I recently received an email from one of my students that I worked with one-on-one as he battled his way through cancer. In it he said, “One thing you taught me has stuck with me and really helped me get through the most difficult months of my life – breathing. I used the breathing you taught me to get through all my anxiety, pain and discomfort. I was hooked up to a heart monitor before my major surgery and my mom was with me. She was freaking out some and I was cool as a cucumber. When thoughts of fear or weakness would enter my mind I’d start the breathing you taught me. My mom said she’d watch my heart rate go from over 100 to 60 in just a couple of breaths and I would have calm in my eyes. Seeing my calm gave her strength and calm. For that gift to her I must thank you.”
His message brought me back to a gem that I learned early on- if you let it, every breath can be a victorious one.
To honor this teaching, I have been starting my classes by simply asking students to make an honest attempt to watch their breath without controlling it. This is challenging. How often do we notice something and then immediately start to analyze and deconstruct it? Or notice something and without our fully being with it, start to plot a course to change or shift it.
After a few minutes of sitting quietly and watching their breath, faces soften. Lips stop twitching, spines lengthen up and tailbones anchor down. All of this usually from just bringing awareness to the sacred and steady river that is the breath.
Next we drop questions into that stream: how deep can it be? How sweet can it be? How far inside can it reach? Can it span beyond the boundaries of skin, beyond our mats? Then we lean into the ever-present truth that “our breath can touch us in places that nothing or no one else can.” From this steady, yet soft place of wonder and curiosity we begin our Ujjayi breathing- ocean wave like or victorious breathes.
We fill the room with the sweet music of our breath- the symphony of inhale-pause- exhale-pause- repeat. The cosmic dance begins: maybe cat/cow, upward plank to a seated forward fold. We salute the sun, rounds and rounds of bowing and rising in our bodies to the sound of the great sequencer, the great conductor, our breath.
We build a tempo and flow for class with the breath first, then I add other music.
When I am feeling clever I rock a playlist that includes songs with the word prana or breath. Right now, these are some of my favorites breathe themed vibes:
Breathing Prana by Chinmaya Dunster, Don’t Forget to Breathe by Bitter: Sweet, Breath Me by Sia and, Breath by The Floacist
When we are at the peak of our breath groove, I press pause on the external music. Press pause on my instructions, step to one side of the room- watch- lean in close- listen- feel.
Watching my students “free up” space within by moving with the breath inspires me.
Brings me back to the truth that as long as we can breath, there is possibility, there is hope.
No matter how small or big we are, how agitated or tired we may be, how stiff or limber our bodies and minds. We have breath. We have life. That is victorious.
Find a comfortable seat. Lengthen through your spine. Soften through your knees and inner thighs. Close your eyes. Bring your hands to your knees with your palms facing up.
Sit for a few breaths just noticing the rise and fall of your breath. What moves in you when your breath moves? What else do you notice?
After sitting for a few moments begin to consciously deepen your breath. After 3-5 deep breaths begin to squeeze your hands (make fists) as you inhale. There’s a natural pause in the breath, notice it and wait for the exhale. When the exhale arrives greet it by opening your palms and softening. Repeat 3-5 times. Then turn your palms downward on your knees. Sit quietly for a few more breaths. Slowly open your eyes. Ahhhhhhhhh…
Octavia Raheem is a life partner, student, teacher, writer, and sometimes vegan cookie making, raw juice drinking kind of woman. She loves movement, sweat, yoga, listening to others’ true and imagined stories, real food, real people, and real deep hugs. You can connect with her at facebook.com/octaviaraheem or on the mat at Atlanta Hot Yoga and Decatur Yoga and Pilates.