|21 years ago - this is the blissed-out person next to me in my second ever yoga class...|
‘Lie down with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. If your head tips back put a little padding under your head.’
So far so good. I can do all of that.
‘With your elbows still on the floor, move your hands to your belly. Thumbs near the navel, fingers spreading over your bump towards the pelvis.’
Yup. Got that. I’ve got this nailed.
‘Breathe gently. Hear the sound of your breath and feel it moving in the belly.’
Right! A nice quiet sighing sound. A movement in the belly. What! Where are my lungs again? They are absolutely not down here.
‘You’re feeling the movement in the belly because the breath coming into the lungs causes shape change, and the diaphragm connects the lungs to the abdomen.’
Wait, what! Hold on. How do you spell diaphragm again? (I’ve never learned this, and have to use my spell check every time.)
‘And as you breathe in, you feel the belly lift, and as you breathe out you feel it sink back down towards the floor.’
Now, stop right there, with your sing-song hypnotic voice. (All yoga teachers talk like this in the relaxing stages of the class.) That is SO not happening.
‘Breathe in, the belly rises. Breathe out, it sinks.’
I knew it. I knew I wouldn’t be able to do this.
My body flooded with tension and I gripped my belly harder to check again. No. it was definitely going the wrong way. I was… Reverse Breathing. When I breathed in my belly sank. When I breathed out it rose. I tried to force it to change direction. I thought I might choke. I gave up and thought about something else. Not about my breath. Probably about how I was a great big (5 months pregnant) ball of failure. When I came back to the instructions we had moved on to the ribcage. I hastily moved my hands there.
‘Breathe in. The ribs expand. Breathe out. The ribs sink back, down towards the ground and in towards the centre.’
Yes! I was doing it! I had got it right!
And when we moved to the high ribcage, the collar bones, things went pretty well too. Breathe in, more air, so you increase in size. Breathe out, less air, you decrease. That makes sense. Why didn’t the abdomen thing work? Now I know what I was doing. I was pulling the abdomen in as I breathed in so the ribcage lifted even more. My grandmother lived in a tiny house and I vividly remember her chanting ‘Breathe in!’ as I squeezed between a chair and the wall. This kind of breathing in needs you to lift the ribcage and squeeze the abdomen to make space for the back of the chair.
My other problem with breathing was the adjectives:
My breath gasped and juddered, even when I was only lying down, especially on the in-breath.
I gave up trying, and let my mind wander. I gave up trying and noticed (fairly accidentally) what was happening, and this meant, somehow, miraculously, that over time, over years, the two things changed. When I’m lying down now my breath has turned smooth and gentle. I save my gasping and juddering for the moments I’m trying to swim in a chilly spring sea. If I don’t force it to do something else, my abdomen lifts on the in-breath and sinks on the out, just like I was told it would all those years ago.
Breathing is a fascinating system, partly under our control and partly, for obvious reasons, involuntary. It carries on whether we think about it or not. There are many ways to breathe and many fun practices to change the way we breathe, but nothing beats lying down, resting your hands on your body and just noticing what happens, including ludicrously over-blown self-criticism. Then let it go. Rest. Give it time.