We know intuitively that our state of mind will affect our breath: it comes quick and jagged when we are agitated, and smooth and slow when we are relaxed. The yogis figured out pretty quickly that the circuit can go the other way, too: changing your breath can improve your state of mind.
Personally, when I am feeling stressed or anxious it can be hard for me to take a full breath and calm down like it ain’t no thing. Connecting my body and my breath puts my mind in the corner and gives me a chance to reset my thoughts. I think about this a lot when I am writing poetry.
Rather than working with a structured style or metered form of poetry (like Shakespeare did), I look to the breath. One of my favorite writers, Dennis Lee, has a theory on cadence, and how a poem is all about catching the rhythms that are happening in the body and around us and trying to carve them out onto the page, Michelangelo style. Once he figured this out, he writes in his essay “Cadence, Country, Silence,” "I found myself scrambling night after night to keep up with these long, hurtling lines. They were no longer clumping through preset metrical patterns. Instead, they moved with a periodic yet off-balance gait which seemed to emerge directly from this cascade of energy (for which I had no name as yet). I remember sitting up each night in a kind of dictation high—both cowed and exhilarated by the rhythms that had taken me over."
Now when I’m writing, I think: what’s the emotional energy behind what I want to say? This can tell me a lot about whether I want to use longer lines and words, indicating a slow, deep breath, or shorter punctuated lines and words, which can indicate anger or excitement. My yoga practice has become like the metronome that centers my gravity, gives me a beat I can play off and explore in my writing. Even if I don’t get to writing that day, when my breath and my body connect, I can get a real groove on, and create a poetry of the body that feels like dancing.
The pranayama (breath exercise) that really helped me discover this rhythm is called Kumbaka. Kumbaka indicates the subtle moments between the inhale and the exhale (antar kumbaka) and the exhale and the inhale (bahya kumbaka). When you close your eyes and watch your breath, you will notice these natural pauses between cycles. As you lengthen and slow your breath, you can play their edges a little bit (not by much or at all if you are pregnant): inhale a little farther into the space above your natural inhale, and wait a moment before you exhale. Don’t hold your breath like you’re underwater—the word I like here is “savor.” Same thing on the exhale, engage your abdominal muscles slightly to help a little more breath come out, and then pause in a relaxed way.
Exploring these natural pauses can go a long way toward finding your internal rhythm and honing your ability to reset your internal metronome. As you inhale and raise your arms up, for example, and exhale to a forward fold position, you are not racing to catch up with your breath, and you are not forcing your breath to catch up with you. You are moving with your breath, hand in hand. It truly becomes a dance, where body and breath take turns leading.
Here’s a sample from Dennis Lee’s long poem Civil Elegies:
It would be better maybe if we could stop loving the children
and their delicate brawls, pelting across the square in tandem, deking
from cover to cover in raucous celebration and they are never
winded, bemusing us with the rites of our own
gone childhood; if only they stopped
mattering, the children, it might be possible, now
while the square lies stunned by noon.