Ways of Breathing in Yin Yoga
This is a recent piece of writing I have done for my Yin yoga teacher Norman Blair in preparation for studying on his advanced Yin yoga training coming up this summer.
Also, a special thank you to the inspiring artist Sarah Pierroz who has allowed me to use her drawing to enhance this post.
Taking a few deep breaths, feel the body you breathe in.
Feel the body expanding and contracting with each breath.
Focus on the rising and falling of the abdomen.
Let awareness receive the beginning, middle, and end
of each inbreath, of each outbreath
expanding and contracting the belly.
Note the constantly changing flow of sensation
in each inhalation, in each exhalation.
And begin to soften all around these sensations.
Let the breath breathe itself in a softening belly.
Soften the belly to receive the breath,
to receive sensation, to experience life in the body.
Soften the muscles that have held the fear for so long.
Soften the tissue, the blood vessels, the flesh.
Letting go of the holding of a lifetime.
Letting go into soft-belly, merciful belly.
Soften the grief, the distrust, the anger
held so hard in the belly.
Levels and levels of softening, levels and levels of letting go.
Moment to moment allow each breath its full expression
in soft belly.
Let go of the hardness. Let it float
in something softer and kinder.
Let thoughts come and let them go.
floating like bubbles in the spaciousness of soft-belly.
Holding to nothing, softening, softening.
Let the healing in.
Let the pain go.
Have mercy on yourself, soften the belly,
open the passageway to the heart.
In soft-belly there is room to be born at last,
and room to die when the time comes.
In soft-belly is the vast spaciousness in which to heal,
in which to discover our unbounded nature.
Letting go into the softness,
fear floats in the gentle vastness we call the heart.
Soft-belly is the practice that accompanies us throughout the day
and finds us at the day’s end alive and well.
Since reading this Soft-Belly Meditation written by the American meditation teacher Stephen Levine earlier this year the line, “Have mercy on yourself, soften the belly” has stayed with me. It is like the words themselves have caused a physical transformation in the way I breathe.
Breath awareness has been a cornerstone of my practice for many years. In my early years this was to my detriment. As a dancer, breath holding and ‘reverse breathing’ was preferable as it meant I could issue a greater sense of control over a loose adolescent abdomen and make it appear tighter and flatter in a leotard. Yet, as Donna Farhi (1996:75-77) describes ‘reverse breathing’ causes “a kind of confusion in the diaphragm which also causes a confused and disoriented state of mind…reverse breathers often encounter great difficulty learning movement.” Not being able to learn movement as a dancer is, as you can guess, a big problem. My poor breathing patterns made something I loved very challenging. I got around this problem by learning to improvise movement instead of copy set choreography. Perhaps another solution would have been to learn to soften my belly instead of hardening.
My further histories of breath control included the sounded exhale of physical exertion whilst pumping iron in gyms in the early 90s in Los Angeles; “uurrrrrrrghhhh!” …
Then moving to a yoga commune where breath retaining pranayama was practiced regularly …
Then learning the Ashtanga yoga ujjayi breath.
Over time I fostered daily breathing patterns of breath control.
So when the cover teacher for the Ashtanga class I was taking in 2003 gave me the softest adjustments I had ever experienced and then at the end of class handed me a flyer for Yin yoga, I felt curious; and since that first Yin class in 2003 I have looked very closely at ways of breathing in my own Yin yoga practice. For a long time, in light of my breath controlling history, I yearned for a prescribed breath in Yin yoga. I wanted to find a way (note the singular) that I should breathe in Yin poses.
I suppose in pursuit of this, as a teacher of Yin yoga I talk a lot about the breath. I talk about the awareness of “breathing this body” and “being breathed”. To me, these are two different things. The first, implies that ‘you’ can direct (control) the breath within the body which, from my own experience in life, I know to be a possibility. The second, is the way I would like to be able to approach my breath – not only in Yin yoga but in life. I would like to be able to:
…know that I am breathing, not in an intellectual sense, but to be aware of the simple sensation, the in-breath and the out-breath…to allow the breathing to follow its own nature, to breathe itself…to let it be, to surrender to the breathing…to allow the breath to unfold naturally, without tampering with it. (Rosenberg, 1998:20-21)
In life and in Yin yoga I would also like to breathe with a soft belly.
Soft-belly is a trigger for our letting go. Softening melts the armouring over the heart, experienced as hardness in the belly. Each time we remember to be present, to be mindful, we soften into the moment. (Levine, 1997:33)
Isn’t this a hallmark of Yin yoga…softening into the moment; being in the moment with whatever is arising? How can we be openhearted if the breath is closing, hardening? How can we surrender if we are still on the bandwagon of control?
Yes, the mind needs to be directed toward an intention: “soften the belly” and “let the breath be” but giving the mind an instruction is different than attempting to elicit control over a natural physiological function like breathing.
I’ve come to realize therefore that there is one prescription for a way to breathe in Yin yoga: allow the breath to be; yet there are infinite manifestations of this prescription: each unique in-breath of each unique individual followed by the next unique out-breath of each unique individual.
Let the breath be, soften the belly. This opening practice truly complements the aims of the Yin yoga postures: to find space in mind and body through surrendering, softening, slowing, being.
Illustration by Sarah Pierroz - http://sarahpierroz.com
Farhi, D. (1996). The Breathing Book: Good Health and Vitality Through Essential Breath Work. New York: Owl Books
Levine, S. (1997). A Year to Live: How to live this year as if it were your last. Boston, USA: Beacon Press.
Rosenberg, L. (1998). Breath by Breath: The Liberating Practice of Insight Meditation. Boston, USA: Shambhala Publications