Last summer when I was in Montauk, I got eaten by a wave.
Literally gobbled up.
I was held under water and couldn’t breathe for what seemed like forever. I freaked out. When I finally surfaced, I gulped in some air and hurried back to the shore as fast as I could. I didn’t go back into the water for the rest of the summer.
During this time, being the observant yogi that I am, I noticed that my breath had changed. My pranayama practice became not only difficult, but downright impossible. So – much like the ocean – I avoided it at all costs.
In what seemed to be the coldest winter we have seen, by March I was ready for some sun, so I decided to go on retreat with Colleen Saidman Yee in Tulum. The first night, as I lay there in savasana I heard the ocean waves crashing in the background. My breath began to move with sound of the ocean. Inhale- the waves roll in, exhale- the waves roll out. I continued like this with the ocean as my guide. I felt fully carried and supported by my breath with the sound of the water guiding and encouraging me.
The next day I got the courage to get into the vast ocean again – not just dip my toes in the water, but go all the way in. As I dunked under a wave and held my breath, ironically, I felt like I could breathe again! I stayed in the cerulean water and surrendered to the power of the ocean. I let the gentle waves take me with them without resistance or effort.
Some people believe that pranayama is all about controlling the breath. But it is actually quite the opposite. “Prana” means breath or life force (among many other definitions) and “Yama” can be translated into restraint or control. However, Richard Rosen taught me that in Sanskrit when you put an “a” in front of a word, it usually makes the word the opposite of the original translation (for example himsa means violence, ahimsa means non-violence). Hence, instead of breathe control, Pran(a)yama can actually be translated into the un-control/ freeing of the breath.
Believe it or not the breath has an innate intelligence. When we are born, our first breath is an inhale. When we die, our last breath is an exhale. Your breath speeds up when you are nervous or scared. Your breath slows down when you are depressed or sad. It’s pretty darn brilliant if you ask me!
Similarly, the ocean is powerful and has its own intelligence. In each layer there is its own system. The deeper you dive in the more you can discover and still there are many parts that are unexplored and unknown – forever shrouded in mystery. The same is true with the breath. It is smart, powerful, beautiful, mysterious and completely vital to life on earth.
When we practice breath awareness we are surrendering to the beauty of the natural breath without trying to disrupt the natural current. Because, simply put; it is pretty beautiful all by itself. We don’t need to try to control it. We are freeing the breath by surrendering to the power that already exists within us. When we begin to watch the breath it changes automatically- so no force is necessary. While observing the breath there are times when the breath is tumultuous and choppy, as well as times when the breath is quiet and smooth.
Yes, the breath can be powerful and scary just like the ocean. But that’s no reason not to dive in.