"Absolutely fascinating. Every one of these chapters is like a life lesson."
—Chicago media legend Rick Kogan
"An inspiring and practical manual for applying yoga's timeless concepts to modern American life."
—Paulie Zink, founder of Yin Yoga
"In 'Beyond the Mat,' Kali Om beautifully brings our awareness to how true yoga starts once our morning practice has finished and our interactions with the world begin."
– Yogi Cameron, author of The Yogi Code
"With humor, keen intellect, and contemporary practicality, Kali Om lights our spiritual path with a clarity of vision that is at once faithful to tradition and perfectly timely. She [EB1] writes with an inspired simplicity that makes the teachings of classical yoga accessible, offering tools for understanding and techniques for self-transformation, peace, and integrity."
—Swami Satyapremananda, Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centers
Excerpts from Beyond the Mat: Don't Just Do Yoga - Live It:
My teachers often say that yoga is the science of living a healthy
and peaceful life. Like a scientist, one takes the information,
applies it, and finds out if it works. In my experience, it does; for
me, yoga provides the answer to every question and the solution
to every problem.
I took my first yoga class at a local YMCA shortly after my
mother died of cancer, in 1997. As executor of her estate, I was
not getting along with my sibling (or anyone else, for that matter),
and I was racked with grief. Still, I had some time—and a lot of
unstable energy after caring for her—and thought I'd give it a try.
That first class changed my life; during it I didn't think about
my problems once and marveled at this new sensation. For the
first time in my life, I felt real peace—and it lasted afterwards. So I
signed up for every class they had.
But it wasn't enough. Consequently, I looked in the phone
book and found the N.U. Yoga Center (now called the Chicago
Yoga Center). I bought a monthly pass and became hooked on the
physicality of Ashtanga, a traditional and challenging system from
India that appealed to my past as a triathlete and pulled me right
into the present. I was in class every day—sometimes twice a day,
and signed up for every workshop they offered.
Within a year, one of my teachers, Eric Powell, told me he was
moving away and urged me to learn how to teach and take over
his classes. I refused, insisting that I was happy being a student.
He asked again, and again I folded my arms and said no. The third
time he asked, I said I'd think about it.
I ended up taking Suddha Weixler's teacher training at N.U.
and loved it. At his request, I began teaching my own classes at his
studio. More teaching opportunities soon followed. I had to quit
my part-time waitressing job but continued to work as a freelance
After studying with many senior Ashtanga teachers and hearing
them speak about Pattabhi Jois, the father of Ashtanga yoga, I
decided to "go to the source," as my mother used to say, and find
out for myself. I made my first trip in 2002, not long after 9/11,
when India and Pakistan were amassing their troops on the border,
preparing for war. I bought an open-ended plane ticket, thinking
I'd want to turn around and come home as soon as I arrived.
Instead, I stayed five months, practicing with 11 other Westerners
in a small, sweaty room in Pattabhi Jois's house.
I made four more trips to study with the Jois family in India,
chronicling each of them in my, "No Sleep Til Mysore" diaries in
Yoga Chicago magazine. After each trip to India, I would come
home to less journalism work and more teaching gigs. I became
a full-time yoga instructor in 2004, while continuing to write
for Yoga Chicago magazine and take on other occasional writing
Pattabhi Jois used to tell us to "Think God. Be God." But it
wasn't until I took my first Life of a Yogi teacher training with Sri
Dharma Mittra in 2007 that I understood what he was talking
Although called a teacher training, it was really a course in
Self-realization. It consisted of 10 intense, 15-hour days of classes
at Sri Dharma's cramped old New York City studio and included
instruction and practice in the complete yoga system. Each day
began with chanting, pranayama (breathwork), and meditation,
followed by talks on philosophy as well as instruction in anatomy,
diet (vegetarian, mostly raw), kriyas (yoga techniques), Hatha
yoga, japa mala (prayer beads), and other yoga practices. It was
nothing less than a blueprint for how to live a happy and fulfilling
life, and Sri Dharma's bliss, playfulness, awareness, and humility
provided a living example of its efficacy. He answered all of the
questions I'd never been able to articulate, all the while bombarding
us with unconditional love.
Over the next several years I ended up traveling to study with
him every three months and completing two more teacher trainings
with him before I was kindly asked to leave the nest. Along
the way, I quit taking antidepressants, received mantra initiation
(and my spiritual name), and learned to love myself.
