“Let your exhalation lengthen…”

The first time I remember hearing these words in a class, I was in my early 20’s, working as a cook at the Omega Institute, a retreat center in upstate New York.

That particular summer, I remember being unsure and unhappy about a number of things. Having just graduated from college, I was wondering what I would do next, and also how I would pay off my loans.

Those issues were tangled up with other garden-variety thorns of 20-something angst: relationship troubles, interpersonal difficulties with work, and the physical pains connected to long hours spent in a kitchen.

During that summer, I got to take a 5-day course that explored different movement forms in relation to acting performance (a big interest of mine at the time). Yoga played a significant role in the class.

Connections

I am forever grateful to Isabelle Anderson, the instructor, because of the way she modeled how yoga could be connected to something like performance. The idea of this had intrigued me for some time, but Isabelle offered an example of someone living and enjoying it, as her vocation.

In doing so, she also demonstrated ways to find yoga and performance connected to the rest of life.¬†And for me, the most profound moment of this was the most basic: “Let your exhalation lengthen and be aware of what happens.”

It is generally understood that when a person gently lengthens their exhalation, it produces a calming, relaxing effect. My experience included a feeling of calm, but it was not only that. There was also a feeling of being very awake and present.

The first time the class explored the exhalation-lengthening practice was a morning early in August. My experience of that day was so much more clear and alive. At lunch, sitting on the lawn, I can remember thinking that things had changed in a big way.

New Possibilities

The next weeks bore that out. What had been a miserable summer became something else. Not to say that angst and difficulties never returned. They did indeed.

Yet even their presence was different because I’d had an experience that let me see that change was possible; that it was possible to climb out of a difficulty, to solve problems with the help of an internal process.

I believe one reason the breathing practice was such a powerful moment for me was the way in which Isabelle presented it: she held the space open.

She provided a structure, but didn’t tell the class what to feel, predetermining or affecting the outcome. When she got people in the ballpark of the experience, she let people have their experience.

Breath Learning

Here’s a common pattern with intentional breathing practice: at some point in the learning process, a student has a very positive experience with one or more breathing techniques. Then in ensuing practices, the power or effectiveness of the technique seems to lessen.

There are a few reasons this occurs, but a major factor is the tendency to chase after the previous experience, and to chase after desired effects, which ironically makes success in the practice less reliable.

Following my own respiratory epiphany, I discovered over years of trial and error that if I tried to make something happen with my breathing, or held onto a fixed idea of it, I’d inevitably create a tangle: more tension, less clarity, not ending up where I wanted to be.

Breath Teaching

Such tangles are sometimes compounded when breathing is taught more as a rote exercise, focusing on effects such as relaxation, as opposed to a broader experience.

The positive effects of breathing practice that are so often touted are of course valuable and desirable. Lots of people would benefit from feeling calmer and having more energy.

The paradox is that these qualities (and more) become available when a person can surrender the compulsion to cling to an outcome.

Spaciousness

The impulse to push for a result is often not conscious. Therefore, practicing in this way requires slowing down and gaining the physical and mental space necessary to perceive reactions that crop up under the surface of everyday habit.

This is the first step of the practice, attended to before any conscious alteration of the underlying breath rhythm is considered.

Finding space for oneself also has the advantage of opening your perceptions to feel breathing as a whole process, which is where the experience becomes most profound.

Here are some suggestions for exploring breathing in this way:

Start with allowing: Consider your breath as a teacher. Learn to allow its basic rhythm. Much of the time, the breath gets along fine without our conscious control, so it is important to learn how to be with that fundamental, resting rhythm without interfering or distorting it. This is simultaneously one of the most basic and advanced practices a person can do.

Make Space: Give yourself enough time and enough physical and mental space to be alert to tensions and reactions that you would otherwise not notice. You are giving space to your breath and also to your reactions so that they can be acknowledged and can subside instead of spiraling into a feedback loop of further reactions.

Be Curious: When you proceed to techniques that intentionally alter the length, rhythm, shape or volume of the breath, maintain an attitude of exploration. For instance with lengthening the exhalation, approach it as an inquiry. Ask, “What happens when I do this?” Framing the practice in this way keeps the perceptual channels open. In comparison, trying to achieve a desired end tends to limit information.

Remember your wholeness: Just as someone can become isolated in thoughts, it’s possible to isolate and dissociate breathing from one’s whole experience. Rather, use the awareness of breathing as an opportunity to be with your body and be awake to your surroundings. Let breathing tell you about being alive!