Lately, when I set intention for the class, I have committed to staying with my breath. By “lately” I mean “for the past six months or so.” I did my first yoga pose over 20 years ago, and I’ve been doing different styles of hot yoga for three years, so you’d think I’d have the hang of breathing, right?
Hot yoga is different, though. People tend to breathe shallowly or hold their breath when they are tense; I’m practically the poster child. I’d gotten so used to hearing “breathe” in yoga classes that it became white noise and I didn’t attach significance to it anymore. For years, I did hot yoga after eight to ten hours at my desk job, which meant that I arrived at the studio feeling physically and psychologically like a punching bag. I was already in the habit of clenching my teeth and holding my breath when I was struggling, and I held on to that old habit.
One of my instructors said, “If you’re exhaling that hard at the end of the pose, you’ve been holding your breath.” I thought of that again when I noticed that poses were easier if the instructor gave directions like “Inhale, reach up, and as you exhale, fold forward.”
I set the intention at the beginning of each class to stay with my breath through each pose – to inhale and exhale as deeply and mindfully as I can. I set the intention to return my attention to my breath if I am struggling. It took several months to get to the point where, when I am struggling to hold the pose, I think of my breath instead of how my muscles are burning or how much I want to let the pose go. It makes an enormous difference.
You see, your body wants breath more than it wants the pose. Your mind wants the pose because it knows the benefits. You need to give your body breath, or your body will give up the pose. When your instructor says “breathe through it,” do so. First, it will stop you from thinking that you don’t want to hold the pose anymore. You will be present instead of just waiting for the pose to end – and just waiting will make it seem longer. Lastly, it will give your body and muscles the oxygen to succeed in the pose rather than just hurt or collapse.
This will also create the very useful reflex of breathing deeply in stressful situations. On several occasions in the past six months, another person has said something that I perceived as insulting. My instinct is to draw myself up to about seven feet tall and say something caustic. Straightening up and speaking both require a deep inhale, though, and which pulls me from irritation into mindfulness. My ego desperately wanted the gratification of making the other person feel bad! However, I understood what the Buddha meant when he said anger is like picking up a hot coal to burn another person. You burn yourself first. The deep breath connects me to my inner calm, and I can let the perceived insult go instead of letting someone else steal my peace.
A good connection to my breath strengthens me on and off the mat. Maybe someday I won’t feel the sting of an insult or the burn in the muscles, but there’s good reason yoga is a practice. I’m not holding my breath.