More Than Just an Exercise: Learning to Breathe with Yoga

By Tatiana Knight | Photos by Tobi Hollander

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When yoga became famous in the 60’s in the U.S., it was an esoteric set of poses and breathing exercises to aid meditation. It was initially presented as a map to living our lives by following a kind of yogic 10 Commandments. Not very many people knew about yoga, and those who did were not “normal,” but considered hippies or society’s outliers. Now, everyone knows what yoga is — ask anyone: your friends talking over lattes at Starbucks, your granny doing “senior yoga,” or possibly your mechanic who knows all the “down-dog” jokes. From P.E. classes to rowing teams, preschoolers and teenagers will tell you: Yoga is cool; everyone does yoga! 

The problem is they all have different answers to the question: what is yoga?

Since the 60’s, yoga has gone through many transformations, falling in sync with whatever cultural evolutions were happening in the U.S. But what has it become now? Primarily, yoga is being sold to us as just another exercise health craze (like aerobics was in the 80’s) or the new “Fountain of Youth” for aging Baby Boomers. At its worst, yoga has become a kind of gymnastics divested of its other equally important parts.

Yoga is not just a passing fad; it’s here to stay.

Strangely enough, yoga’s chameleon nature is why it attracts people from many walks of life. The great diversity of those practicing yoga reflects the notion that yoga can be all things to all people. An exercise. A therapy for backache. A set of stretches for flexibility. A great sweat detox and diet aid. An escape. A religion. An ancient tradition with all of the answers. Or for some, just a great way to meet girls in those skin-tight yoga pants.

From hot and sweaty yoga to slow therapeutic yoga, from the more bizarre yoga classes for your dog to my personal favorite — breakdancing yoga — there seems to be a class out there to please everyone. No matter your background, your interests, or your age, there is a type of yoga for you. While this smorgasbord may confuse some people, it points to the deeper message that yoga carries — at its heart, yoga is essentially inclusive. Because of its ever changing nature, it’s something you can grow old with. Yoga is not just a passing fad; it’s here to stay.

But beware. What initially attracts you to yoga and what gets you in the studio door may not be what keeps you going back every week. The “side-effects” of yoga are amazing. You might try a class because your back hurts but find that, after a few months, your back is not only better, but you are also more relaxed and sleeping better too. You might come to yoga because you want to lose weight and then find that, yes, you do lose weight, but that’s not your main focus anymore; instead, you actually feel better about yourself at the weight you are now. You may just come to recognize yoga as a system that simply covers it all — an activity that we need to do daily, like brushing our teeth. 

In the classes I teach, I try not to hide the basic premise of what yoga is under a lot of technical pose alignments or the use of Sanskrit words.

Yoga gives us the time and space to focus on our basic needs. Every day we get up and go through our busy routines, not making time for the things we really need. We need to sweat a bit, exercise, and stretch like a cat or dog (look at their bodies and try to argue!). We need to feel the basic joy of moving our bodies around and get the oxygen and blood flowing. But the most basic need is just to breathe. We move so fast that we leave ourselves behind, allowing hardly any time to even breathe. We need to close our eyes and just be, understanding that the art of doing nothing is really an art. Yoga comes to rescue us from this modern malaise. It gives the breath a central role, allowing us to connect with the very core of our being.

For me, if I can teach students to breathe, I don’t care if they learn how to do a pretzel pose. I know breathing will change their life in some way, whether it’s helping fight depression and stress or increasing awareness of the present moment. Just learning to breathe can make someone a much happier person and more equipped to deal with life’s varied challenges. You might not be able to touch your toes, but it’s much more important if you can deal with your mother-in-law better. The impact of breathing even off the mat can be enormous. Try breathing at stoplights when you’re stressed — that’s three minutes of relaxation right there.

The impact of breathing even off the mat can be enormous. Try breathing at stoplights when you’re stressed — that’s three minutes of relaxation right there.

In the classes I teach, I try not to hide the basic premise of what yoga is under a lot of technical pose alignments or the use of Sanskrit words. I believe that muddies the message; yoga is not a special esoteric practice that an ordinary person can’t do. Anyone can do it, even those with mobility limitations. If you can breathe, you can do yoga! By focusing on the breath, we celebrate the simple fact that we are living beings and nothing more. Just for that, yoga is worth trying. Never mind the crazy terms and the awkward positions — just breathe.

To me, yoga is all of these things. It’s a deep spiritual practice, but also an exercise, albeit a very well-devised exercise with thousands of years of trial and error behind it. But it’s so much more. That’s what keeps me excited. I know I have a lifetime ahead of me of yoga, an ever changing experience that will always offer something new and exciting. Yoga is not just a passing fad. You do not “attain” or “get good at” yoga. It grows and evolves with you. We are all on a journey, and we’ve got the rest of our lives to get there. Why be in a hurry to get to the end?

Tatiana Knight is a registered yoga instructor and has been teaching for five years. She teaches at the Riverside Arts Center and the Ypsilanti Community Center. After10 years as a modern dancer in Berkeley, California, and many years living around the world, her journey has brought her here. Tatiana is excited to support the growth of yoga in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, and spread it to the rest of the world — one breath at a time. Her website is www.y2yesyoga.com, and she can be reached via email: y2yesyoga@gmail.com

Posted on January 10, 2014 and filed under Health, Winter 2014 Issue, Columns, Tatiana Knight, Therapeutic Healing.