“Make your breathing muscular,” a teacher remarked, revealing a paradox about breathing in yoga: that we subject the automatic to our control, take charge of a reflex, breathe by will. Breathing has always been difficult for me.
I have already confessed in this scroll about struggling with it for more than two years, and the first breathing exercise has long been my nemesis. Bikram dogma has it that your least favorite exercise is the one you need most, so I recently started experimenting with making my breathing muscular in this exercise.
To begin, I pull back on the muscles just behind my mouth, the place that teachers call the back of the throat. If I sip in the air this way just fast enough and no faster, it slides down my windpipe, neat as a cue ball, and lands in a sweet spot in my lungs. If I am very focused and the air is particularly warm or very cool, I feel it swirling as it settles to rest on the firm base of pulled-in lower abs.
On the exhale, I push air out from the bottom first, by contracting my upper abs in an upwards flow. At the end, when my elbows squeeze together, I force the two halves of my rib cage toward one another. This pressure further empties the lungs, creating a vacuum. And if nature abhors a vacuum, so do I. I used to choke there all the time, but I have learned to hold still, knowing that air will arrive in one second, with the teacher’s cue to inhale, when I pull back again on the back of my throat to start the slow inward whoosh again, powered by the reversing vacuum. And so the circle goes.
Every second has its task, and each builds on the one before. The minutiae distract me, and I get through the exercise, paradoxically without thinking about breathing at all. Instead, I meditate on moving air efficiently, respectfully, evenly. It is really not about me and my breathing any more–the breath is simply a circle. It is about air and will.