The waters of breath
I can remember a day at the ocean when I was seven. My father, whose work caused him to travel outside the country and so whose presence was generally intermittent and brief, walked into the water with me until it reached my shoulders. He squatted down in front of me and told me to hold on. I wrapped my arms around his neck and he took me out, far from the beach, my mother and sisters, my boundary. I imagined that on the other side of the ocean were the places he went, and I was excited, and I surrendered. A moment of family connection, love, and trust, uncovered by the enormous ocean.
I continue to seek opportunities for passionate surrender, and that draws me perpetually back into my yoga practice. In yoga, the element of water manifests as one of the primary movements of the mind within the body. Water, earth, air, fire and ether, or space (through which sound moves), are considered the five elements constituting the natural world. In Ashtanga Vinyasa practice, there is much discussion of the fire, called tapas, or austerity, that comes from the intensity of the mind when it focuses on the context created by the body. Fire is also the radiance that comes from that kind of regular practice. Too, the elements of space, air and earth as mental patterns in the body are all constantly active, allowing one to settle in and simply watch Nature unfolding moment to moment.
When you stand in samasthitihi, the “even-standing” pose–or simply stand upright, feet together and arms by your side–with your shoulders resting on your back, you can allow yourself to release backward into the kidney area and muscles of the midspine without losing the openness of the heart. With the kidneys breathing gently yet fully to the back, the tailbone can be released from the sacrum down and in, and even the backs and insides of the heels drop deeper into the ground. The toes let go. The energetic quality is that of flowing down, letting go off the tip of the tailbone like a waterfall, pooling in the calm depths of one’s self. That very release reinvigorates a sweet brightness that lifts with subtlety up through the heart.
The breath, the obvious conduit of air, also resembles water in an endless wavelike pattern between the fullness of an inhale and the emptiness of the following exhale. If you slow down, drawing the breath patiently through the body so that the lungs really fill, then at the height or the end of any breath you can watch the graceful arc of one extreme rolling over into its opposite. And with the lips closed, breathing through the nose creates a sound like that of the ocean from a short distance, maybe when you’re still on the other side of the dunes. The spine itself, the structural foundation for Yoga’s internal form, is an undulating wave reminiscent of the S curve delineating the Taoist symbol of yin and yang, the opposites within the other, swinging back on itself when it reaches what isn’t an end. Quite simply you are dropped back into the breath, swimming in the movement of your self, watching the flow of your mind as a natural quality of life.Jennifer Ammann has been an avid student of Ashtanga yoga since 1994, when she first began studying with Richard Freeman at the Yoga Workshop in Boulder, Colorado. She has been teaching for ten years. Her teaching style draws students into the meditative quality of asana practice and the subtle and spontaneous experience of the body. She is a mother of three boys and lives in Taos, New Mexico, where she teaches at Shree Yoga Taos. “Abstract Vector Wave Art” by Vector Graphics is from the website Web Design Hot! and is used via a Creative Commons license.