Heavy labouring breath felt a worry so near me. Coming out of lockdown, the chlorine of the pool felt a safe place to start whatever normal life is again but was that foolish? The steam-train like breathing continued, I noticed his sheen of sweat and look of panic to realise he was simply very scared, pushing himself to swim. Releasing my anxiety, I gave a cheery smile of encouragement. He managed a half-hearted twitch of a smile and then plunged under water to immediately crash awkwardly up spluttering and coughing in the same spot. Glad that my limited front crawl, could create a ‘safe’ 2 meter gap between our pool lanes. Over the weeks our swimming slots overlapped, I witnessed his determined efforts, not a covid sufferer but a worried beginner, grasping back fitness and finding how to conquer the water.
It brought my own thoughts to beginners of yoga, the bravery needed to join a class and unknown group. New students are surprised by their lacking fitness, neglected body seized up after static occupations, or the shock that aging sneaked in with new aches and challenges. Often newcomers are battling with their heart and head to accept a health niggle or injury that’s pushed them to try this ‘yoga thing’. At first just following the poses and sequences is simply exhausting. As muscular core and coordination builds with weekly classes, slowly the unusual, difficult poses become routine and familiar.
Next challenge, they meet the utterly awkward idea of lying down and doing nothing. Staring eyes dart on the ceiling and bodies shift, unused to the stillness of Savasana or corpse pose it’s too much to relax and close eyes. With time the prompts of the body scan to ‘tense and release’ help the muscles and mind to soften and begin to release into gravity. I love hearing their sigh and easy smile when they ‘get’ the joy of letting go. It’s a gift to find the rejuvenative quality relaxing can deliver.
All of us have a much slower and tricky journey to comfortably slip into breath work and meditation. Admitting meditation is tricky for us seasoned in our practise, raises a doubtful frown from the newcomers but it’s so true. We all have days of distracted and scattered minds. It feels like the washing machine of thoughts tumbling round, sure the racket in our head of ‘high spin’ must be disturbing everyone! The solution is just try, take a gentle breath or two and repeat. Then make it a baker’s dozen of controlled smooth breathing. Busyness and distractions butt in, so just let go of the thoughts and settle the breathing again. It’s the regular practise that helps create the calm.
Like the awkward swimmer, suddenly trying to lengthen our breath makes us flail in the shallow end. Annoyingly we have to re-learn, as the embryo swims and summersaults in the waters of the womb we need to regain that ease in the water. Breathing as adults we have to undo habit of a short shallow upper chest and rediscover the natural belly breath of a baby, relaxed body the diaphragm easily working so we can see the tummy raise and fall. The short rapid upper chest breath is useful when being chased by a lion or diving off a cliff to escape a stampede but our modern world creates anxiety and the gasping becomes a rigid habit. Try a generous in breath and noisy big sigh to help let go and release that tension and busy thoughts.
Take three full breathes in and empty out with long sighs: –
First Sigh out: release yesterday, whatever is happening this week
Second sigh out: let go of tomorrow and whatever is on the horizon
Third sigh out: simply notice yourself now and settle into this moment
Use this whenever you feel uncertainty or discomfort in your day. Why not make this a scheduled break in your working day to add in a wiggle and stretch to undo your habitual posture too!
Next, we experience an inelegant flop into the deep end as we encounter the ‘natural pause’ and begin to hold the breath between your inhales and exhales. As beginners we tend to grasp our air in and hold tight in our body, this then triggers an innate fear as our subconscious mind is alerted to question “are we dying as not breathing?”
Keep it simple, feel the mechanics of the in and out of your natural rhythm of breath, and when ready begin to slow and deepen and gently hold the inhale for a little longer. If feels uncomfortable stop go back to easy natural breath and try another time. Then try to lengthen the empty pause at the end of the exhale. Which do you find easier?
With practise you build to a perfect square of breath, equally counting. Start with 2 or 3 counts and increase when ready: –
Count 4: as inhale; 4: holding the breath; 4: exhale; 4: hold empty. Repeat
You can help yourself to begin this new breathing, by taking away tension, so relax the shoulders and wriggle out your neck and shake off arms. Gently rotate round hips to loosen spine and settle squarely on your bottom. There is no rule that you have to be cross legged, why not lengthen legs forward or kneel with cushion lifting sitting bones. Choose a chair if easier, feet firmly planted on the floor or slip a folded towel under if too high. Whichever sitting position aim to create a stable lifted spine and importantly be comfortable.
Take those three sighs to ‘arrive’ and settle. Place your hand gently on your belly to feel the breathing, how your diaphragm softly pushes the tummy out as our lungs expand more fully. Keep repeating, using slow and simple effort we can begin to increase our breath capacity and find ease. Eventually discover the key to how gently controlling our breathing can unlock calm in our minds. Avoid if tired or headachy and never force. Check if this is appropriate with your GP and teacher if you are high or low blood pressure or asthmatic.
Over the months I have seen my fellow swimmer’s efforts pay off. The starting underwater plunge moves him a few more centimetres further forward, to become a confident push off cruise, flailing doggy paddle easing into stronger strokes and he’s steadily increasing the time and lengths of the pool with steady breath. Back in the halls, I have hungrily enjoyed the giggles and happy sighs of the brave yoga beginners becoming steady and easy in poses. They now breathe and move with confidence having conquered the anxiety of ‘in person yoga’ in our ‘new normal’ in 2021. They are beginning to relax and even enjoy the weird of Savasana, and sitting tall maybe glimpse the calm of stillness.
Hazel teaches in person in Cumnor and Oxford, plus Online Ongoing on Monday evenings. Get in touch and be brave? Email