Twenty years ago my husband and I watched a television show together and somehow just never stopped. That’s how we’ve managed to enjoy all 40 seasons of Survivor.
Near the end of each episode, in case you haven’t been watching, I’ll tell you that Jeff, the host, often mentions that as long as a contestant’s torch is lit, they are in the game, because “fire is life”. When he says this, I find myself thinking, “Actually, Jeff, breath is life”. Because, it is.
Through years of learning anatomy and physiology, administering oxygen, performing CPR and assisting anesthesiologists to intubate patients, I’ve regarded breath, the presence of breath, the lack of breath, the struggle for breath and the ease of breath, as a central aspect of life.
How perfect is it that I love the practice of yoga, which honors and uses breath to guide movement and build strength, balance and relaxation?
Every practitioner comes to yoga from a different place, with a unique set of physical and emotional challenges. They could be looking for respite from a trying situation, trying to improve their health, or simply hoping to stretch out a kinked back muscle. Some are looking for the feeling of unity that comes from practicing yoga in a group.
In yoga, we try to make the mat, or chair, a safe space, where we can be free to perform our asanas, or poses, in the best way for each of us, with no judgement from others.
When I teach yoga, we start by connecting with our breath. Inhaling, allowing the breath to start in the belly and fill the torso, then exhaling completely, then repeating the process.The inhalation, ideally 3-5 seconds long, is followed by an exhalation, which we strive to make almost twice as long.
Inhaling and exhaling through the nose requires a bit more effort and leads to a greater workout for our muscles of respiration, but I assure my yogis that any comfortable breath of any length and type is beneficial.
Sometimes we move through guided breaths in which I ask participants to pause, then resume, an inhale and exhale. Sometimes we try for three brief inhales or exhales to completely fill or empty the lungs. Or, it’s nadi shodhana pranayama, alternate nostril breathing, which can lower blood pressure and increase relaxation.
In my chair yoga classes we occasionally perform laughter yoga, taking very deep breaths and laughing them out. I make faces, tell corny jokes and try to coax yogis into letting their fake laughter become real.
After guided breaths, we go on to movement with breath, moving arms, legs or torso into a pose with an inhale, for example, and releasing a pose with an exhale, always moving within the degree of space and flexibility available to each of us.
In poses that require balance, breath becomes even more vital. Holding breath while attempting a balance pose is counter-productive and can cause distress; using breath while balancing increases the chance of success.
At the end of each yoga class, we perform savasana, or corpse pose, calling on our breath to deepen and slow. During savasana, I encourage inhaling a feeling of relaxation and exhaling that relaxation to every area of the body.
When class is over and we leave the mat or chair, I want each participant to feel like a survivor, having met the challenges of their practice to the best of their ability, relaxation and a feeling of strength gently pulsing through their bodies with every breath they take.