The pieces in this collection come directly from my "Beyond
the Mat" column in Yoga Chicago magazine (2007 to 2018). Much
of what I write about is derived from what I learned in the many
classes, workshops, retreats, teacher trainings, and one-on-one sessions
I had with Sri Dharma; from my other teachers and trainings; and from my
Many of the topics were sparked by my own struggles
trying to live a yogic life in a world that appears to reward exactly
the opposite; the questions and concerns of my students were also
an important source of material. I think of these columns as love
letters—especially the more recent ones.
This collection is for anyone who wants to explore yoga in a
way that goes beyond the obvious health benefits of Hatha yoga
poses, or asana. Yoga's universal and inclusive spiritual underpinnings
are often missing from mainstream American yoga instruction,
when, in fact, the poses are one small part of a larger system
that outlines how to live a peaceful and healthy life (and can ultimately
lead to enlightenment). On the other hand, classical Raja
yoga and related systems—on which I have focused my studies
and writing—enable one to delve into them as deeply as one wishes
(or is ready for) and be rewarded with everything from a healthy
body and calm mind to Self-realization.
What I love most about what I have learned from my study
of yoga is how practical and logical it is. It doesn't rely on blind
faith but on direct, practical experience; the ancient yogis invited
their students to try these things out for themselves, and see if they
If they do, we keep them. If not, we throw them out. But this
does not mean to give up if the results are not immediate. As the
Yoga Sutras says, "practice becomes well-grounded when continued
with reverent devotion and without interruption over a long
period of time."
That said, everyone's path is different; what works for me may
or may not work for you. I invite you to try it and find out.
What doesn't help is a closed mind. During my first trip to
study with the Jois family in Mysore, I remember apologizing to
Sharath Jois in one particularly rough 4:30 a.m. class for being stiff
and making his attempt to provide adjustments difficult. "Body is
not stiff," he said. "Mind is stiff."
After many years of giving copies of Yoga Chicago to students
and e-mailing links to individual columns, I realized it would be
more helpful to collect them in one place. For the most part, I have
not altered the text of the originals; when I did, it was to ensure
clarity and timeliness and to make them less Chicago-specific.
Consequently, there is some overlap between the articles (in my
experience, hearing things more than once helps make them
stick). They're arranged loosely according to theme; my idea was
not that you should read them through from start to finish (unless
you want to). Rather, I hope you will choose to read columns on
topics that call to you at given points in time.
I find that weaving yoga concepts into my daily life helps make
it more joyful and meaningful. I hope you will too.
One of the last things Sri Dharma Mittra said to me is, "You
have to share the knowledge." This is my attempt. If you find some
of it helpful, it is due to the grace of God and guru. Any mistakes
are on me.
Kali Om, September 16, 2017
Truth or Consequences, New Mexico
Introduction. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1
Part One: Virtues
1. Santosh: Cultivating Contentment (2016). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7
2. Don't Hoard Your Gifts—Share Them (2013) . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11
3. Paring Down Can Improve Your Yoga Practice (2010) . . . . . 15
4. Pratyahara: Control of the Senses (2014) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 21
5. Cultivating Gratitude and Eliminating Greed (2014). . . . . . . 25
6. Developing Detachment (2015). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 29
7. Just Say Yes: Dealing with Aversion (2018) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 35
8. The Practice of Satya (Truthfulness) (2017). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 39
Part Two: The Seasons
9. The 30-Day Resolution (2016). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 45
10. Beat the Winter Blues (2011). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 49
11. Mahashivaratri: The Great Night of Lord Shiva (2016) . . . . . 53
12. Internal Spring Cleaning (2014) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 57
13. Stay Cool: Beat the Summer Heat (2015). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 63
14. Summer Tapas: Guru Purnima (2013) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 67
15. Warming Up to Fall Weather (2016). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 71
16. Weathering Winter Gracefully (2014). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 75
Part Three: Yoga Lifestyle
17. Developing a Home Practice (2011). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 81
18. Keeping a Spiritual Diary (2014). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 87
19. Do One Thing at a Time (2014). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 91
20. Time Is Not on Your Side (2012). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 95
21. Facing Fear (2013). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 101
