The older I get, the more I appreciate the power of breath. Intentional breathing is one of the esoteric secrets of all cultures that has been lost in the homogenization of awareness in the grey mass indoctrination of our species. Amidst the polluted air and polluted thought, we have literally forgotten how to breathe.
I remember when I first started doing yoga. I was lucky enough to be able to work with the world-renowned Tim Miller, one of Ashtanga’s luminaries and among Pattabhi Jois’ first western students. I knew not who Tim Miller was, of course, when I was 16 in Encinitas and inexplicably gravitating towards a free after-school yoga program for at-risk teens. But the breathing blew me away. I had never been so high before. And relaxing after a 2 1/2 hour Ashtanga series 1 session, the shivasana was a dreamy realm of true peace and surrender.
When I was in college, however, somehow I forgot about the breath, and despite training in capoeira and then yoga and acroyoga again, breath seemed ancillary, tacked on as an extra rather than the fundament of the practice. It would be a long time before I found myself paying attention to breath again, as I got wrapped up in movement practices as if they somehow were separate from this fundamental activity.
For me as for many others, its only when something is gone do you begin to notice it. So it was for me and my breath. I was having a hard time breathing, a stuffed nose, and I realized that my brain wasn’t operating properly. That it was impeded by a loss of oxygen, almost on a daily basis. I didn’t even know how bad it was until suddenly I shook that haze off, and realized that I had been living in a partial stupor for years. By not breathing adequately, leaving my breath and my airways in neglect, I was literally making myself less present, less awake, less capable.
The pain of this realization was met with the desire to change it. Not only movement, or meditation, but deliberate breath work too became part of my practice and moment-to-moment awareness. I would ask myself periodically, “Am I breathing?” Such an innocuous question; but so often, I found myself answering “no.” My breath, once I became aware of it, was often nonexistent, shallow, through only one nostril, or strained–all suboptimal states.
I remember reading Mantak Chia’s account that one should never have sex when the left nostril is plugged, because that is the Ida Nadi, the spring of creativity; and without that nostril open, creative sensuous connected sex is impaired.
Connected breathing would elevate my sex life as much as it would boost my productivity. Rather than an appendage, intentional, conscious breathing began to be a litmus test for how I was in the world, and eventually, a touchstone giving me intuitive knowledge about my surroundings. By following closely the movements of the breath, I not only learned more about my thoughts and my emotions–developing a more honest relationship with myself–by I also became tuned to my environment and subtle delights or disturbances.
Intentional breath is the first step of all meditation, and asana. It is the breath that connects all living things. Our respiration with the world is what connects us to each other, and holds us in animation. From our first to our last breath, we incarnate as more than just mechanic flesh, but a living creature experiencing, making meaning, and with the glorious opportunity of creation. Savor that gift. Sip each breath in a calm cool manner. Relish this moment which comes with every inhale and exhale.