Your Breath Is Your Conversation With the World

09/18/2013 06:43 pm ET | Updated Nov 18, 2013

Imagine you are facing in one direction and can clearly see what is in front of you. You can also peer up and down and side to side, so you have a fairly wide range of vision. You know that you can't see what is behind you, but you imagine what may be back there based on what is within your visual field.

The problem is that you can't truly conceive of what you can't see. Your vantage point dictates your perception of the space you inhabit, and your point of view is determined by what you have seen and experienced. Yet there are infinite points in space from which to view your world and yourself, what your life is and what it could be.

I spent the past year studying at the Breathing Project with Leslie Kaminoff. After more than a decade of teaching in a particular way, I wanted the disruptively creative experience of introducing a new point of view into my established ways of thinking about yoga asana. In a world of infinite vantage points, my particular studies of the body felt comfortably ensconced in a familiarity that I had begun to recognize as a constraint.

Throughout our lives we take on patterns that offer us a sense of stability and comfort. This is good. But how can we discern when comfort turns to being stuck? When familiarity creates a furrow of repetition that keeps us in one place and prevents us from even recognizing that we have choices existing outside of it?

I wanted a perspective different from my own so that I could look more objectively at my patterns and choices, dismantle what was no longer working for me, and build something new.

In weekly clinic at the Breathing Project, someone with a particular physical issue would come in to be treated. As a group we would listen and brainstorm, asking questions, then observe or participate as Leslie addressed the particular physical challenge through breath-centered therapeutic techniques.

By helping people to recognize their ingrained habits, he was able to assist them in envisioning a new way of breathing and moving in their bodies. They were able to break the constraints of their physical and emotional histories of injury, protection, and adaptation that no longer served them, and open up to a wider range of possibility.

One person's history resulted in a way of breathing so constrained that her ribcage barely moved: a form of control that ended up controlling her. Another person had created a supportive habit of muscular gripping to care for an injury that eventually caused injuries in other parts of his body. For these people, gaining awareness of their patterns led to their rethinking them, then ultimately offered them a sense of choice that had been unimaginable just moments before. It was as if they could suddenly see behind themselves at the unknown unknowns: the perspectives they didn't even know were there.

Think of the accumulated detritus of our inner lives -- the clutter that occupies so much of our valuable mental and emotional real estate. In order to gain perspective in our lives we must have the experience of spaciousness, and this is something that we literally and physically need to create for ourselves. This is why we practice asana. This is also why we begin our practice by closing our eyes and turning toward our breath. The invitation to the breath offers us access to our spaciousness through a real physical experience.

Without space, there is no perspective. Without perspective, there is no difference. Without difference, we cannot see the vast life possibilities available to us.

We want our lives to be kaleidoscopic, rich and colorful, revealing different angles of our identities and our worlds. Think of how astonishing it is to rotate the dull rock surface of a geode and reveal its multifaceted interior of fragmented light. This hints at endlessness, growth, and process. This is nature with its collisions of order and chaos and it can be a gateway into imagining the space of possibility within our selves. There is never a moment that is the same as the moment before, your perspective right now is not your perspective of a second ago, and recognizing this is stepping into a space of unlimited creativity.

So how do we get there on our own? It's fine to read about it or contemplate rock formations, but how do we shift the experience from metaphor to a felt experience of the body that expands into a living experience of the heart and mind?

We have to begin somewhere, and the smartest place to begin is with what is -- what we do all the time and take for granted, namely breathing. Begin with the familiarity of an inhale and an exhale, watching the sensation in a such a focused way that you can see beneath its surface pattern to uncover a deeper sense of where you are and where you may wish to go.

Try this:
• First inhale fully. At the top of the breath, notice that moment of pause before the exhale in which everything is suspended. This is the space between the breaths. That space may feel sweetly full -- an opulent palace spreading out in all directions.

• Then tip back down over the top of the breath, releasing into a softly billowing parachute of an exhale. There may be a sense of relief in the release, knowing what direction you are going in but not exactly where you will land.

• When you arrive at the bottom of the breath, notice an anticipation, like a gentle pressure just before the upward spring of a diving board in which everything seems possible. Then allow the breath to pour back in, feeling your lungs expand as your body rises to hold the inhale.

• When the breath enters you are buoyed with spaciousness. When the breath exits, you ease back down into a more intimate scale, but with the memory of fullness. You are reminded that you are expansive, that you have choice, and that you can change and grow.

We need to allow ourselves to focus on our breath. The physical experience of spaciousness can offer us an equivalent mental or emotional experience. The breath is the most immediate and the most intimate way of engaging with the world. You inhale the world. You exhale your experience of it.

You are in this conversation regardless of whether or not you choose to pay attention to it, so the question becomes: How rich and substantial do you want your conversation with the world to be?

For more by Susanna Harwood Rubin, click here.

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