On some days, when I feel anxious for whatever reason, it feels as if my chest is locked. My breath is more shallow and it’s almost as if my breath stops somewhere along the inhalation, as if my lungs can’t get any more full. Breathing exercises don’t work most of the time, probably because they come from a place of force and frustration, not from love. But after a few days of rest, the tightness in my chest usually subsides. And then the cycle repeats itself again a few weeks later.
This “locked breath”, as I like to call it, concerned me a bit when I first felt it. Sometimes it was the cause of a panic attack, instead of a result of one.
This year has taught me that my body won’t all of a sudden shut down. My heart won’t stop beating and I won’t stop breathing at the first hint of an unknown sensation. I have learned to trust my body. And I have learned to live with all of the body’s sensations, watching them come and go.
Still, I wondered what this tightness was. Where it came from, and what happened in my body when I felt it. I had a vague feeling that starting the yoga teacher training made things a little bit better. But I didn’t know why.
Opening space for the breath
Given my experience in the previous class, I was feeling a little bit ambivalent about this session. Of course, I didn’t expect it would be going downhill from now onwards, but I also wasn’t feeling confident that it would be as amazing as the first days. Mostly, I was hoping that it wouldn’t be so damn crowded as last time.
The truth is always somewhere in the middle. Or rather, as one of my fellow students pointed out, it coexists with other truths. There is no objective, black-and-white truth. Life is more nuanced than that.
It feels like my current experience of the yoga sessions, both at home and at Saswitha, is more nuanced too. I don’t feel like my daily yoga practice is radically changing my life (yet). But I also don’t feel the same as I did before I started doing yoga. There have been some subtle changes.
Take the example of that “locked breath” I was writing about. It hasn’t completely gone away, but it also feels less present. As if the door is not locked, but slightly ajar. And I can learn to open it as soon as it shuts again.
In class, we learned that many of the asanas we practice have the purpose of opening the diaphragm. The diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle that contracts and flattens when you inhale. This then creates a vacuum effect that pulls air into the lungs. When you exhale, the diaphragm relaxes again and the air is pushed out of lungs.
Many of the stretches we do in class, are aimed at stretching the intercostal muscles: the muscles located between the ribs. Stretching these muscles creates more space for the diaphragm and hence for the breath.
It is basic anatomy, but as someone who dropped biology from their curriculum, I was mindblown. So this is why I sometimes feel like my breath is locked! This is what happens in my body when I tense up and get more anxious.
Tip of the iceberg
This is but one example of glimpses of knowledge I am slowly getting. It’s like seeing the tip of the iceberg. First I saw nothing but a vast ocean of unknown depths. Now, at least I catch a glimpse of something solid, knowing that there is much more from where that came from.
Before I started this yoga teacher training, I had no clue what I was getting myself into. There’s no point in learning if you already know exactly what you’re going to learn. You just have to surrender and trust that you pick up things along the way.
Already now, I know more than I did before I started. I know some background information about the asanas we do, some things about the history of yoga, and I’m working my way through the yoga sūtras. This is more than I knew before. But I also know that there is a lot I don’t know yet. That there is a lot more of that iceberg, hiding under water.
The thing about yoga is that it works in subtle ways. It’s not a free ticket to enlightenment, but it will get you to samadhi (unification of the mind, or bliss) if you do the work. We tend to focus most of our awareness on asana (the postures), and this is also where we may first see the changes that yoga brings. We might feel stronger, more stable, and more flexible.
But yoga is so much more than asana. It is ethics, it is self-discipline, it is breath, it is transcending your senses, it is concentration, it is meditation, and it is bliss. Yoga is all of this. It is a way of life.
I said it before, but I will say it again (and again, and again): becoming a yoga teacher is a long and humbling process. It takes time to let things sink in. But now, after day five, I don’t feel like a complete novice anymore. I’m learning things, ever so slowly.