22. Cooperation vs. Competition (2017) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 105
23. Eight Great Movies About Yoga (2012). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 109
24. Eight Great Yoga Memoirs (2012). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 113
Part Four: Yoga Concepts
25. Yoga's Symbols, Sayings, and Sounds (2011). . . . . . . . . . . . . 121
26. The Eight Limbs of Yoga (2007). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 129
27. The Four Main Paths of Yoga (2012). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 131
28. Yoga Scripture: The Primary Texts (2013). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 137
29. Om, the Sacred Pranava (2013). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 143
30. The Guru-Disciple Relationship (2013). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 147
31. Make an Offering: Karma Yoga (2017). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 151
32. Mantra and Japa (2017). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 155
33. Finding Peace Through the Play of the Gunas (2017). . . . . 161
34. Nadis, Chakras, and the Subtle Body (2017). . . . . . . . . . . . . 165
Part Five: Diet, Health, and Healing
35. Change Your Breathing, Change Your Life (2016) . . . . . . . . 173
36. Five Reasons to Eat Less Meat (2015). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 177
37. Eat Like a Yogi (2015). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 183
38. Kitchari, Yoga's Wonder Food (2017). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 187
39. Help for Insomnia (2015). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 191
40. The C Word: Help for Constipation (2015). . . . . . . . . . . . . . 195
41. Going Head-to-Head with Headaches (2016). . . . . . . . . . . . 199
42. Eight Ways to Reduce Anxiety (2018). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 205
Chapter 1: Santosh: Cultivating Contentment in an Increasingly Complicated World
"Everything is moving perfectly."
—Sri Dharma Mittra
One of the most moving films I've seen is Jean Renoir's 1951 lyrical masterpiece, The River, based on Rumer Godden's 1946 novel. The coming-of-age tale takes place at a jute mill in pre-Independence Bengal, India. In
my favorite pair of scenes, Captain John, an American soldier and former POW who lost his leg in the war, confides to Melanie, a wise Anglo-Indian teenager, that he feels like an outsider.
"I'm a stranger wherever I go," he says. She replies quietly, "Where will you find a country of one-legged men?" She too feels like an outsider because of her mixed race.
Later, he asks Melanie what they should do. "Consent," is her answer. "To what?" he asks. "To everything," she says. "You don't like being a man with one leg, but you have only one leg. I don't like.…never mind. Why do we quarrel with things all the time?"
Melanie's advice—to stop fighting what cannot be changed, and to make peace with one's present circumstances—is the practice of santosh, or contentment, which is the second niyama (observance) in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
"We should understand the difference between contentment and satisfaction," explains Swami Satchidananda in his excellent 1978 commentary on the Yoga Sutras. "Contentment means to be just as we are without going to outside things for our happiness. If something comes, we let it come. If not, it doesn't matter. Contentment means neither to like nor dislike."
This sounds simple on the surface. But it can require some work—especially for those of us who are used to striving or have a sense of entitlement. Here are a few concrete practices that can help.
On the mat
Many of us are guilty of destroying the present moment by wishing it away (yet all we have is the present moment; the past is gone, and the future is not guaranteed). I often see students do this in class. When they are uncomfortable or bored in a pose, they will move on to the next asana before the rest of us. Or they will start chugging water or looking around or staring at the mirror (some have even pulled out their phones and started using them).
There is a wonderful antidote to this feeling of discomfort in a pose (discomfort should not be confused with pain; never stay in a pose if it is causing pain and/or takes the breath away). Instead of forcing or coming out of the pose, back off about 50 percent—don't go into it as deeply—and focus on slowing down the breath. Bringing the focus back to the breath (and, if relevant, the dristi [gaze] and bandhas or locks) will almost always make it easier to stay longer in the pose. Learning how to live with discomfort (not pain!) in class, and doing poses we don't particularly like, is a form of tapas (self-control) that translates well to life off that mat. Coming back to the breath calms the mind and brings us back to the present moment, regardless of what we're doing. Have you ever judged yourself in class? Perhaps you can no longer get into a pose that once came easily to you, or your body is not opening as quickly as you'd hoped (or you compare yourself to others). My first teacher, Suddha Weixler, used to regularly remind us, "It's not a competition." Learn to accept where your body is on a given day. Play with your boundaries, but never force. Find a teacher who offers variations for different bodies and encourages you to explore beyond your comfort zone.
