Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Just Breathe

No, I’m not thinking of the Pearl Jam song or even Breathe by Faith Hill.  I’m thinking yoga. For over ten years, I’ve been taking a weekly yoga class. I may occasionally miss a week and have sometimes missed a month or so due to an injury, but I always return.  Yoga poses takes tremendous concentration, so it’s the one activity in my life where I don’t think about work or personal issues. Trust me, it’s hard enough to do a headstand, much less do one while planning what you’re going to say in your next meeting.  If my mind does drift, I can usually attribute that drifting to being more stressed than usual.

And you’re thinking, “This relates to breathing how?” This week, my yoga teacher chose to throw out her lesson plan on standing poses and instead shift to a pranyama class. My reaction was, “Wow, I could really use that today.” Pranyama focuses on being conscious of your breathing. The benefits come in intentionally clearing your mind beyond what you do when practicing more physical yoga positions. Consider: do you ever really clear your mind? Even when you’re sleeping, your mind is still swirling. It takes work to focus only on breathing, and I have to consciously kick other thoughts out of my head, more so than when I’m doing a standing pose or shoulder stand.  As I’d been engaged in exploring nursing home options for my mom, an activity to help clear my mind sounded like the perfect plan.

We began our class with stretching poses like downward dog and resting poses like supported shoulder stand before moving to breathing awareness exercises.  If you are not a yogi, you may think that yoga is only about relaxing and stretching, but there are many different yoga disciplines. Iyengar yoga, which I practice, emphasizes form, and we practice and hold the various poses, stretching and strengthening our muscles along the way.  I can be just as sore after an Iyengar class as I am after working out at the gym.

My yoga teacher had an interesting story as to why she had shifted her plan this week.  She’d read a column in the New York Times by David Brooks in which he compared the different approaches to life of Michel de Montaigne and Samuel Johnson, essayists you’ve no doubt heard of.  “They tackled similar problems and were fascinated by some of the same perplexities, but they represent different personality types and recommended two different ways to live.”

Both proclaimed to have minds that ran wild, with thoughts endlessly careening through their brains.  It was in their approach to this proclivity that they differed.  Montaigne chose to accept and value his randomness, and his approach “…produced a kind of equipoise…he was amiable, mellow, disciplined, restrained, honest and tolerant.”

Johnson, in contrast, “…put the emphasis on self-conquest [and] sought out to earnestly reform and correct his sins. His diaries are filled with urgent self-commands to stop being so lazy.”  He felt his rambunctious mind was detrimental and could be conquered with discipline. Interestingly, Brooks observes that we’d be more comfortable today with the easy-going Montaigne, but I see our world of workaholic multi-taskers as more Johnson-like. Aren’t we always striving to sell more, make more, run faster, jump higher, and leap tall buildings in a single bound?

There may be nothing wrong with all this striving, but it makes regularly calming and clearing your mind even more of a necessity. The discipline of Iyengar yoga allows me to set aside worries and responsibilities, at least temporarily. Can you hear me sighing deeply, as I look forward to next week’s yoga class and another hour’s respite?