Inhale, exhale, pause, inhale, exhale, pause
Can you observe and feel two cycles of your own breath, noticing each of these elements, before reading further? No need to change any of it—just be with your breath however it is.
I’m just back from teaching a retreat in Belize with students from all over the US and Canada, including of course some from our YOHI community. Inhale, exhale, pause turned out to be one of the main themes for our week together and to be a very useful theme to me personally during experiences out of class as well.
In our first class together we met in an outdoor palapa.
All of us had traveled 12 hours or so to get there and starting with a breath practice seemed like a good idea. The next morning we met at 6:30a to experience a mist-enshrouded class. Because we were in the Macal river valley with tall mountains on either side of us, the mist gradually rose so that by the end of the class the tropical sun had risen above the mountain top and we were bathed in light. Inhale, exhale, pause seemed to honor this whole experience. Inhale—take in the gift of the breath right now in this moment; exhale—let go of that which is no longer needed; pause—feel the refreshment, the awe and the integration of this moment.
I love these pauses. A pause is not a “hold.” which implies effort or tension of some kind to keep the breath out when it would prefer to come in. It is an opening into spaciousness that can be the briefest of moments or a luxuriously intimate dip into eternity—the mind quiet, the mouth and nose relaxed as if I just smelled a fragrance at once mysterious and delicious. These pauses, however subtle, give us a chance to stop and see the effects of what just came before, whether it be a yoga pose or a climb up a mountain. These days we seem to move so quickly, even in yoga class, that I relish these simple moments of noticing the effects of my actions, my thoughts, my heart. Inhale, exhale, pause has a rhythm that seems natural and is enhanced by being in a jungle or by the beach as we were last week. All of life is both movement and stillness and it is not always possible to see clearly how each aspect relates to the other. Even as the inhalation is mostly nourishing, it can also be deeply quiet and receptive. The exhalation can be more active and is also a time of deeper absorption for all that was just inhaled. The pause is a time to be with the mystery, the koan, of all of it.
As we continued through our week I remembered this theme many times when I was not in class and experienced many moments of awe and beauty, and a few of fear and confusion.
Early in our trip we visited nearby Mayan ruins. The whole area felt sacred. As I paused on purpose I felt tingling all over my skin and the hairs stood up on my arms. It felt delicious and holy, and I might have missed that feeling if I had not paused. As we climbed the ruins our talented guide of Mayan descent, steeped us in stories of Mayan civilization. These were the stones and stories of his people, and we were captivated by his presence.
And at the same time, my body was terrified of being on narrow ledges up that high. I could hardly breathe and my belly tightened and clenched with fear. “Get out of here now!” it kept saying. But to “get out of here” I had to go down tiny stairs, at times with nothing to hold onto—not a great resolution to this fearful experience. I remained on the ledge, as far away from the edge as possible and stayed with myself. Inhale, exhale, pause. I felt the sensations of fear in my body and continued to breathe my mantra of the week. I’d love to say that the breathing practice completely calmed my fear and that I was able to dance my way down the stairs. Not so. But the gift of the breath offered me a way of being with myself as I was fearful and that felt huge. When I noticed judgments arise, wondering what was wrong with me, asking how I can call myself a yoga teacher if I have this much fear, I would return to my breath with gentleness and compassion. I don’t know why I am afraid of heights but I am, and yet I was able to see the site and sort of enjoy myself. By staying with my fear that day, I have the sense that I might be a bit less afraid another time. Somehow, I trust myself more. And I was able to laugh at myself as I sat on my butt and went down the stairs that way!
As we went through the week, there were so many moments of awe, of learning about the natural world we were a part of and a few other moments of discomfort but inhale, exhale, pause was with me. I paused to see a red-rumped tarantula that was coaxed out of its hole by our fearless guide. I stood atop a mountain, again with a quivering belly, to see the entire river valley laid out before me.
I saw a rare basilisk lizard that rested so peacefully on our guide’s arm that we all got to take pictures. I saw thousands of stars and the sweep of the Milky Way that are not visible where I live. I saw and heard Howler Monkeys with their call that sounds like ujjayi breath gone evil. I saw a pelican land on the ocean less than 10 feet from me and frigates floated overhead as we practiced yoga. While snorkeling, among dozens of miraculous sights, I saw a Spotted Eagle Ray that looked like it was slowly flying under water and a tiny juvenile damsel fish that looked like sparkling stars in a deep blue night. Because of our practice of inhale, exhale, pause in class and in my own personal practice over the years, I could remember to take the time to be with all the beauty that I saw.
Inhale, exhale, pause.