Learn to become an observer, or impartial witness, of your practice. Watch your struggles with compassion, love, and patience. This practice is a type of meditation called sakshi bhava (witnessing mood), in which we observe our mind, body, and emotions but do not get caught up in them.
Never skip savasana (corpse pose), which gives us the space to spontaneously experience santosh. If thoughts bombard you—your mind keeps making plans or analyzing past events—keep bringing yourself back to the present by focusing on the sound of your breath and the sensations in your body.
Off the mat
Santosh means to detach from one's likes and dislikes, and the following practice from Swami Sivananda is very powerful: Every day, do one thing that you don't want to do and don't do one thing that you want to do. The thing you do should enhance your spiritual practice, while the one you skip can be something that derails it (for example, reading some scripture before bed and skipping the big bowl of ice cream that will make you feel awful the next day). If you have a home yoga practice, do one pose that you don't like, and skip one pose that you do.
To diminish anxiety, keep a notebook and pen next to your bed. Each morning, right after awakening, spend five minutes writing down your foremost thoughts. They can be stupid or profound or neither—it doesn't matter. The key is to write them down, which diminishes their power. I've found that when I do this, my inner critic quiets down and I feel far more content the rest of the day. This practice also helps for insomnia; it's from John C. Parkin's 2007 book F**k It: The Ultimate Spiritual Way.
Keeping a gratitude diary for 30 days can reduce the discontent that stems from a sense of entitlement, or nonacceptance of one's circumstances. Each morning after waking, and each night before retiring, write down three things for which you are grateful, but don't repeat anything. When I did this for a few weeks, I found that I was grateful for things that normally would have bothered me. It also made me feel a whole lot more at peace. If that doesn't work, try karma yoga or selfless service. Helping others who are less fortunate brings a sense of santosh very quickly.
Turn off the computer, TV, phone, and tablet for a few hours each week. Instead, spend some time in nature, or interacting face-to-face with other people, and notice the effect.
Understanding the laws of karma and reincarnation leads to lasting contentment. Everything we are passing through now is a result of our past actions. As my guru says, there are no accidents (or, as the Bible says, "Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap."). Although we may understand karma on a superficial level, it can take years of contemplation to realize these laws; the Bhagavad-Gita is the primary yoga scripture for exploring these concepts (Eknath Easwaran's translation is a good introduction). Brian Weiss's 1988 memoir Many Lives Many Masters and the 2009 documentary Unmistaken Child are also excellent resources.
As Sri Dharma said in a 2014 interview, "This quality of contentment is derived from the realization of the laws of karma and that there is reincarnation. Also, at least for me, acceptance of the fact that: 'There is nothing else to be known or done.'"
In other words, consent.
Chapter 6: Developing Detachment
"Detachment is not that you should own nothing, but that nothing should own you."
—Ali ibn abi Talib
Life gives us innumerable opportunities to deal with our attachments, or the ideas, people, objects, and experiences that we cling to that don't actually belong to us. I had a wonderful opportunity to contemplate such attachments over one strange weekend last spring.
On Saturday, I learned that the yoga festival I was scheduled to teach at the next day had suddenly been canceled. That evening, the owner of a yoga center where I rented space for the Sunday master class I teach sent me an e-mail informing me that her studio would no longer be available to me. The following afternoon, I was driving to class on Lake Shore Drive when a police standoff closed it down. Traffic slowed down to a complete halt, and all of the alternate routes were also backed up. I finally had to realize I could not make it to class.
When I got home, I wondered if the universe was trying to tell me something. "Maybe I'm not supposed to teach yoga," I thought, and considered what life would be like without it.
Initially, the mind was agitated. But I sat with the emotions and continued to think about it. After some time, I realized it would be difficult but okay. After all, it was never my intention to become a yoga teacher (my teachers Suddha Weixler and Eric Powell convinced me to start teaching back in 1998—and over the years, and with each trip to India to study yoga, my work as a journalist diminished and my work as a teacher increased until I became a full-time yoga teacher in 2004). Through the practice of svadhyaya (self-study) and vichara (self-inquiry), I realized I'd had no choice when it came to becoming a yoga teacher, and that I would have no choice in how long I would continue to be one. Once I figured this out, I felt more calm. I also believe that it helped lessen my attachment to teaching yoga—at least a little bit.
The nature of attachment
In The Yoga Sutras of Patajani, attachment is considered to be the third klesha, which is described as a coloring of the mind, or a cause of pain and suffering (the other kleshas are ignorance of our divine nature, ego, aversion, and clinging to life).
