Yoga Sutra Conversations I.34: “The practice of breathing exercises involving extended exhalation might be helpful.” ~T.K.V. Desikachar, tr.

I recently dowloaded and listened to a meditation course that was recorded during a retreat with the Buddhist Nun Pema Chodron, and I’m taking it again. She is endlessly kind and unflinchingly firm, difficult qualities to simultaneously embody. When I meditate, I’m also deeply aware that I’m trying to embody qualities that don’t always go together in my everyday life.

Chodron is quite clear that meditation is training. Just like marathoners or weight lifters, meditators are training. Instead of watching TV and training to be consumers,  cushion sitting geeks train for mindfulness. I like to think of her as coach, because just like my track running days, I now wonder when I’m in doubt “What would PC say?” instead of “Would Coach Bode approve?” Unlike my errant highschool days, however, I’ve internalized a number of PC’s ways of describing and relating, so I’m more likely to heed the advice.

I used to wonder how much you could usefully say about meditation. I mean, it’s watching, right? So, um, watch. But of course the purpose of this observation is to become familiar with all the tricks you will use to squirm out from under the scope. And to become kind with the squirmee, because if you can’t be kind to you, it won’t be sincere with anyone else. And in this way, we might, with some luck, learn compassion. So instruction is endlessly helpful when it helps us catch ourselves before we’ve run too far amock.

And one of PC’s standbys is to direct us to our outbreath. The instruction is to follow the breath, of course. But sometimes, the simple must be simplified, and for those times, Be Breathing Out. Two parts to notice: first, it’s not describe or control or think about breathing out. And second, it’s the exhalation.

Now there seems to be some magic about breathing out. The Yoga Sutras are delightfully practical in giving us options for enlightenment: try this, & if not that, try this, and see how that works. The empirical nature of the Yoga Experiment is one of the reasons it works. It looks like self-improvement, so it appeals to the ego. But once you’re there, you realize that there is here and here is really the only place to be, so Be.

Now why would breathing out be so magical? Proper exhalation is necessary to maintain the acid-base balance in the body, it’s the first line of defense, in fact. Exhalation has long been recognized an equivalent of letting go: witness, the sigh. Is there any more potent signal of surrender, whether welcome or overdue?

And let’s not neglect the fact that what we’re dealing with are obstacles to self-knowledge. So often when frustrated with an obstacle of any kind, we push – emotionally, figuratively or literally. The last sutra gave us ways of meeting many things that look like “Others” in our daily lives – the virtuous and unvirtuous, the happy and unhappy. Here we are told that if discipline fails, it’s ok to just let go. Let the reins drop a moment. Exhale. Sigh. Release.

Sure, there’s more to advanced pranayama and practices of Kumbacha, or retention. But as Sri Satchidananda points out, Patanjali isn’t writing a Pranayam Manual. It’s an enlightenment manual. How to allow yourself to be yourself in your day-in-day-out. Why you should care and why if you care you will train. And why, if you put in just a little bit of effort, your motivation will grow in ways you didn’t earlier forsee.

Sometimes all it takes is one sigh, and sometimes, it takes exhaling over and over again, feeling it, being it. It depends on what you’re up to. But if you train in the over and over on the cushion or on the mat, you’ll be far more likely to remember to exhale when it really counts, just before those words you can’t take back spring from your mouth. Just one break, one gap, one pause between breaths, and obstacles can lessen or disappear.

Jenni on this Sutra: …”Bouanchaud writes that traditionally the exhalation and suspending breath after exhalation symbolizes humility and sacrifice. … to let go into the exhalation, and experiencing the rich filled emptiness afterwards – humbling in the best of ways. And “I” don’t have to do it – if “I” wait long enough it gets done through me :-)”

& Kate on this Sutra:…” Since mind was the problem, her solution was to give the mind something else to play with. Instead of attending to the sensations in my chest, she advised me to pay attention to the sensations of breath in my nose, the coolness of the inhale past the septum and the warm humidity of an outward breath on the upper lip.“…

3 comments
  1. jenni said:

    Hi Christine! Thank you for your post – I love to travel together…”It looks like self-improvement, so it appeals to the ego.” Yes man – maybe that’s how so many of us gets hooked?! Just read a (a couple of)book by Csikzentmihalyi about optimal experience, he uses yoga as an example, but he only refers to “exercising control” over the mind – my experience is that, well… let’s try that!!! and in the cases it don’t work let’s try surrender, letting go, cease fighting, loving it (as it is) 🙂

  2. Learning to control by letting go is such a lesson I got from yoga. It sounds counterproductive but when I learn to let go… I mean really let go, that’s when I’m in control of the situation. And we don’t learn it by reading about it, it comes from practice. We need to experience it in order to comprehend it.

  3. Hi Christine, this is a great post thank you. I once had a yoga instructor/friend advise me that I never let myself go fully into a pose I always stopped at a comfortable level. He said I should be more conscience of this in other elements in my life as well. Do I take risks and possible fail or push myself or do I stop just short and never move past my comfort zone. It was really eye opening for me. Yoga can teach you many things about yourself if your willing to learn

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