Save Your Breath

“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.”- Thich Nhat Hanh

One of the things that  Dharma Mittra talked about at length last month at the yoga conference was the relationship between knowledge, fear, and the breath.

He said to save your breath by conquering fear through knowledge. It is a lack of knowledge – of who we are and of our purpose – that leads to fear. This fear causes us to breathe inefficiently and to move through life too quickly, always searching, never settled, never calm.

He also said something I hadn’t heard before.  He said that at each rebirth we are granted a finite number of breaths. The faster we breathe due to lack of knowledge and fear, the sooner we leave. So, a lack of knowledge causes fear, which causes inefficient breathing, which causes shorter life.

Whether or not you subscribe to the idea of rebirth and finite breaths, the wisdom contained in his words cannot be denied. When we are anxious or hurried, our breath quickens. When we are calm and relaxed, our breaths are slow and easy. Inversely, if our breaths are shallow and quick we begin to feel anxious, and if we feel anxiety and consciously choose to slow our breathing, we begin to calm ourselves.

What I find interesting is that most people, if asked if they get enough time to just relax, would tell you no. Everybody is busy, busy, busy. There was recently a very interesting opinion piece about The ‘Busy’ Trap in the New York Times. So many people spend their lives working very hard, constantly busy, living for the weekend, or worse, the week or  two of vacation per year that they take.

It’s interesting that in the west we seem to have relegated relaxation to specific periods of time, as if we cannot choose to relax a small part of each day. As if relaxation is only for when we’re on holiday. And then of course we go on holiday and what do we do? Everything we possibly can! We fill our days with lots of “fun” activities, rarely just sitting still and resting. Then we come home and say we need a vacation to get over our vacation.

Another thing that almost every person will agree to is that life is short. We all know this, we all bemoan this, and yet we rush through this very short ride. What if we just stopped? What if we stopped being busy, stopped rushing through each day, and instead began breathing through each day?

According to Dharma Mittra we would extend the length of our lives. But whether or not you agree, surely life would be more enjoyable if we chose to relax and treat every day like a holiday.



On Enlightenment

Do you know the difference between sailors and motor-boaters? Sailors are already there. 

Though my days of spending every summer weekend sailing are fading from view (excuse me a moment while I revel in the memories) I am still and always will be a sailor at heart. I’ve never  understood the joy of a motor-boat, which is not to say that they are not fun, just that they do not appeal to my constitution. When on the water I have no desire to get anywhere quickly, let alone have a destination in mind. The simple act of being on the water and moving (or not as the case may be) with the wind is what it’s all about. I’m already exactly where I want to be.

I thought about this when Sri Dharma Mittra spoke of Enlightenment at the Asia Yoga Conference. The most profound thing he said on the subject was this: the body, mind, and senses become enlightened through our practice, but the Self does not need to be enlightened. The Self is already there. He explained further that the Self is already enlightened because the Self is actually the non-Self, meaning that our true Self is not separate from, but rather a part of, the Divine.  The Self is in everything and everyone and so by knowing the non-Self, one has ultimate self-knowledge.

So we can approach our practice either as sailors or motor-boaters. We can see Enlightenment as a place we need to arrive at by zipping as quickly as possible from here to there or we can see it as the means by which we realize that we are already there. The practice transforms the act of simply sitting on a boat, moving or not, as it were,  to one of harmonious collusion with Nature.


Enthusiasm + Compassion

I’m back from Hong Kong and the Asia Yoga Conference, dear yogis. It was a fantastic trip and a great experience.

I spent seven straight hours with Sri Dharma Mittra and, as I imagine many people are, was thoroughly moved to be in his presence. The man is pure heart and a living example of dedication. He imparted many gems of wisdom in those hours and hopefully my quickly-scribbled notes will allow me to share them over time.  (I also spent two wonderful hours with Jason Crandell. More on that as well in future posts)

This man is 73 years old!

Today, though, I wanted to share his most frequent and passionate message: enthusiasm and compassion in your yoga practice and in your life will lead to Realization*. It seems so simple because it is, and yet as anybody who has attempted to be enthusiastic and compassionate in everything they do knows,  we can make simple much more difficult than it needs to be.

Enthusiasm can be defined as “absorbing or controlling possession of the mind by any interest or pursuit”. For me this definition is a bit revelatory as I had never considered the role of controlling the mind in being enthusiastic. According to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, one definition of Yoga is “the ability to direct and focus mental activity and the ability to still the turning of thought.” Looking at these two definitions, it is clear how interconnected the two are.

Finding and maintaining enthusiasm about our practice and our life requires focus; what do we want? what do we hope to gain? what do we hope to refine? Without this focus, enthusiasm and joy will wane. How can we maintain enthusiasm and focus?

By applying compassion towards ourselves and others. Compassion involves not only commiseration, mercy and tenderness but is a feeling always accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate suffering. The ability to be kind to ourselves, to recognize when we need to move away from the plan we’ve laid out for ourselves and perhaps shift our focus onto other things, as well as to recognize that a loss of enthusiasm and/or focus (i.e. suffering) is not something we should berate ourselves for, but rather an indication that it is time to reassess, time perhaps for a change.

I think sometimes in our culture, specifically in competitive settings, we see focus as an ability to remain fixed on a goal in such a way that we are able to ignore everything else around us. While this may be useful for winning a race or a  job or a contract or a client, we have to ask ourselves, if we focus to the point of exclusion of all other sensations, how holistic and balanced can our approach be to life? And is it possible to maintain enthusiasm if we are ignoring so many other parts of ourselves? Eventually, whatever we’re ignoring – our bodies, our families, our spiritual life – will need to be addressed.

What if instead we see focus,  not as a mental override, but through compassionate eyes as a mental attunement? Something that clarifies our path as we move forward, rather than something that keeps us on a path we may have chosen. After all, we can always change our mind! Changing our mind does not necessarily mean we lack focus. It simply means that we see things differently and/or more clearly than we did before and are making necessary adjustments.  In this way focus allows us to find harmony among our physical, energetic, mental, intellectual, and spiritual bodies.

This is what I’m pondering now, dear yogis. As I said, I have lots more to share from the conference and specifically my time with Dharma Mittra, so stay tuned.



*more on Realization in a future post