Attachment is described as that which dwells in pleasure and personal preference. Yogis believe that attachments lead to pain, because pleasure is ephemeral; eventually it comes to an end—and when it does, we suffer. Yogis believe that real, permanent bliss is our true nature, which comes from inside us—not outside.
"Attachment to pleasure, or raga, is another pain-bearing obstacle," says Sri Swami Satchidananda in his translation of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. "We attach ourselves to pleasure because we expect happiness from it, forgetting that happiness is always in us as the true Self."
Sri Dharma Mittra, the guru who initiated me, asks his students to contemplate it this way. "You may notice that your happiness comes from outside: ten percent is from food; ten percent is from your spouse; and then if you have dogs, add another five percent; a nice house, add another five percent; money in the bank—it depends on the amount. If you have a job you like, add ten percent. If you have the latest iPhone, add five percent. If you like the way you look, add another 80 percent," he says.
Some of our happiness is the result of knowing that we will be able to repeat pleasurable experiences. But not forever. "Deep inside, you know that when you get old all these pleasures are going to be gone, one by one," says Sri Dharma. He says it is okay to enjoy the objects of the world while we have them—"but don't be attached." He also says that the only real, lasting happiness comes from within.
Swami Jnaneshvara (www.swamij.com) says, "Notice the moment just after pleasure: Think of times just after you experience something pleasureful. A good example is some snack food that you enjoy, such as a sweet. Notice what happens when you put a small piece of the sweet in your mouth. There is a burst of that delicious flavor, which brings an emotional joy. But then, remember what happens a second or two later. There is another emotional burst that comes right behind the enjoyment, and that is to repeat the experience. This is the meaning of attachment, or raga…. It is this second wave of emotional experience, or desire, that is the attachment. It is different from the enjoyment from the first piece of candy."
Ways to practice
In her memoir, Radha: Story of a Woman's Search, Swami Radha recalls an incident that happened at Swami Sivananda's ashram in Rishikesh in 1955. "Liz admired a gold locket I wore, which was an old family piece from my great-grandmother. It could be opened and there was a picture of Gurudev [Swami Sivananda] on the inside. Master [Sivananda] glanced up at that moment and said to me, 'Why don't you give it to her? This is the best way to renounce. If you give things to people which they greatly admire, then you will not regret that you gave them away. Renunciation is necessary to overcome attachment.'"
It's not necessary to renounce your belongings—renunciation is mental—but it is important to pay attention to what we're attached to. One way to do this is to observe what causes passion, fear, insecurity, craving, or anger; usually it comes from attachment or unfulfilled desires. Intense attachments can even become addictions. The Bhagavad-Gita says, "When a man dwells on objects, he feels an attachment for them. Attachment gives rise to desire, and desire breeds anger.
"From anger comes delusion; from delusion, the failure of memory; from the failure of memory, the ruin of discrimination; and from the ruin of discrimination the man perishes."
To contemplate attachment, sit for a five to ten minutes in meditation and observe what the mind is attracted to. Notice what it craves. Then, do the same observation during your daily routine. "To witness this secondary process during daily life and at meditation time is an extremely useful practice to do," says Swami Jnaneshvara. "It provides great insight into the subtler nature of raga, attachment. In turn, it allows a far greater level of skill in learning non-attachment, vairagya, which is one of the two foundation practices of yoga. By learning to witness the thinking process in this way, the colorings (klesha) gradually attenuates."
You may also take this a step further and contemplate, as I did, what it would be like to live without certain attachments. Because in reality, the things we consider to be "ours" don't really belong to us; we are merely borrowing them.
You can also practice non-attachment with speech, substituting terms like "my" with neutral words such as "the." For example, "my car" becomes "the car," "my cat" becomes "the cat," "my house" becomes "the house," and so on. (During my first teacher training with Sri Dharma Mittra, we were encouraged not to call the students who come to our classes "my" students, since they tend to come and go and don't really belong to us.)
Another powerful practice is to let go of attachment to our pet ideas, or myths we tell ourselves about ourselves. Often these are negative, repetitive thoughts with deep roots that can be silenced through self-inquiry and discrimination.
