~ awake in this moment, at home in the world ~

Baby's Breath

February 12, 2016
I’ve spent a lot of time with babies lately - a newborn nephew who fits in the crook of an elbow so sweetly, and a few older ones still free enough to run around buck naked in their summer garden. I’ve been watching these little creatures move and wiggle and explore as only babies can. And do you know what? They’ve taught me more about how to breathe than any yoga teacher ever has.

It’s their freedom that captivates me most. Their little bodies respond like wildfire to every impulse that passes through them. And their breath plays right along, changing with every mood. When they inhale, they bloom. When they exhale, they surrender. They’ve learned nothing yet about the restriction and constriction life wedges under our skin and into our breath as we grow up. What a relief!

A sigh of relief, actually. That’s what I feel when I nestle down into the grass with them. I can breathe again, almost as naturally and freely as they can. Something begins to unravel inside. My skin softens. The armor that keeps the outer world from touching my inner world begins to fall away. I feel like a living, breathing creature again - shifting, yielding and surrendering to the weather of life that passes through me.

And so after several years of yogic training, I’ve thrown away my ujjayis, vilomas, bhastrikas and other formal breathing techniques. I’ve adopted a new approach, a sort of breathing mantra. I just keep reminding myself to breathe like a baby.

I like its simplicity.  I like the image. No one needs to tell me what muscles to move, or where the breath should land, or how long to pause between breaths. The image carries all the instruction I need. It speaks directly to my body, bypassing my eager and analytical brain. I know intimately how it feels to breathe as naturally as a little child.

Now I begin every yoga practice this way: lying on my back, inviting the breath to flow like water into the deepest reaches of my body, and watching my body respond. After a few minutes of baby breathing, my body and mind soften so much that I can feel the deep but subtle movements inside that follow the rhythm of the breath.

And if I stay as breathable as a baby when those inner rhythms begin carrying me into asanas, the poses grow just as fluid. No force, no restriction, no constriction. I might as well be floating in the Caribbean Sea. It’s these times that the movement feels truly authentic and expressive, just as it was meant to be.

I also try to remember to breathe like a baby in my daily life: when the yellow light turns to red, when the doorbell rings, when I’m feeling anxious or frustrated or angry. Do you know what I’ve learned? It’s hard to be mean when you’re breathing like a baby. It’s hard to be forceful or hard-hearted or armored. Baby-breathing inspires an openness to the world, a friendliness both inside and out. The whole world grows just a little more breathable.

I’ve also learned that breathing like a newborn babe can be a challenge when we hold ourselves in or when the world comes at us like a ten-ton truck. I can breathe like a baby only when I feel at ease, anchored in some faithful center deep inside. Paradoxically, my baby’s breath helps me find my way back to this quiet, breathable home again and again.

Of course, babies aren’t the only pranayama teachers. I have lots of yoga friends who learn from their puppies and their cats. One friend’s rather creative but amazingly effective breathing practice consists of lying on the floor in between her two greyhounds, resting a hand on each dog’s belly and then breathing in tandem with them. Try finding that one in the classic yoga texts!

All this is baby stuff, I know. But I have a feeling that all other breathing techniques evolve out of this totally unbounded and organic approach. Maybe I’ll grow into more advanced pranayama later. For now, though, I’m happy to settle back into the summer grass and let this baby breathe.

This essay was originally published in Yoga International (Dec 2001)