What Is This Thing Called Breathing?

by Laura K. Secor

Wherein we explore the commonalities between Western practices of Yoga and Buddhism.  

The quotes in this article come from Freeing the Body, Freeing the Mind, edited and with an introduction by Michael Stone.

By this point in the new millennium, many of us have tried a little bit of yoga, and a little bit of meditation.  Both Eastern practices have entered the Western sphere, and taken up what looks like permanent residence.  Even small towns have two or three yoga studios, and everywhere you go on the internet, someone is offering mindfulness practices with their roots in Buddhism.  This article is not about the practice of Yoga and Buddhism in the East, but in how they have come into popular culture in our neck of the woods.  Here, yoga is primarily seen as a physical practice, where you go to the gym and stretch your body into prescribed poses until the rest period at the end.  Even the rest period, which in the East is seen as a preparation for, and meditation on, death, is just a rest period in many Western yoga classes.  And the vast majority of meditation instructions here focus on your way of interacting with your thoughts – in other words, a head game.

There is even a popular book – yoga body, buddha mind – as though each practice has its specified realm, and ne’er the two shall meet.

But recently practitioners of both Yoga and Buddhism have been rethinking that divide.  Michael Stone writes:

The spirit of Yoga and Buddhism embodies a radical approach to human experience whereby we begin practice through paying attention to what is here in this moment, allowing each and every one of us to wake up without needing to adopt a new ideology or belief system.

This is pretty cerebral.  I happen to agree with it, but I’m not sure what use to make of the statement.  I get that he’s asking us to use both practices to settle into the present moment, but how?  In my words, the intersection of yoga and meditation – where yoga transcends physicality to include spirit and where meditation transcends intellect to include spirit – is in the awareness of the breath.

Yoga, as practiced in local studios, is a physical effort that can lead towards spirit, through focus on the breath.  Meditation, as practiced on so many phone apps, is an intellectual effort that can lead towards spirit, through focus on the breath.

Michael Stone has some further thoughts on how using the breath, and thus awareness of the body, can help bring meditation out of its prison of the mind.

Our discontent and delusions stem from the ways we create a false and separate self that, over time, feels like a subject in relation to a body. [Laura adds – this is the illusion of a mind/body divide]  Since we no longer live in a sense-absorbed natural environment in which we are constantly attending to the feel of the wind or the changing weather patterns, and since we live primarily indoors, we have come to rely on the mental sphere much more than the other sense media.  This comes at a price.  Our attention span is so short and easily interrupted that we no longer have the sensitivity to the other senses that we would have if we lived outdoors.  We don’t need to navigate the physical world in the same way we once did, so as modern people we are relying too much on the mind’s proliferation at the expense of the other senses.

Focusing on the breath during yoga can help us connect the mind and the body.  Focusing on the breath during meditation can help us connect the mind and the body.  Best of all, as the weather turns hospitable, we can go outside and feel our other senses wakening our mind/body, as we smell the trees, and hear the birds, and feel the breeze.  So much of our modern life is lived in climate-controlled indoor spaces, and we forget we even have a body.  We are a lollipop on a stick, a huge colorful kaleidoscopic head on an almost non-existent white stick of a body.  Let us bring some of that color into our body, through the breath, through the senses, through movement.

Back to Michael Stone:

            Even in Buddha’s time, the body was used as the primary object of meditation so that one could study the universe not through books or theory but through one’s subjective experience.  Likewise the Yoga postures, when practiced with breathing and sensitivity, become opportunities for deep meditative insight because they are designed to calm the nervous system and return us to earth.  When we tune in to the internal energetic patterns of the breath as we move within the various shapes of the Yoga poses, we are, in essence, working the habits of the mind as well.  Though the Yoga postures we practice in modern Yoga studios have obvious therapeutic benefits as physiological levels, we seem to have forgotten how the postures also teach us how to work with the mind.  And for most of us, our troubles are not simply in the body but primarily in the mind.  How can we use the body to study the mind and work with the mind through the body?  We do so by seeing and experiencing how the two are completely interrelated.

Mostly Michael is just explaining the ways in which both practices can be revisited as explorations of mind AND body together, but he does, almost as a throw-away comment, say the following “our troubles are… primarily in the mind.”  I might argue with that, and you might as well, but if we just take it as a point of exploration, I think he’s suggesting, as the Stoics have before him – that the right frame of mind can go a long way towards improving our sense of well-being.  Let us use our senses, nature, and movement, to bring a new ease to the kaleidoscope of our mind.