Yoga by Ceci, Dacia and Gina in Rogers Park, Chicago IL

Breathwork for Astronauts

The first time I learned how to breathe was many years ago, in a delivery room, surrounded by some very anxious people.  My parents—who had only just become parents—had to watch the obstetrician remove me from the womb with a suction-cup device that would leave me with a cone-head for weeks.  Nice introduction, right?  I imagine them all, the doctor, my young mom and younger dad, holding their collective breath, eager for me to take the first gasp of mine.  A people-pleaser from my first moments, I inhaled as if my life depended on it, because it did.  I would continue to repeat that action—as well as its partner, Exhale—unconsciously and unremarkably for the rest of my life.


The second time I learned to breathe came many years later in a living room in California.  My teacher and I had just begun my yoga instruction with the fundamentals of Ujjayi—the “whisper” breath that we use to build heat and power in the Forrest Yoga practice. In Ujjayi, you constrict the muscles at the back of the throat to create a whisper sound with each inhale and exhale.  But “whisper” is an ironic term.  While you do use the same muscles for Ujjayi breath and whispering—Ujjayi is not a timid little noise; it’s a roaring combustion machine that lives in your chest.  You’re supposed to be able to hear it.  It’s supposed to be loud.


When you make a noisy, conscious breath, you are forced to recognize several things:

1)   I can hear my breath; I am breathing.

2)   My breath is in my body.

3)   I can control my breath.


These “mind-body connection” realizations may seem obvious, but for lots of people they are shocking—or at least novel—concepts.  Many of us do not feel an intrinsic sense of control over our bodies: we overeat, or give our power away to our loved ones.  We may live with addiction or abuse.  For the many people who do not feel a constant sense of connectivity between body and mind—and I am one—a deep breath can be a very good introduction.  It introduces us to the power of our breath, a power that lives in our bodies, and the knowledge that we are in control of at least that ONE thing.


In the Forrest Yoga practice, seated breath-work (or “pranayama”) begins the class; it coaxes us out of the “daily-ness” of life, out of our heads and our head-trips, and sets us down inside of our bodies.  With each inhale we grow less scattered, more focused, more present.  We connect to the ground through the spine and tailbone, “plugging in” to the earth, and fill our cores with the power, the “prana,” that helps us to move through our practice.  We begin to take a breath so large and so powerful that we can hear it over our thoughts.


The sound of Ujjayi makes us self-conscious, and that’s a GOOD THING, because to be conscious of your self is a blessing.  When I learned to breathe again, I had not been conscious of my SELF for several months, or possibly much longer.  That may sound crazy, but—while I may not be a conehead anymore—my brain is far from normal.  I live in the frustrating, totally illogical world of an eating disorder, and—among lots of other things—that means my brain doesn’t see my body accurately.  What I perceive in the mirror is not the reality of my body.  When I was younger, it was easier for me to identify my “self” as my thoughts, a shapeless collection of fantasies and ideas that lived in my head.  Since I imagined myself to exist only from the neck up, my body got lugged around like a very inconvenient, heavy suitcase.

As strange as it may sound, that’s not an uncommon feeling.  It’s a behavior that many people use as insulation against painful or unpredictable environments; it protects a person from the inconvenience of feelings.


Ana Forrest, who has dealt with eating disorders, abuse, and addiction in her own life, calls people who abandon their physical bodies “astronauts,” when the going gets tough, we tend to space out.  The world around us continues to exist, but it is dull, the edges are fuzzy, and it easily takes a back seat to thoughts of movies we’ve watched, recipes we’d like to cook, cute boys we’ve seen. I believe Ana chose Ujjayi breath for several reasons, but one of them is to tether and drag astronauts back down to earth by using the sound of their breath.


When I take a deep breath, spread my toes and get some awareness in my body, everything around me tightens in focus, sharpens and becomes more colorful.  My mind—which has always been lush and sensual—uplinks to my body, and I experience everything: my practice, my food, my loved ones, even the platforms in the train station, in a more vivid way.  It is incredible to me how quickly this change happens.  If you are an astronaut, try this! Check out the head-change you get when you become really present.  I promise you, it doesn’t just happen in the yoga studio!


When we learn to breathe, we acknowledge our realness, our presence in these bodies that hum and bustle with spirit and divinity.  It is at once humbling and empowering.  We take a deep breath, fill our lungs with prana, and suddenly we are calmer, more focused, less stressed out.  It isn’t magic, although sometimes it feels like it must be.  It is a thought, coupled with action, that produces a feeling, a connection between the central and the autonomic nervous systems.  It is a dialogue between the conscious and unconscious workings of our bodies, and what a beautiful conversation it is!  We begin to understand that we are the source of our own peace.


As infants, someone leans into our beds to check that we have not forgotten how to breathe.  They are grateful for each inhale, every exhale. Every moment that we continue to breathe is a miracle to them.  It is the same even now.  Even if you’re the only one listening, your breath is a miracle.  Delight in the power of that notion!  Be grateful that you can hear your breath, that you are conscious enough to bear witness to something so powerful.  And feel gratitude for the union between your mind, which reaches far into the expanse of the multiverse, and your body, which lives here: ever so bravely, ever so beautifully, on planet Earth.

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