeling reveals one of the central laws of the energy body: energy follows awareness. As we bring awareness to exiled aspects of our energy body, we open these previously unconscious areas to the flow of prana. Consciousness and energy are deeply linked. More consciousness results in more wave of life.
4. Watch. There now can be a profound and natural shift to witness consciousness, to the zone of neutrality, where we're not choosing for or against any kind of experience, but just being with experience exactly as it is. As we become absorbed in the witness, we're free both to participate in and to stand apart from our experience. We no longer fight with what is. As we drop into witness consciousness, we may experience some intuition arising from deep within our cells a knowing that cannot be experienced through the mind alone. "Watching" is a special place we can stand vis-a-vis our experience, where we just "let life be" the way it is. In the zone of the witness, our attention is focused on "how is it?" rather than "why is it?" or "do I like it?"
It is important to remember that the "watcher" or observer is also the coach of the entire experience, the part of us that remains unidentified with the "problem" and remains able to coach us to stay on the wave of energy. It is the abiding voice constantly repeating the mantra "breathe, relax, feel, watch, allow." It is the still point at the center of the storm of energy, and it is the seat of our trusting in the wisdom of energy.
5. Allow. When we don't try to control our energy experience, we're free to surrender to the wave of sensation, of feeling, and of energy. In these remarkable moments of freedom, we can let life as it is touch us because at our core we know that "everything is already OK." We know that the energy moving in the prana body is intelligent. We know that it is moving in just the right way for healing and full integration to happen. We relinquish our resistance. We let the whole, natural process happen to us. Somehow, we trust that all we need to do is support the process in these simple ways, and it moves itself to full integration. The key to the fifth step is this: We don't have to make the wave of life happen. We can just let it happen. As we learn this kind of trust in the process, our capacity to ride the waves of life increases dramatically.
An essential aspect of the fifth step is this: We must allow the process to happen without necessarily understanding it. Insight may come later, but it will come always simply as a by-product of being present for experience. In this final step is a quality of surrender, of "falling into the gap" where life can change us. There can be an exhilarating sense of freedom when this happens, a deep letting go of our "grip" on life. This kind of surrender requires a willingness to be changed. It involves, too, a willingness to trust life, to keep the focus of our awareness on energy in motion instead of on trying to understand what is happening. Prana is intelligent, after all.
This simple technique of "riding the wave" can become for us a kind of bridge that we can use at any moment to cross over from isolation and separation to relationship with the phenomenal world the world of the senses, of nature, of the heart and the body. It can become one of the boats that we row as we traverse the wild inner river of feelings and life.
Recent surveys reveal that more than eight million Americans currently do yoga on a regular basis in YMCAs, health clubs, private studios, senior centers, living room floors and retreat centers around the country. The Miami Dolphins and the Chicago Bulls are doing it. The Canadian Mounted Police are doing it. Sting, Madonna, Kareem Abdhul Jihbar, Raquel Welch, Woody Harrelson, Jane Fonda, and Ali McGraw are doing it. With almost alarming rapidity, practices whose secrets have been handed down for thousands of years exclusively through the tradition of "whispered wisdom," from adept to student, have landed on Main Street USA.
There are many obvious reasons for this rapprochement. Yoga is probably the world's most perfect form of exercise. It cultivates cardiovascular health, and musculo-skeletal strength and flexibility without the painful and damaging side effects of high-impact aerobics. It tunes up every organ system respiratory, digestive, reproductive, endocrine, lymphatic, and nervous. It cultivates the body's capacity to relax and dramatically reduces the negative effects of stress.
With regular yoga practice, we breathe better. We sleep better. We digest our food better. We feel better. We may even begin to recover from chronic illness.
And, for many Americans, the best part is that none of these amazing outcomes require years of training and apprenticeship. The benefits of practice are immediate. We are, by and large, a practical people. And yoga is a practical endeavor.
Yet the immediate physical benefits of yoga reported in medical journals and the mainstream press may be only the tip of the iceberg. Regular yoga practitioners describe a whole host of subtle transformations in their lives changes that seem more mysterious, more difficult to quantify, and even to describe. Many experience moments of sharply increased mental focus and clarity and heightened perceptual and intuitive powers. Some describe a dramatic increase in energy and stamina, emotional evenness, and equanimity. Others report a heightened feeling of connection to an inner Self, ecstatic states of bliss, and profound well-being. And there are not infrequent stories of truly miraculous he a lings physical, emotional, spiritual.
What accounts for these more ineffable fruits of yoga practice? Are they central to the practice, or peripheral?
As it turns out, the systematic enhancement of perceptual and intuitive powers is one of the primary goals of classical yoga practice. Yogis discovered thousands of years ago that there is a particular way of moving characteristic of classical posture practice that heightens our mind's capacity to draw areas of the body's unconscious into consciousness allowing us access to aspects of our intelligence which are thought of in the West as "supernormal." Indeed, in the classical sense, yoga postures are not so much about exercise as they are about re-educating the mind and developing the full potential of the remarkable perceptual powers which yogis understand to penetrate the entire body.
At the beginning of most yoga classes, I have students simply stand for a moment, with their eyes closed, and ask them to intentionally scan their body with their awareness: soles of the feet, ankles, knees, hips, belly, chest, arms, neck, head, face, crown. Almost everyone who does this finds, usually to their astonishment, that there are areas of their bodies that are completely "numb"that exist completely outside their conscious awareness. Students often have the unsettling sense that somehow the "circuits have not been hooked up" to one or another part of the body. "When I close my eyes, I just can't even seem to find any sensation in the area of my hips," says one student. Indeed, the circuitry is weak. In the process of relegating these areas of the body to the unconscious, the neuropath ways into sensation have been under used. The neuropath ways are there as potential, but the brain's skill in intentionally using them has been underdeveloped.
