There are many hyperlinks in this article. I would suggest that you ignore them on your way through this read, and if you would like to come back to something later, please do. Research has shown that opening many tabs on your computer is distracting for your brain. I had considered leaving the links out, but wanted to give you a chance to find out more about some of the fabulous things and people I encountered on this journey. But maybe just consider one thing at a time. Warmly, Jennifer
When I was taking my first yoga teacher training (YTT) course in early 2014, Matthew Remski was working on a project that, at the time, he was calling WAWADIA, and acronym for "What Are We Actually Doing in Asana?". This project evolved over time into his book Practice and All is Coming: Abuse, Cult Dynamics and Healing in Yoga and Beyond. It started as an inquiry into the physical injuries that were happening in, particularly but not only, the Ashtanga Yoga world, and ended up being a deep dive into not just physical, but also sexual and spiritual abuse.
During the years of the WAWADIA conversations, we (yoga teachers) became focused on how to teach better physical yoga (asanas) so that we didn't hurt people. We removed postures from the practice: no more headstands — you'll break your neck; no Warrior I — you'll hurt your hips; shoulder-stand was out — again because of that fragile neck. We also implemented cues to keep people safe (knee does not go past your toes), and were afraid of what might happen if people did things that their bodies weren't ready for. It was a big swing to "safety" after recognising how things had gone badly wrong.
After my YTT I dipped my toe into different movement practices (some more deeply than others), looking to learn more about movement biomechanics and safety in movement (Feldenkrais, Axis Syllabus, Katie Bowman's Move Your DNA, ELDOA, Yoga Detour, Animal Flow, Mindful Strength, to name a few) and I spent a lot of time in gyms so that I could be strong and safe. I read and read and read. What is stretching? The well-known American Yoga Teacher Jules Mitchell's book came out — Yoga Biomechanics: Stretching Redefined, the result of her masters thesis in biomechanics. Was Yin Yoga bad? Should we be spending all that time hanging out in the end range of motion? There were many years of keeping things safe for people.
And then I happened to hear Jules Mitchell in a podcast looking at whether or not headstand was "safe" to practice, based on a research paper. Did spending time on your head hurt your spine, or did loading it help increase strength over time? At one point Jules said, "All poses are good poses if the tissues can withstand the load." She was saying that no pose is inherently wrong to do. And, more importantly, yoga isn't broken. (Put a pin in that — I'll be back to it in a bit.)
During my time of movement exploration, I was also considering how to keep people safe psycho-physiologically, ie, from a trauma perspective. Everything was so careful. In my first Movement for Trauma course with the brilliant Jane Clapp I was introduced to Buteyko Breathing techniques, and I thought to myself, "If I'm spending all this time learning about functional movement so that I can teach asana more safely, I have to learn about functional breathing so that I can teach pranayama more safely."
Down another rabbit hole I went. I learned Buteyko Breathing for myself, became a Buteyko Educator, and immediately started spreading the warnings throughout the yoga community.
BREATHING CAN HURT PEOPLE! BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU SAY!!!
I caused a stir in the Movement Research Community on Facebook, a group with nearly 30k people in it that was started by Diane Bruni (Diane passed away January 2021, and we miss her terribly). I posted that breathing cues given in a yoga class had led to an asthma condition in a client of mine. The post blew up. I was interviewed on podcasts, and started teaching in yoga teacher training programs, along with teaching clients Buteyko Breathing techniques.
Of course, as with most things, after we've been all the way out on one edge, and we've swung to the other side, we eventually find ourselves in the middle. Nothing really is black or white — almost everything is shades of grey, with qualifiers of "except when" or "can become" or "not always".
This past year I took a course with Dr. Rosalba Courtney — Integrative Breathing Therapy. It was a six month deep dive into breathing physiology and how we can help treat people with breathing pattern disorders. Dr. Courtney's PhD thesis was in defining dysfunctional breathing, and her work has been based in scientific research and clinical practice for the past 20+ years. Of course, the deeper you go into a subject, the more nuanced it becomes. Although I still know that breathing pattern disorders are prevalent, that we need to have wisdom in teaching people how to breathe, it's not as black and white as I thought when I first started down this road. There are other breathing practices, beyond just Buteyko, that are therapeutically helpful for people: resonance frequency breathing; intermittent hypoxic breathing; movement practices through which we can practice new configurations of mechanics in breathing; pranayama practices.
Another thing, alongside this work digging deeper into breathing, that I've been thinking more about, is what is it to be human, and how to be a better human. It's a personal journey, but one that has led me to this:
PEOPLE ARE RESILIENT
It's a funny thing. After the swing to the other side of that safety in movement and yoga conversation, beyond "people are being hurt by this practice" and "therefore we will limit what people do", is a place where people find their strength and resilience — through their own internal and external work, and through practices that we can teach within the context of yoga or other movement — and movement again can become joyful, not fearful.
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field.
I'll meet you there."
And on the other side of "breathing can hurt you", is "breathing is joyful". With wisdom, we can learn much from breathing that might seem to be "wrong" or "bad". There is still space for mechanics and chemistry, there is still need for learning the basics, but there is also resilience in people. There are ways we can breathe — it could be therapeutically, experientially, or esoterically. Of course, as the conversation becomes more grey, it becomes more nuanced, and it takes more to explain the in-between bits.
But WAWADIP? (What are we actually doing in pranayama?) It's a question that I've been contemplating these past months, particularly in the lead up to, and as I'm teaching the first cohort of Finding Kevala Pranayama, a course that brings together the science of breathing with breathing in yoga settings, during movement as well as with the practices of pranayama. Is pranayama about fixing breathing? Or is it about something else? And is it something we should be pursuing? Pranayama practices allow the energy of life to move through your body, as described by the yogic models (chakras, koshas, nadis etc). We discuss in the course the value of the thinking of the body in these ways, and the conflation with other systems that can and does happen (overlapping the western medical model of blood vessels, nerves, endocrine organs; the TCM model of Yin/Yang and energy lines through the body), and whether or not these yogic ideas are useful to us even though we know that we do not have actual wheels spinning around inside us. It's a different way to think of the body and the breath — as a pathway to freedom of self and connection to something beyond the self.
As important as it is to establish normal breathing patterns (still very important), we don't just breathe, consciously or unconsciously, so that we can establish normal breathing. If you break your ankle, it's important to do physiotherapy to regain range of motion and to ensure that normal movement patterns return. But you don't continue just doing those basic movements all the time. The point is to restore normal movement so that you can then run, dance, move joyfully. Movement is an expression of who we are, of how we are feeling, it takes us through our lives to places and experiences. So too with breath. And that is the difference between breathing retraining and pranayama. Some pranayama practices can be used in the service of functional breathing, but the goals are beyond that. As they should be.
Pranayama is not broken. It may require some pre-requisites in the three dimensions of functional breathing. And beyond that, we can breathe new life into our experience of the world, by releasing those limitations on our inhalations and exhalations. Let go, and breathe.
feel the wind,
that the spirit
and the spirit
shall blow you
should you have
but the faith
of a wee child,
that all is well,
purses her lips,
’til milk and rest
overcome her ~
When you touch
of a tree,
her rough cloak
the very breath
from your lips.
spirals out again,
from one form
to the next,
The Creator Breathes for All
From Beyond the Leaving