Free the Breath
Updated: Oct 28, 2018
Beautiful Autumn. A rich time of harvesting all that we have risen into through the seasons, gathering the nourishment of our growth deep into our core. And as always, when receiving, we must also offer back. Let go of what no longer supports our being by allowing some of our old wounds to fall away, the leaves of our sacred tree returning our impurities back to Mother Earth. It can feel very painful to be shown where our hurts have led us and the patterns we have become woven into but we now have the wisdom and strength to shed this layer, we are ready. Our breath, the essence of our life force, can guide us in this process. We inhale to receive fresh prana into our lungs, followed by an effortless exhale, releasing the old and calming our nervous system. When we are unable to let go, when fear and uncertainty create the impulse to hold on and freeze in our current experience, the exhale, the letting go, the calm, cannot happen. Nature cannot restore its state of balance.
This past summer I was invited to attend an event series called ‘Resistance is Futile! Mental Wellness and Sensuousness.’ It was a communal exploration of these topics, with a focus on the epidemic of millennial anxiety and given the nature of the subject matter, the hostess asked me to open the evening with a meditation and movement exercise with the intention of helping people to ground, release nerves and arrive in their bodies. I prepared talking points to inspire discussion. To me, ‘Resistance is Futile! Mental Wellness and Sensuousness” means surrendering to whatever experience you are having that is creating discomfort, putting your hands up and letting go of the fight in mind and body. Building a sensual relationship with your body, by nourishing self-love through mindful attention. Experiencing your body through your senses to become in touch with the present moment.
“Non-resistance is the key to the greatest power in the Universe.” –Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth
A couple of months after my concussion in 2012, I began having recurring panic attacks and without any basis of understanding what I was experiencing, I was terrified of what was happening to me. Chest pain, heart palpitations, inability to take in breath and a complete detachment from the reality of the present moment, created a depth of aloneness that is hard to fathom. Feeling truly alone like this is a profound spiritual crisis. It is forgetting who and what we are: that is, inextricably connected to all beings. When we are afraid and lonely, we try to protect ourselves, an architect of survival that creates layers of armour, resulting in shutting out the world and the development of the sense that we have to go at it all alone. The ego-based notion that because I am alone, I don’t need others, actually cuts me off from my Self, rather than allowing myself to just have “me” (which doesn’t actually exist – the nature of our being is that it is not separate from the being in others). With each stratum that goes up between the core of who we are and the outside world, we become that much more disconnected from our Self. Paradoxically, what results is that we lack connection to our Self and others and thus we become truly alone, alienated from Source.
I believe this is where the spiritual concept of attachment can be misunderstood as meaning that we need to walk our path alone: that if we are looking to someone for help, then we are re-inforcing our ego and harming ourselves. This is where a vital difference needs to be understood: asking for support by opening our hearts to people who love and support us versus looking to them to fill the void that was created by our self-protective patterning. Lessons on releasing attachment are not asking us to detach but rather to value ourselves enough to give ourselves permission to feel what we are feeling, the real truth of it and share from this place of vulnerability. Self-love is the defining piece between insecure attachment or co-dependency and secure attachment. If we approach our relationships from that alienated place where we feel we need to be saved, that’s insecure. If we trust others and ourselves enough to come from an authentic place, an honest place of recognizing our pain and asking for help from a grounded place, that’s secure attachment. We don’t have to do this alone because we are not alone. We are connected to every being on this planet. It is a blessing to be able to see our relationships to others, how we feel about those with whom we cross paths, as a mirror of self-reflection so that we may learn about our patterns of hurt and fear and cultivate acceptance. If we can love and have compassion for all that we are, understanding where it all comes from, we can better love and understand those around us.
“If we do not know how to take care of ourselves and to love ourselves, we cannot take care of the people we love. Loving oneself is the foundation for loving another person.” –Thich Nhat Hanh
Being triggered into panic attacks was a powerful catalyst for me to find the practice of yoga. Feeling as though I had no control of or access to my breath while being introduced to a practice with such a central focus on breath as our life force (prana), resulted in an obsession with my breath. When heart palpitations and high anxiety would come on in a situation, no matter where I was, I would desperately search for a technique to try to gain control: forcefully try the ujjayi breathing I had been taught in class, or count my inhalations and exhalations with extended exhales, alternate nostril breath, basically anything to try to find relief. In these moments, nothing would work.
What I found was that using pranayama practice in reaction to symptoms of anxiety and panic can be futile because if it is coming from the place of fear that is causing the discomfort, then it will feed that. Pranayama is a vastly powerful practice for our mental, emotional and physical well being. It is not, however, a means to control the uncontrollable. Breath awareness, by opening the senses, feeling the body and observing how the body breathes itself naturally and organically, takes us out of the mind and fear and into the seat of awareness and presence, so that we can watch the miraculous body calm itself down, without effort. At the height of my anxiety, I had no idea that my breath would flow naturally and self-regulate without my needing to control it: my body breathing itself rather than me breathing it. I was afraid to do any cardio to increase my heart rate because of the fear that it would not come back down and I would be sent into a panic attack. I had never heard of the parasympathetic nervous system, our body’s built in calming response. Our minds, largely the layers beneath our conscious experience, create deep patterns of resistance that prevent our bodies from being able to do what they are designed to do: carry out the dharma, law of nature, and return to a state of balance. It is so important to know that you can trust your body. We are animals with a mind: if we can get our mind out of the way, nature can play its part.
When accessing breath feels difficult, we don’t need to do anything but sit in the discomfort and surrender the need to control. Letting go in these moments is terrifying but if we are able to yield and stop the fight, we will be caught and lifted up. This takes tremendous courage. If the anxiety has escalated to the point of panic and it feels impossible to surrender, we must start by getting into the body. Engage the muscles that would naturally activate if the fight or flight response was carried out, shake out and discharge tension, ground into the Earth beneath you, release your tongue and jaw, release sound. Activate the senses. Discharging tension from our bodies by moving and releasing energy (e-motion=energy in motion), lets us allow this to occur so that we don’t freeze and store it in our body. Combining a physical practice of getting into one’s body, with becoming a witness to the body and mind, stepping back into the seat of awareness and creating space to observe that you are not this mind, not this body, not these emotions, allows all levels of our being to restore to a stateWant to add a caption to this image? Click the Settings icon. of balance.
Another beautiful way to find vulnerability in the really difficult moments is to place a hand on your heart and start to talk to the scared parts of yourself, create some distance between you and the anxiety and nurture it with wisdom, support and love.
My relationship to my breath indicates my level of trust and how I approach life. After all, breath is our life force, it is primeval energy, and it is who we are at our essence. If we hold or try to control our breath it means we are fearful of accepting life, we are trying to halt that which is in constant motion, trying to diminish the limitless.
“According to the Upanishads, prana is the principle of life and consciousness. It is equated with the real Self (Atma). Prana is the breath of life of all beings in the universe. They are born through and live by it, and when they die, their individual breath dissolves into the cosmic breath. Prana is the hub of the Wheel of Life. Everything is established in it. It permeates the life-giving sun, the clouds, the winds, the earth, and all forms of matter. It is being and non-being. It is the source of all knowledge.” – B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Pranayama