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Why Yoga Teachers Tell You to Focus on the Breath…And Why You Should Listen

Teaching Yoga | Yoga

I often hear yoga teachers reminding their students of the breath. Many will begin their class with some breathing exercises or a quiet time to “draw attention to the breath.” It’s a yoga cornerstone, yet yoga teachers aren’t alone in breath obsession.

Breath focus is en vogue, and entering the realm of cliché, as it’s firmly embedded in new age spiritual jargon–and inhabits the vernacular of mindfulness talk, athletic coaching, and corporate wellness speak–to name a few.

When in class, it’s one of those things that I hear but don’t fully integrate. In my head, if a teacher offers a–“remember the breath”–I go, “yeah, yeah, yeah…but I’m trying really hard to get this shoulder under my thigh at the moment, so how about I get back to the breath in Mountain Pose.”

Breathing is so obvious that we deny its importance.

Recently I found myself at the end of one of these aforementioned yoga classes in seated meditation. We were instructed to just focus on eight breaths and then had the option to continue for more or to lie down in Savasana.

Ok, eight breaths. No big deal right? I’m a pseudo meditator—and I definitely have a meditation vibe going on, so allow me to demonstrate how to focus on the breath and get carried off to a state of Samadhi—for all those watching.

I started my eight breaths by breathing with intention—trying to take deeper breaths that reached unattended to parts of my inner world. I breathed into my belly. And my groin. And my shoulders. On and on. Once I got this deep, conscious breathing out of the way it was on to the next phase: simply observing the natural breath.

This is where it got interesting.

My natural breath is a shit show–an anxious, schizoid mess of a respiratory function.

The inhalation comes in, does its thing (like keeping me alive), and before it travels anywhere of note, starts receiving a strong message from my gut to get the hell out of there. Then as I rush off to the exhale, my entire insides–in an instant– begin flailing like a drowning fat kid, all in an effort to get that next breath in.

As if I’m at the point of suffocation–dying within a five-second inhale-exhale circuit. It’s not just that my breath is engaged in some race against time to move, move, move; it’s my whole inner world paralyzed with a deep discomfort–a severe, and utter, protest against natural rhythms.

I fidget my legs, twist my neck around as if doing something important, and continuously angle my spine towards, what I think is, a more appropriate upright position.

I can’t sit still.

This unexpected moment at the end of a strenuous yoga class is telling. I can convince myself all I want that I embody a certain level of “spiritual awareness”–that I am a harbinger of flow and a pillar of acceptance, but the philosophical masquerade runs into a wall of truth in the simple observing of my breath.

The breath, and by extension, our physical bodies carry this truth to each and every one of us.

This, I believe, is one of the primary layers of yoga and meditation: to connect us with the embodied (in the body) truth of “I.” This isn’t a reference to some “higher” dimension of self that we’ve yet to fully “awaken to”, like you might find tossed about in a tantric discussion. This is a reference to where we’re at NOW with things as evidenced by what’s literally going on in our breath and in our bodies.

This reality exists beyond the egoist mental construct that often characterizes our sense of self–the stuff we tell ourselves in our heads about who we are. What a revelation!

All we have to do is sit down and “watch our breath” to know how cool we are with life–in this moment.~Brad Korpalski

This is liberation.

For all the stories that run like scripts in our heads—keeping us tethered to particular versions of life, we can always begin to transform those stories simply by connecting to our bodies.

We don’t have to memorize ancient texts stitched in hieroglyphics to cave walls in far-flung places. We don’t have to adhere to sets of rules, clear our past life karmas, or align our chakras.

We just have to breathe.

And pay attention.

You can be certain, the next time a teacher tells me to “pay attention to the breath,” I’ll be listening.

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