In yoga, breathing is called pranayama, the breath being prana, which means “vital life force.” If you've ever taken a yoga class, you've probably been instructed to breathe. Breathing is, literally, life, and we focus on it so heavily in yoga for several reasons. First, concentration on our own inhale and exhale allows distracting thoughts to fade away. I often encourage my students to even repeat the words “inhale, exhale” in their minds to help them keep focus and stay present.
Second, by controlling our breath, deepening and smoothing it out, we can further calm the mind. Our minds will typically follow suit to our breath, so you might notice that when your mind is racing, your breath is short and choppy. When we are scared or surprised, we hold our breath. These unconscious and erratic breathing patterns can trigger our fight or flight response, telling our body that something is wrong, and increasing stress throughout. Finally, by breathing a slow, long breath, and bringing this attention inward, we can connect with ourselves more deeply, and really explore what’s going on inside. Which, in my humble opinion, is kinda what yoga is all about.
In some poses you might notice yourself holding your breath altogether. And as you might hear a yoga teacher say: the pose is over when you’ve stopped breathing. Meaning, if you’re not breathing, you’re not doing the very first step of the posture, and you might as well not be doing it. You haven’t created that foundation to build upon, and you're not fully in the posture. Always go back to the start, breathe, and build from there.
Whether you practice yoga or not, this is an important point to get. And not just: keep breathing, although that is important, too. But further: if you’re not breathing, it’s time to get out of the pose. Because as all yoga is a metaphor for life, I’ve found this to be very true, and a great way to help me notice when it’s time to move on from something off the mat as well.
I’m a self-proclaimed metaphorical-cliff-jumper. I love taking big leaps of faith, making changes, shaking things up. I’ve ended my fair share of relationships, left jobs, cities, etc, and gotten quite comfortable with knowing when it’s time to move on. I have found that there are many indicators that can tell you when it’s time for a change, but in a nutshell, it’s when you’ve stopped breathing.
Not breathing means you’re no longer present, you’re no longer enjoying the position you’re in, you’re in it just for show, jamming yourself into a shape but not getting any of the benefits. You’re in it but thinking about your next steps the entire time, you’re in it because it’s what you’ve been told to do, or what you think you should do, but it’s not serving you anymore. You’re in it, but waiting to get out of it. Meaning, really, you’re not in it at all.
Not long ago I made the decision to leave my job – a job that I loved and which served me very well for the 1+ year I was there. It was a difficult decision, and one that may have seemed a little illogical to the outside observer. And for a while I stayed because it seemed irresponsible to leave, it seemed silly, really, because I knew I had it so good. But over several months I became less and less present. I thought about leaving, about my next moves, constantly. My performance declined, and I was noticeably unhappy upon arrival. This job that once felt like the best thing that ever happened to me had somehow become a source of resentment, and I was not showing up how I would want to.
Somewhere in those last few months, I’d stopped breathing. And it was time to go.
As I look back over all the other cliffs I’ve jumped off of, I can see a similar pattern. The not being present, the constant wondering how much longer it will last, the beating myself up for not being more grateful for what I have (!), and the daydreaming about moving on. Even though I might have entered into all these postures with full integrity – breathing and feeling the benefits of the pose – at some point I let my knee buckle, I started clenching my toes, my arms got weak and I sunk the weight into my hip. I was still holding the pose, perhaps looking good from the outside, but I wasn’t really there anymore, I lost my breath.
When I first started practicing yoga, I thought the more “advanced” yogis were the ones who did every single pose and went to the fullest expression of the postures. After deepening my own practice and with a few years of teaching under my belt, I now believe that oftentimes the more “advanced” move is to sit a pose out, or to hold off on going deeper. Some days I spend a whole lotta time in child’s pose during class, I skip some moves and I often don’t go very far into chair pose – not because I can’t physically do it, but because my breath isn't always there.
So I ask you: are you still breathing in everything you do? Can you check back in with yourself, slow things down, find some presence; enjoy the “posture” for everything it is? Can you step back into your body while holding this pose with grace? Or is it time to step out of it - to let it go for now and catch your breath?
When have you noticed yourself stop breathing? Share in the comments below!
If you think you’re ready for a big change but want a little guidance and support along the way, set up a call to see how working together can help you find clarity around your decision and next steps for moving forward.
Like this post? I'd love if you'd share it by clicking that 'share' button below!