“Why does that water on the road vanish?”

It’s a distinct memory. I’m around five years old.  My twin brother Ben and I are in the car with our dad. The day is dry, bright and sunny, at the height of summer.

Ben and I are puzzled by the water we see on the road ahead that keeps disappearing. Dad (engineer that he is) explains that it’s called a mirage and that it happens because the increased temperature of air above the hot pavement causes the rays of light coming to our eyes to bend, changing what we see.

He also mentions that this can happen to people travelling in the desert.  If they’re low on water and don’t know where waterholes are, it can be a bad situation.

I believe I’ve retained this particular memory because I learned so much from it. Although I’m certain that my five year old mind did not fully grasp all of the science my father was describing, I do know that this matter-of-fact, out of the blue conversation altered my awareness of life in significant ways.

I learned that light travels to the eyes as a ray, or wave.  I learned that dark pavement can heat the air just above it, and I learned that the combination of these two things can produce unusual effects.

On a larger level, I learned that things are not always as they appear, and that sometimes trouble arises when people follow such appearances, as with the mirage in the desert.

Different than Expected

In my experience, the substance of these larger lessons arises often in life, in ways big and small, surprising and confounding.  Perhaps you have a good friend that you initially disliked, or surely you’ve purchased something that appeared to be a good deal at the time, but turned out to be costly, a thorn in your side.

Such circumstances have much to do with the information a person has at the time, vs. information they (may) acquire later, just as my brother and I were confused about the water we saw, until our dad offered us a different level of understanding.

The Heart of Yoga

This interplay between appearances, perception and information has a clear relationship with yoga. In fact, the case can be made that these elements define yoga better than doing asanas, being flexible, or any other outward benefit one might seek from the practice.

The heart of yoga lies in connecting with the inner nature of things and getting to the awareness that’s underneath appearances.  While becoming flexible, doing asana, or employing any other yogic practice might seem to be the goal, these are instead a means of investigation, a means of arriving at more accurate information about the body, consciousness and the world one inhabits.

Breathing is interesting to consider in these terms because it is one of the best examples of a yogic practice that is used to explore what’s under the surface.  At the same time, it is possible even for yoga practitioners to make some surface-level assumptions about breathing that may be deceiving.

“Take a deep breath.”

“Deep breathing is good for you! It provides your body with more oxygen!” I imagine you have heard this or something similar many times.

The problem is, it’s not accurate. Here’s the unexpected thing: rather than increasing oxygen, big, deep breaths can decrease carbon dioxide.  That might not sound like such a bad thing, but behind the scenes, CO2 plays an important role in the delivery of oxygen to where it’s needed most.

The presence of CO2 in the blood actually increases the flow of oxygen from blood to the tissues.  If too little CO2 is present, the hemoglobin that carries oxygen in the bloodstream develops a tighter bond with the oxygen, and less of it is released to the cells.

Sometimes CO2 is a Friend

This contradicts common understanding about breathing because many people assume that carbon dioxide is a waste product, a substance that is mostly expelled via exhalation.  Instead, the body actually needs to retain far more CO2 than it gives up.

Loss of CO2 occurs through breathing when too much air is being moved in and out.  This is sometimes what happens when an individual takes a deep breath. The effects of this are worth your attention and can include: cold extremities, headaches, dizziness, muscle tension, tightness in the throat, agitation, and digestive upset.

If someone has an incomplete understanding of how breathing works, they may draw inaccurate conclusions about the origin of such symptoms, much like the deception of a mirage.  On the other hand, knowledge of breathing that’s grounded in experience (as opposed to strictly intellectual comprehension) can be considered a baseline skill for understanding the language of the body and making sense of the relationship between body and mind.

If you’d like to begin to explore such embodied knowledge, here are a few tips:

  • Sometimes when people first learn that moving less air is a good thing for breathing, they try to make it happen with effort, by forcefully attempting to restrict their breath.  This can backfire. Optimal breathing patterns start with ease, not effort.

  • In general, breathing through your nose makes it easier to maintain balanced CO2 levels.  Mouth breathing moves a lot more air in and out.

  • In daily life, if you feel dizzy, agitated or unfocused, notice if you are breathing through your mouth. If you are breathing through your nose, notice if you are moving a lot of air.

  • Be gentle with your breath.  Allow your breath.  Awareness of breath can be tricky because certain parts of mind may want to control the process. Awareness of the breath is not about dictating to the breath.  It is a process of connected, receptive listening.

If you would like to explore the subject of breathing in greater depth, we are offering a 6-lesson course in June and early July.  Even if you aren’t in Oberlin, it’s possible to participate remotely, by video. There’s an early registration discount in effect until Friday, May 31

Watch a video that describes more about the course:

You can also access the first lesson for free here.