Listening time: 4 minutes.
Every morning at 6AM for longer than I have been on planet earth my yoga teacher Tim Miller has led Pranayama (breath control) at his Encinitas, California shala.
I was drawn to Tim's energy the moment I found about him. The 90+ minute drive to Encinitas from Los Angeles couldn't deter me. In my heart I knew there was something I was meant to learn from him. I loved the physical practice, but what transformed my experience in practice was the hour long Pranayama session Tim led just before I got on my mat.
At 6AM just a few students gather in a circle with a small candle lit in the center. Tim strolls in and doesn't say a word. He sits down in lotus position and takes off his watch placing it down in front of him. With no words exchanged, no instructions given, we begin.
Tim's breath sounds like ocean waves along the shoreline. The pauses are effortless for him, but for me feel like an eternity. Sometimes I can't pause for the whole duration, but nonetheless, the calmness I feel in those moments is undeniable.
In the pause between the inhalation and exhalation the mind stops. There is no thought, no imagery. It is pure silence and stillness. The only way I can describe it is like standing on top of a mountain. The air is crisp and cool. There is nothing but blue sky above you and solid earth beneath your feet. The physical body feels like a bridge between heaven and earth and within you is a spark of divinity that creates warmth on a frigid winter day.
When I first began practicing Pranayama on my own at home I would get to a point in the practice where it felt like waves were welling up within me.
When water hits the dam it only wants out.
I would feel intermittent tears rolling down my cheek unaware of their source.
One day when visiting Tim at his shala I asked him why breath work sometimes makes me cry.
In his stoic way he stared off into the distance for a moment to ponder my question. He looked at me, shrugged his shoulders, and with a big grin on his face said, "Well, better out than in!"
Then he turned and walked away.
This past winter I went a step further into my investigation. I studied Pranayama with a teacher in Mysore, India. My teacher was 92 years old and has been practicing and teaching yoga, Pranayama, yogic philosophy, and mudras since he was in his teens.
Some of the lessons were painstakingly slow. We would stand at a chalk board and repeat over and over again, "Pranayama is inhalation and exhalation with retention." Then we would say it about 10 more times with eyes closed.
One day the teacher called me out as a slow learner compared to the other student in my cohort, a woman of the same age from China. So he demanded I come to private lessons with him so he could ensure I was grasping the technique.
By the end of my month long training in India I felt radiant. I felt strong within and the chaos of the streets in India didn't jar my nervous system as the tiny tuk tuk darted down busy streets dodging collisions and cows.
I went onto Bali where I experienced other forms of breath work training. In some sessions I cried and sewed up old wounds, in some sessions I felt the strength of a warrior, and in others I laughed like a joyful Buddha.
I still do not know what it is about the breath that brings tears to my eyes or a huge smile to my face, but what I know for sure from my experience is the breath is a gateway to freedom and both inner and outer strength.
Once something changes you from the inside out it feels like a responsibility to offer it to others.
I will be holding a breath and movement class in Hermosa Beach every Friday evening. For more information please see details on the events page.
I hope to breathe with you soon.