During a year when structures have unraveled, routines become untethered, and normalcy redefined, I have found myself wondering how to reestablish structure.
I’ve always been a creature of habit, thriving off of careful plans, bookending my days with rituals, satisfied in checking things off an ever-growing list before I went to bed. Last March, as I realized many of my habits — biking to the office, community centre fitness class, swimming laps, going to the library, volunteering at a food coop — were off the table, I floated uncertainly between the space of thinking and doing.
Breath as structure
A regular asana practice helped: every morning as I unrolled my mat, sun peeking through still-bare branches, I reassured myself that this small act of care was enough to tiptoe into each new day, to chart progress through a cyclical returning. But sometimes, my mind as tangled as the branches poking through the metal links of our neighbourhood park’s fences, asana wasn’t enough to remain steady. I needed a stronger connection, something more earthly, to tap into deeper body wisdom.
So, I opened my Dive Deeper yoga manual, thumbing past my detailed notes about asana, and read about pranayama — the subtle practice of manipulating the breath, which precedes all forms of asana (“physical”) practice.
Breath as potential
During yoga teacher training at Mula Yoga, we were encouraged to always start with the breath. By tuning into the quality of breath as we arrived on our mats, we set up a benchmark from which to begin. We noticed how these markers shifted as we moved through pranayama, asana, and meditation. We focussed on modulating its depth, rate, and rhythm to achieve energetic effects, literally shifting our internal landscapes.
I remember this mysterious thing called pranayama landing in my body during one, particularly magical Sunday morning Yoga Glow class (one of Mula Yoga’s signature offerings), when we worked for two hours on moving deliciously slowly, lengthening the inhale to energize, then drawing out the exhale to soothe (activating sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems). Don’t underestimate the satisfaction of a deep, long exhale in a forward fold after a sustained utkatasana hold!
Breath as homecoming
Now, I come back to that ember of realization when I feel especially uprooted. Never has understanding and (gently) controlling the breath been so important. With each day bringing any number of emotions to the surface — fear, anxiety, grief, boredom, uncertainty, guilt — breath is something to return to, a way to land in our bodies. Steady, even ujjayi breath brings scattered energy to centre. Vigorous, skull-shining (kapalabhati) breath clears space for a brighter mind. Bellows (bhastrika) breath can stoke inner fire when you need to burn through dullness or stagnation. Alternate-nostril (nadi shodhana) breath can smooth out the edges of anxiety before it bubbles over. Three-part (viloma) technique can increase our capacity to take in air, helping us access fuller breath throughout the day. And lion’s breath? Well, that’s just fun.
Breath has become my structure, movement its channel.
Now, when I practice at home, I am attentive to breathing cues rather than tuning out like I used to, hungry for the outward physicality of asana. When the instructor invites that first, intentional breath of the practice, the world melts away. I become the observer, placing myself cross-legged on worn driftwood, patiently watching the slow roll of waves coming to shore. My thoughts take on a more buoyant quality, knots of tension-discomfort-uncertainty less hopeless when given space to float.
Breath as collective
I wonder: what will the eventual return of practicing together bring? I have been asking myself these questions every day, as I invite the curiosity of a new practice.
How can we use breath to foster a collective energy?
How can sharing this energy open up our practices from the individual to collective, to bring us outside of ourselves?
In the same way that breath enlivens our central energy channel, the Sushumna Nadi, how can breathing together create support structures that we need, more than ever, to remain resilient?
For me, a year later, the breath-movement connection has become a joyous mystery and I can’t wait to keep uncovering its gauzy layers of potential.