I remember when I first began practicing yoga, and the teacher told us to try doing a handstand. I heard a familiar little voice in my head—a voice I had heard from others in the past, and which I'd internalized—telling me I was weak, and I thought, "There's no way I will be able to do this." But the teacher didn't know about my past, or that voice. He only saw my potential, and showed me what to do. And I did it, surprising myself, and realized that I was capable of doing much more than I'd thought.
Another very concrete way to practice vairagya, or non-attachment, is to spend some time away from the things that have a tight hold over us. For example, someone who feels attached to comfort may occasionally spend a night sleeping on the floor. (Or go camping. Or stay at an ashram.) Someone who feels attached to their smartphone could spend several hours a week away with it switched off, or leave it at home from time to time. Someone attached to TV could switch it off one night each week. Someone who feels overly attached to his or her family may choose to spend a weekend away from them. Someone who is attached to money could practice giving away a fixed amount each month, or giving a dollar or two to anyone who asks for it.
Sometimes we are attached to habits and doing the same things over and over again, and fall into a rut. One can overcome this by going outside of one's comfort zone from time to time; it can be as simple as taking a different route or form of transportation to work, or trying something new. I once worked with a woman who would go on what she called "fam trips" each weekend. On the "fam trip," she and her husband would visit a store, restaurant, organization, or neighborhood that they'd never been to before. She was one of the most grounded, open-minded people I've ever met.
Even just a little bit of contemplation and practice of vairagya can give you a wonderful sense of freedom and help you realize that you are much stronger than you thought you were. There will still be pain when attachments are initially ripped away, but it probably won't last long. You may also begin to see that our potential is limitless, if we would just give it a chance and take some time for self-inquiry. These realizations can lead to a deep state of sattva, or peace and harmony.
As the Bhagavad-Gita says, "The man of self-control, moving among objects with his senses under restraint, and free from attachment and hate, attains serenity of mind.
"In that serenity there is an end of all sorrow; for the intelligence of the man of serene mind soon becomes steady."
Chapter 35: Change Your Breathing, Change Your Life
“When the breath wanders the mind also is unsteady. But when the breath is calmed the mind too will be still, and the yogi achieves long life. Therefore, one should learn to control the breath.”
--The Hatha Yoga Pradipika
When I waitressed at a vegetarian restaurant back in the early ’90s, we got to know our regulars well. One day Gary, who always sat alone at booth six, seemed a lot more outgoing and energetic than usual; he also appeared to be glowing with peace and happiness. The staff noticed the change right away, and we figured he’d finally found a romantic partner. His answer surprised us.
“I learned to breathe,” he said, beaming at us. “It’s changed my life.”
We just stared at him, uncomprehending. It didn’t make sense to me then—this was a few years before I walked into my first yoga class—but now it does.
Yogis have long known that deep, full diaphragmatic (belly) breathing is the key to calming the mind and maximizing the function of every system of the body. It can also improve brain function, aid digestion and sleep, increase energy, reduce anxiety, lower blood pressure, improve posture, reduce food cravings, and help slow the aging process. Yet, many of us breathe shallowly, either using the upper front lobes of the chest rather than the diaphragm, doing thoracic (chest) breathing using the intercostal muscles, or doing clavicular breathing using the shoulders and collarbones. This inferior, shallower breathing can lead to increased stress; high blood pressure; and poor posture, digestion, and brain function, sapping our energy and taking a toll on every system of the body.
In Gopala Krishna’s book The Yogi: Portraits of Swami Vishnu-devananda, Swami Vishnu drives this point home. One day the swami went to see Mohammed Ali sparring at a gym in Florida.
“His sparring partner took many punches, very strong punches,” said Swami Vishnu. “Ali kept giving them one after another. Occasionally he would lean against the rope. Why? He was resting. Because his breathing was very shallow, he wasn’t able to get sufficient oxygen and a few of his powerful punches took tremendous energy.
“After the fighting, I gave him an autographed copy of my book and said to him, ‘You know, your breathing is very shallow. You won’t be able to fight long if you don’t change your breathing pattern.’ I advised him in a friendly way, teaching him how to breathe and telling him, ‘Increase your breathing capacity if you want to survive.’”
Deep and conscious belly breathing is the most basic form of pranayama, the fourth limb of the Ashtanga yoga or eight-limb system of Raja yoga (the royal path of yoga outlined in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali). Yogis believe that the breath contains prana, or the vital life-force. Yama means control; the practice of pranayama or control of this life force is one of the foundations of yoga in that it improves health and makes the mind calm and clear and prepares it for meditation.
