My Partner and I have a sort of inside yoga joke: he tells me to put my body into some impossible shape, like to put the soles of my feet. "Sweetheart, my body won't do that," I say, and he retorts, "Oh sure you can, just exhale." Then he grabs my feet and tries to muscle them into my core and I start kicking and squealing and it turns into a big, dorky love fest.
(I know, the Ashtangis out there are reading this, and then rolling their eyes and winding themselves up into some padmasana variation or something, and exclaiming, "Ta-da!" I'm not there yet.)
He's onto something, though, right? A well-timed breath can be really helpful, whether we're in a complex posture or an uncomfortable conversation. Yogis go on and on about how important the breath is, but we do it for a reason: you can live a few weeks without food, and a few days without water, but you can only live a few minutes without breath.
I'm not sure when I learned Ujjayi breath, but I'm pretty sure that I was doing it wrong, for years, until I entered Jim Bennitt's class. Jim points out that the Ujjayi exhale is significantly easier than the inhale, and I was guilty of this flip-flop (still am) until he called me on it. The puraka (inhale) is as important as the rechaka (exhale) because it's how prana enters the body. All that happens when you practice a lousy in-breath and an amped-up out breath is you disperse your prana.
I remember the first time I purposed to make my inhale as long and deep as my exhale was smooth and full. My practice changed dramatically. I was working as hard as ever, but even in postures that made me want to curse or throw a prop at someone, I felt like I was building, and not depleting. My physical practice was challenging, but rather than feeling exhausted at the end, I felt tingly, energized, and in savasana, I rested really deeply.
This isn't a post about the breath. It's a post about heartbreak. One thing you can count on Spring to do is bring change, and change has been manifesting in a big way. Some of it's been wonderful; some of it has been painful. There's been enough love and affection to make me feel I was born under a lucky star, only to feel like the sky is falling on my head. Are there people in the world who never get their hearts broken, who are only heartbreakers? There must be; but they ain't me.
When my heart gets broken, I turn into someone I don't like. Out of pain and confusion, I whip up into a frenzy seeking answers to questions that won't ever get asked. ThenI get overwhelmed, my pain becomes anger, and I think horrible, judgmental thoughts about the heartbreaker. I try really hard to rationalize their poor treatment of me by shining my "penetrating light of truth" on their insecurities, their small-mindedness, and their misfortune at losing me.
Then I cry a lot.
Good days and bad days are fuel for insight, writes my friend Adam. He's right, too; consider how much we've learned from periods of struggle and failure. Still, it's so hard to remember when bad days seem to be consistent, when feeling on an even keel takes ENORMOUS effort. Some days, I want to just throw myself on my mat and sob.
But is this the practice too, right? Is it easier to stay present in the midst of delight and pleasure than it is to stay present in the midst of pain, anger, confusion?
I read a passage once by George Fuerstein, wherein he said that ecstasy can be achieved in pain just as it can in pleasure.
In this context, good and bad mean the same thing, or rather, don't really mean anything. The exterior of heartbreak feels really lousy, so bad that it crowds out almost everything else and it's easy to forget life could ever be good. But heartbreak could be that one thing designed to bring you connection.
When my girlfriend was suffering from heartbreak, she came over and said she needed to access her breath. She hadn't been able to take a deep breath in days, she said. You know this feeling? Like your lungs are stuffed with wet newspaper and a good, solid inhale might crack your ribcage apart? Yep I don't think 30 minutes of breathing and moving changed her situation. It didn't undo any of the pain she'd been caused, or unsay any of the really hurtful things she'd had to hear.
But there was enough space for her in all that because of the breath. She wasn't obliterated by it; she was able to stand and dwell in her pain, to feel it, and to let it move through her without knocking her out.
My teacher talks about the breath being a gift. Imagine yourself giving the exhale and receiving the inhale, he says. So far, breath is the best thing I've found for staying balanced in the midst of pain. A good breath doesn't make the pain go away, but it makes enough space to bear it.