Sunday, March 22, 2009

Sympathetically Breathing

In the era before the iPod, it was rare to see adults riding their bikes down the street belting out songs. Such boundless enthusiasm is a wonderful and rare experience, and my first glimpse of Ashtanga Yoga inspired such a feeling. I enthusiastically described this first practice as though I felt like I’d been shot out of a cannon, and I imagine there are still mothers in South Minneapolis using hushed tones to warn their children of the daft man on a blue bicycle.

It didn’t take very long before my dedicated Iyengar practice became a dedicated Ashtanga practice. As a fairly experienced yoga student, I quickly integrated the practices of first and second series into my routine. If sufficiently motivated, I’d chip away at third series every now and then. In the process, I quickly became stronger and more flexible than ever before.

The only challenge with this practice, as many of you may have experienced, was working it into my daily routine. In 1991 I was a graduate student in the midst of renovating an old house. Time was at a premium!

Thankfully a solution revealed itself. As I practiced more Ashtanga Yoga, I awoke earlier and earlier. After a few months of regular practice, I was waking by 3am and ready to go. This was very convenient, as I could dedicate 3-4 hours to yoga practice before catching my bus to campus.

I was a reluctant bus passenger, though years of commuting by bicycle in Minneapolis winters had softened my carbon-free stance. Given the choice between numb toes and self-satisfaction, or warm toes and catching the #5, the latter was winning out with regularity. I had come to enjoy the bus, as I’d have a chance to relax with a book as I transitioned into work mode. Just a few years previous the characters on the bus seemed pretty rough – now I knew many of them by name.

One morning I was shocked to find myself in the midst of one the roughest neighborhoods I’d seen in Minneapolis. I was fairly disoriented, and had no idea how I landed in North Minneapolis. As I craned my neck, I realized I was at least six miles past campus. After the dust settled, it became clear I’d fallen asleep and missed my stop by a long shot!

I was not only unenthusiastic about being late for work, but seriously bummed about the prospect of getting off the bus to wait for a southbound #5. My back and neck had ached for months, and standing at the bus stop was sure to flare things further. The only time my body felt good was when I was practicing yoga – pretty much the other 21 hours were racked with aches and pains.

It turns out I wasn’t terribly late for work, though I am hesitant to admit how many times this scene repeated over that long winter. Despite all the ups and downs, I remained dedicated to my yoga practice.

While I’m glad to have stuck with the practice of yoga, I ended up digging quite a deep hole. By the end of this period of incorrect practice, I had depleted my adrenals and developed a host of aches and pains. Through the help of some gifted teachers and another decade of practice, I can now look back on that era with a combination of nostalgia, regret and gratitude.

Perhaps the best yoga teacher is the passage of time. If anyone had suggested my sleep patterns were insomniac, I would have argued that deep breathing replaced sleep or some such thing. If it were suggested my aches and pains were potentially related to my yoga practice, I most assuredly would have argued that I was detoxing. It was going to be many years before I understood the relationship between breathing and the sympathetic nervous system.

Ashtanga Yoga is a very elegant and effective system of practice, though with its emphasis on the Ujjayi Breathing, can also be injurious. It all comes down to the breathing, and if the breathing is correct, the benefits are myriad. If the breathing is incorrect, the sympathetic nervous system is stimulated, which can elevate the heart rate and blood pressure, cause problems with digestion and elimination, trigger anxiety and insomnia and a host of other ills.

Sadly, we find a true understanding of breathing is quite rare. Many teachers repeat what their teachers said, though how many can ascertain whether their students’ breathing is life-enhancing or life-depleting? How many teachers really understand the mechanics of healthy breathing and can recognize it in others?

Along with finding a knowledgeable teacher, it's wise to develop an inner understanding of proper breathing. This can be a minefield, as there an abundance of misunderstanding and urban myth surrounding the breathing. There are books written by famous yoga teachers that repeat breathing myths, and a surprising number of today's "yoga celebrities" exhibit the symptoms of an overactive sympathetic nervous system.

Healthy breathing isn’t conceptually difficult – it just requires some education. Stay tuned for an upcoming blog entry that discusses the anatomy of healthy breathing and includes a video depictingthe proper respiratory movements.



Neeraj said...

Scott, thats an interesting post, thank you. I stumbled upon your blog a while back and find it really informative and original.

Back to the post, I started practicing ashtanga a couple of months back, and actually one of the things I wanted to fix was insomnia as well as a torn meniscus. I would have liked to start with Iyengar to fix the later because of its stress on alignment but ..

My teacher hasnt pointed out much on breathing and/or alignment so far, we seem to be following the primary series by the book. Moreover, when I was practicing at home earlier, I think my sleep was better.

Look forward to your next post on correct breathing. Also would be interested if you had any additional comments regarding insomnia/knee problems with respect to the style of yoga.

Scott Anderson said...

Neeraj - thanks for checking in. There are so many approaches to yoga, it can be hard to navigate all the choices. I believe it comes down to the teacher.

In the hands of a skilled teacher, virtually any approach to yoga will bear fruit. In the hands of a mediocre teacher, even the most brilliant system will come up short.

Ashtanga demands the best teachers, as it's a grab-the-tiger-by-the-tail approach to yoga. In the hands of a good teacher, it can be a remarkably healing system. Without a good teacher, it can be downright injurious.

With regards to your knees and insomnia, it sounds like you've already derived benefit, which seems to indicate you've found a good situation for learning Hatha Yoga.

Thanks for reading! The follow-up post will be up shortly.