It was an "AHA" moment. Suddenly I got it. Something that had been going on for years came into consciousness with the sharp boom of truth and I was/am embarrassed. I share about it here hoping to save others from this shameful fate.
The evening began normally enough. My lightly attended class was even lighter than usual with only one student. I love when that happens. The attendee gets my full attention and often shares more than I would hear in a fuller class. On this night Sam complained of stomach problems likely brought on by some terribly stressful circumstances in his life. After some discussion as to his interest in addressing this yogically, I set about teaching breathing and digestive exercises that can be helpful in such circumstances and soon realized that though Sam had been taking class with me for a couple of years he still didn't have the first clue about belly breathing. What?! No belly breahting!?! How could this be?!?!
The most basic, primary thing taught to all beginning yoga students. The relaxing foundation on which all other yoga relaxation and correct pranayam rests and my student who I had seen over 50 times didn't know about it. Fie! I have been remiss.
I set about correcting this problem by teaching what I know about this, but the situation was even worse than I thought!
Before getting to how deep the problem went I want to digress with a short review of belly breathing and its importance to proper relaxation. I do this to inform the uninitiated reader, to remind the knowledgeable and to begin to make amends for my egregious error during more than 15 years of teaching.
One of the earliest lessons and something I do whenever I have new students who come for more than a week or two to my mixed class, is to lie down place hands on either side of the navel and feel the expansion and contraction of the belly on inhalation and exhalation.
OK so this is belly breath is natural breathing. We all did it as baby's and like so many things from infancy we have learned to do it differently. But why is it so important to relaxation? There are two main reasons that I know of. One is that relaxed abdominal breathing is less work than tightening the stomach or drawing it in to make the chest larger. The other is that working the belly is a way of holding tension. Fully relaxing the stomach requires softening the abdomen and this naturally leads to, you guessed it, belly breathe. This bears repeating. When the belly is relaxed the abdomen becomes soft and naturally expands on inhalation. It is a marker of relaxation.
Like many things in yoga we modify what we do with the body and our minds take the hint. So softening the abdomen and letting the belly expand on inhalation makes it easier to relax. Cool huh?
Even though I had taught this to Sam years ago, I haven't been reminding him about it enough that it sunk in. Now here's where it gets worse. I checked with Sandy, a student who has been taking with me for 15 years. You can see how my teaching has informed the way she does her postures and I'm proud of my connection with her. I have created a special series of pranayam and guided relaxations for her and she has heard my explanation of belly breathing dozens of times as new people joined our class over the years and you know what? She is not belly breathing throughout our yoga class nor did she realize she ought to be. Oy vey. There are lots of other Yiddish words, mostly of self denigration that I think of here but won't share (email me if you must know them).
Beating myself up about this isn't helping anyone,however. (except perhaps the random Yiddish lover) Clearly I have to reemphasize breathing and specifically belly breathing in my classes. While I have been reminding my students to keep breathing slowly and deeply and through the nose as much as possible I've been leaving out the important expansion of the abdomen on inhalation and contraction on exhalation in those reminders. OM forgive me.