Deep belly breathing makes full use of the diaphragm (the large, thin muscle that lies between the chest and belly and is considered the major muscle of breathing). When the diaphragm contracts, the lungs move downward, expand, and fill with air—pulling in prana. When the diaphragm relaxes and moves upward into the chest cavity and the intercostal muscles relax, space is reduced in the chest cavity, which forces carbon dioxide–rich air out of the lungs. We all breathed this way when we were babies and small children, before our chest muscles matured.
Ideally, this breathing is done through the nose, which filters, cleans, and humidifies the air before it enters the lungs. (Breathing through the nose can also improve digestion and reduce insomnia.)
Are you breathing consciously or unconsciously as you read this? The average person takes 15 breaths per minute, while some yogis breathe only a few times every 60 seconds.
Yogis believe that each person is assigned a certain number of breaths when they are born, according to their deeds from the past. When these breaths are used up, one’s time is over. Therefore, breathing slowly means a longer life.
Indeed, the first thing we do when we’re born is inhale; the last thing we do upon expiring is exhale. One of the few things we can control in between is the breath. In fact, breathing is the only physiological process that is both voluntary (you can control it) and involuntary (it will take care of itself if you don’t).
“The body can’t operate without the breath, so if conscious control of the breath is abandoned, then some unconscious part of the mind reflexively begins to function and starts breathing for us,” wrote Swami Rama and physicians Rudolph Ballentine and Alan Hymes in the 1979 classic Science of Breath: A Practical Guide. “In this case, breathing falls back under control of the primitive parts of the brain, an unconscious realm of the mind where emotions, thoughts, and feelings, of which we may have little or no awareness, become involved and can wreak havoc with the rhythm of the breath. The breath may become haphazard and irregular when we lose conscious control of it.”
By the same token, we can calm the emotions by breathing deeply for several minutes—and feel a little bit “high,” like my friend Gary. “Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor,” wrote Thich Nhat Hanh in Stepping into Freedom: An Introduction to Buddhist Monastic Training.
Diaphragmatic breathing also has a powerful effect on the body, improving oxygenation of and blood flow to every system. It reduces tension and tightness in the neck and shoulders, and because those muscles are able to relax, it improves posture. It massages the internal organs, which improves digestion and drainage of lymph. Deep breathing also increases the secretion of growth hormone, which may slow the aging process. It helps lower blood pressure and blood sugar and improves mental function by increasing blood flow to the prefrontal cortex of the brain. It’s also believed to reduce the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline and improve the quality of sleep.
If that’s not enough to convince you, when my guru, Sri Dharma Mittra, was asked at the 2009 Yoga Journal conference about how to stop overeating, he responded, “Do calm breathing (a simple deep breathing practice) and sing to the Lord.”
Fortunately, it’s easy to relearn how to breathe consciously.
There are many types of pranayama; most, like these, are done through the nose (with the mouth closed). The two listed below are safe, simple, and suitable for just about everyone.
To relearn how to breathe deeply, lie on your back as in savasana (corpse pose), with your hands on the belly and the tips of the middle fingers meeting just above the navel. Close the eyes and exhale through the nose. Now, begin breathing deeply (through the nose) into the belly. When you inhale, the fingers will separate and the rib cage will expand out to the sides. When you exhale, the navel will sink downward and the fingers will move back together. Continue to breathe into the belly for five to ten minutes or longer.
Make it a habit. Set your phone or computer’s alarm clock to sound several times a day, at regular intervals. Each time you hear the alarm, breathe consciously into the belly for a minute or two (do not hit the snooze button!). After a few weeks, you will begin to do this automatically—and will have retrained your body how to breathe properly.
Three-part or complete breathing
Three-part breathing brings awareness to the three lobes of the lungs: upper, middle, and lower (we focus on the lower lobe in diaphragmatic breathing). To practice, lie down in savasana with the arms resting alongside the body (or, place the left hand on the belly and the right hand on the chest). Exhale completely. Inhale deeply into the belly. First, fill the abdomen (lower lobe), then the ribcage (middle lobe), and, finally, fill the chest and lift it toward the chin (upper lobe). As you exhale, reverse the order: empty the chest, allow the rib cage to contract, and let the navel sink toward the earth. Repeat 12 times.
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