There is an exquisite birthing process that happens when ordinary movement becomes asana. It is that brief period when breath fully takes residence in the body—when we feel the breath as though it were luxuriating in the roll of our wrists, or the softness of our eyes. In that asana’s lifespan, there is cleansing, expansion, stillness, and sustenance. Aren’t these qualities the building blocks for being fully alive?
Experiencing the artistry of yoga can be a process of allowing breath to evolve into a beautiful creative expression.
Just as an artist begrudgingly toils over a consigned piece, or a musician plays trite requests in quiet frustration, yoga practitioners can also make the practice of postures a colorless workout. Experiencing the artistry of yoga can be a process of allowing breath to evolve into a beautiful creative expression—a beauty that expands to fill the canvas of the mind and body. When this happens, we're not just painting by numbers, we're seeing the clean surface and the frame into which life itself emerges.
I worked as a singer for many years and performed with musicians who technically played chords correctly, but it was a rare pleasure to create music among master players whose music would make me spontaneously weep and laugh with joy. I could hear the way these musicians were breathing as they played. At times, effortlessly and rhythmically. At others, fiercely and intensely punctuating phrases with a gushing exhalation. They played oblivious to the sounds of their powerful inhalations or sighing exhalations. They were so tuned into the music they were creating, it was as if they were breathing life into their instruments—infusing their art with a piece of their soul.
As a funny sidenote, master yogini Shiva Rea once told me I had an amazing rib cage while we were practicing a breath technique—a compliment I’ll carry longer than most because it was so unexpected. Like many singers and horn players, my strong, mobile ribs have kept me from wearing tight bodices, but whenever I sing, my wardrobe disappointments disappear. Developing my diaphragm was never an intentional focus for me as a singer. The music was the priority and the mechanics of breath were not. Yet through natural diaphragmatic breathing, I’d surprise myself by holding notes an impossibly long time—notes I was able to hold, not through will, but because of the prana (life force) generated through the creative process.
My husband and daughters are visual artists and, like my musician friends, the same creative process involving breath rhythm and tone happens in their work, especially during the editing process, where refinement and shading bring out texture and light. I notice that their breathing patterns become deep and audible, or that they change with the movement of the pen or brush. Many artists refer to their works as their “children,” and the labor and delivery process is aided by the way they move the breath.
My paternal grandfather taught penmanship and created beautiful calligraphy, and he was known to faint from holding his breath when he rendered a bird or created a document. Perhaps his breath retention, like kumbhaka (a breath-control technique that focuses on retention), helped channel his life force into his work. However, unlike yogis (who have established practices in holding the breath), his cessation of breath caused him to lose consciousness rather than move into a higher state. (Although, curiously, he was considered a saintly man by many who knew him.)
It is in times of focused breath practices (such as nadi shodhanam, kapalabhati, or ujjayi) that my own ideas for a new class composition or fresh concepts for a writing project emerge. Then when I draw my attention to the sensation in my nostrils and smell the perfume of prana shakti (life force), my mind feels expansive. Ideas come unbidden and flow easily, like gifts. I try to encourage these insights to wait until meditation’s end, but they are often quite insistent. Conversely, when I'm laboring over an assigned piece, the ideas and breath are often choppy, merely functional, or joyless until I remember to breathe into the process.
When my husband and I named our yoga education center “Teach to Inspire,” it was based on the dual meanings of the word “inspire,” which are: 1) To fill (someone) with the urge or ability to do or feel something, especially to do something creative, and 2) To breathe in (air); inhale. Enchanted as we were with the name and the meanings behind it, this is far from an original concept. The recognition of the connection between the creative process and breath is recognized in scripture. For example, the breathing of life force is mentioned 15 times in the Bible alone, and more often in the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, and the Dhammapada.
In my experience, what happens in the process of lovingly giving birth to a yoga practice or creative endeavor is initially a cleanse and nourish process. We begin by exhaling attachment to our old shape (the old shape of our bodies, emotions, or minds), while we inhale something higher (who we want to become). If we let go of who we were and what we have done before, the space is created for what we can become. It is often the gift for which we were searching—the ease in the pose, the quieter mind, the clear idea, the vision or music that we didn’t have to earn but which came to us out of our creating space for it to blossom. We exhale to create space for life, God, prana, higher mind, Nature, Love—call it what you will—and what fills the space is a better, freer version of ourselves.
If we let go of who we were and what we have done before, the space is created for what we can become.
Through our bodies we can experience the essence behind pranayama (breathwork). What begins as simple mechanical alternate nostril breath can become a tangible cleansing of energy channels (nadis). The pause of observation following bhastrika practice delights us with a warm, tingling feeling—somewhat like a sweet blooming of flowers at our temples, or the sparkling of fireflies across our skulls. The sensation gently invites us into the preciousness of meditation. We sit in that space not because it is a harsh discipline but because we delight in the exploration. We are no longer practicing like new piano students with timers, but lingering like seasoned musicians, elated because life has given us a new piece to play.
Then from this lovely process of creating space for the new (which can happen thousands of times a day) comes phase two—which is shaped by what we receive and what we have the capacity to give. The unobstructed breath, which fills our practice, is a reception of not just oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide, but prana itself. With this prana-filled breath, we have the capacity to inspire others. This lovely inspiring movement is what we see in the refined practices of master yogis and artists. Instead of strain, we see clear meditative eyes and a body and heart in harmony. In that beauty, we are awakened to the potential of humanity in harmony with creation.
Here's a practice for shaping postures with breath:
- Warm your body first with some alternate knee apanasana (knee-to-chest), squeezing knee firmly to abdomen on exhalation.
- Then come to sukasana (easy seated pose) for some spine circles. Interlace your fingers, with the exception of the index fingers, which are pointing up, and draw gradually widening spirals in the air. Draw each circle for the length of one breath.
Now you are ready to begin the slow deep stretches. Take at least 20 breaths in each pose. Feel the pose evolve with each expansion and contraction of the breath.
- Makarasana (crocodile pose) and parsva makarasana (side crocodile pose): For side crocodile, shift your upper body to the right and bring your left leg to join your right leg so that your body forms a prone arch. After 20 breaths, return to center and repeat on the other side.
- Parivrtta janusirsasana (revolved head-to-knee pose)
- Bharadvajasana (Bharadvaja's twist pose)
- Viparita karani (legs-up-the-wall pose) with pelvis supported by blankets or bolster
- Supported back bend. (Place a rolled blanket horizontally behind your heart and extend your arms out to a “T” position above the roll. Bend your knees, place your feet on the floor, and breathe around the pressure behind your shoulder blades, releasing tension in the thoracic spine.)
- Psoas twist. (Lie on your back with knees bent, feet mat-width apart, and arms extended out to a V with palms up. Take both knees to the right as the head turns left for a long extension of the torso. After 20 breaths, repeat on the left side.)
- Parivrtta balasana (twisted child's pose). (From child's pose, bring your right elbow to your outer left knee, and your hands into prayer. Then relax and melt your right shoulder toward your outer left knee. Breathe around the deep twist.)
- Balasana (child's pose)
- Salamba baddha konasana (queen’s pose)
- Nadi shodhanam (alternate nostril breath)
- Prana dharana (life force concentration)