The good news is that our restriction of awareness is learned behavior. It can be unlearned. Yogis have proven that we can learn how to redirect our awareness into every aspect of our physical life not just the musculature and the surface of the body, but the viscera, and even deeper structures of the body as well. And the best news is that in the process of "hooking up the circuitry" again, we will naturally begin to remember what the body has forgotten. The intentional practice of yoga postures has the effect of "remembering" us reuniting us with the lost parts of our self, our experience, our history, and its resulting insights.
The science of physiology has coined the term "proprioception" for the act of receiving and interpreting messages from our own bodies. Proprioception literally means "our own reception"and through it we are able to feel the warmth in our hands as we sit quietly, or the beating of our hearts, or the burning in a group of muscles that are chronically in spasm. Through proprioception we are able to discriminate subtle shades of feeling and sensation to both perceive and interpret stimuli from the field of our own visceral reality. It is the capacity for proprioception, indeed, that helps us to feel real and grounded on the earth. When people lose their proprioceptive capacities through diseases of the neuro-muscular systems, they often describe a feeling that they've lost something core to their human beingness.
The practice of yoga postures is intentionally designed to develop our proprioceptive capacities to a level of supernormal refinement. There is no magic in this. It is simply a matter of training attention. A well-balanced series of postures will systematically open up every area of the body for exploration, giving us a methodical way of scanning the body, and training our attention to penetrate every aspect of it.
When we begin practicing postures, we may notice that our attunement to sensations even on the surface of the body is quite gross. But as we take different areas of the body as objects of our concentration, our capacity to focus attention grows. We rediscover those neuropath ways into sensation only through trial and error, but as we discover them we can eventually learn how to use them and bring them under our conscious control. Finally, our perception becomes so refined that we begin to penetrate the surface of the body, the armor of the musculature, and at later stages of the practice the subtlest functioning of the internal organs.
As we train our attention in this way, we'll also begin to notice our postures throughout the day, not just on the yoga mat. Oh, I'm standing here, and I can feel my shoulders hunching forward, pulling me in. What am I feeling? What am I reacting to? Something old? Something in the moment?
Because yoga asanas are not so much about exercise as they are about learning and unlearning, it is not the movement itself but the quality of attention we bring to the movement that makes postures qualify as yoga. Postures have, in themselves, no magic power. Even the most seemingly "advanced" practice, if driven by fear, aggression, perfectionism, and unconsciousness, will not automatically create transformation. Postures simply provide a methodical way of training attention so movements and areas previously relegated to the "basement" of the primitive brain can be brought into consciousness.
Western science has now discovered how this works. When muscles are moved slowly and consciously, the movement is brought under the control of the most refined aspect of the brain, the neocortex. Deliberate movement, done with heightened states of attention to sensation, allows a deep relearning to happen. Yoga actually begins to change the body by re-educating the brain.
As this re-education proceeds, proprioception becomes even more highly refined and awareness begins to penetrate not just the musculature, but the organs, glands, the fluids, and even the bones. This seems odd and unlikely to us Westerners. Our Western medical model is suffused with a fascinating "split" in awareness between the outside of the body and the inside. The outside of the body the skin, the muscles is seen as available to awareness and volition. The inside of the body, however, is seen as automatic, reflexive, dark, unfathomable and primitive even, for some, unclean. Not only is it repulsive and irrational, but it is outside our volition, and hence outside our responsibility, as well. This attitude allows us to maintain a split the "outside" as conscious, the "inside" as unconscious. The result is that we can banish feelings we don't want to face to the inside of the body where they manifest as disease or malaise of many kinds. Then we are apt to disavow responsibility for them, seeing them as alien invaders.
When Western scientists began to study the feats of yogis, they were, for a time, obsessed with charting and describing the supernormal feats of internal bodily control, control of so called "involuntary processes." In a famous experiment at the Menninger Clinic, for example, it was documented that Swami Rama was able to slow his heart almost to a stop for significant periods of time and to bring it under conscious control. These kinds of "feats" are a direct assault on our worldview. Yet yogis have shown for millennia that our blindness to the insides of the body is just another one of what Deepak Chopra calls our "premature cognitive commitments." Awareness can naturally penetrate even the so-called involuntary organs the digestive tract, the heart, the lungs raising their functioning into the control of the higher centers of the brain and making them conscious and voluntary.
Surprisingly, Swami Rama's feats are not that far beyond the scope of many Westerners' practice. In my experience, I've found it is not uncommon for us to develop a level of awareness of the body which is capable of penetrating into organ systems, and from there into what yogis call the "subtle body"the pulsating world of pure energy which is understood to be the ground of consciousness from which the entire phenomenal world arises. As we penetrate this subtle world of energy and consciousness, we have an experience of "coming home" to our true nature, and a sense of attunement to the deepest sources of our wisdom and compassion.
In my opinion, it is this experience of homecoming that draws us back again and again to this remarkable practice. As author and yogi Jon Kabat Zinn has said, "wherever we go, there we are," and yet it is my experience that for many of us, after exposure to the practice of yoga, there is simply, and at times astonishingly, a great deal more of us there. More consciousness, more energy, more awareness, more equanimity, more life in the body, more connection with the mysteries of the soul. And there is that wonderful, haunting voice of the True Self that calls to us, that keeps us company as we stride deeper and deeper into the world, determined, as poet Mary Oliver says, "to save the only life we really can save."
Stephen Cope is a psychotherapist who writes and teaches about the relationship between contemporary psychology and the Eastern contemplative traditions. He has degrees from Amherst College and Boston College, and currently is Scholar-in-Residence at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox, Massachusetts, the largest residential yoga center in the world. His first book, "Yoga and the Quest for the True Self," was published in October 1999.