Have I mentioned the day that one of my yoga teachers directed us to breathe with the two halves of our brain?
It was one of those very humid Chicago July days. We had the air conditioning on, the windows closed, the fans blowing, and still the students, who were there for a therapeutic workshop, were working up a sweat. The teacher had us all stop for a moment and listen up. He then explained that the brain looks like two walnut halves with a crease down the center. When you get overheated, he suggested, you should reverse the normal pattern of your breathing. The location of the breath: where the two walnut-shaped halves of the brain meet together at the center of our skull. He assured us that this would cool us down.
I have immense respect for the teacher. But breathing with my brain? I walked by another apprentice and whispered: "can you feel your brain when you breathe?"
I was thinking about this yesterday as I was pondering how to bring yoga to students who cannot move much of their bodies. Usually, in yoga class - or more to the point, in Western culture yoga class - we use the body - twisting it, upending it, stretching it - as a way to help the mind find something to focus on. By concentrating on elements such as achieving a ninety-degree angle in the bend of a knee or placing your hands so that the fingers are spread and the thumb and index finger engage a bit more than the other fingers, the mind has something to hold on to. The goal is to find a momentary lull in the ceaseless dialogue that our brain conducts. Most of which is negative - what we are not. Not flexible enough. Not rich enough. Not a good enough brother or employee or friend. Very little about what we do well.
(An aside: yesterday, as I was deciding where to put my mat down for class, and then choosing which mat to use, I realized how many decisions that I make every day. I mentioned this to a colleague who teaches meditation. He told me that Deepak Chopra, who I've not read, says that we have 60,000 thoughts a day. And 40,000 of those are the same thoughts that we had yesterday. Scary, huh?)
But back to the brain breathing. I was thinking about this yesterday, as I was driving from my afternoon meeting to anatomy class. (Which turned out to be a lecture on the respiratory system. ) I will be teaching students who have slight to significant paralysis. I'm really excited about the opportunity. But the complications are many, including the fact that my students will be doing the practice in chairs, will not have a great range of movement at the beginning of the session, and have apparatuses which will limit the amount of movement or access to the places where I cue feeling the breath: the belly, the rib cage and the chest.
Then I remembered the breathing with the brain direction. And the times that my teachers have told me to lift the inner arch of my foot, or spread my shoulder blades, and I cannot feel that place in my body. But still, my mind searches for it. I have a mental image of what I'm looking for. I slow my breath down, concentrate on finding the elusive spot. And guess what? I'm doing yoga. Yogah citta vritti nirodah: Yoga is the process of finding a focus for the mind, and sustaining that focus over time.
And the brain breathing? Maybe my teacher was reminding us that all experience begins with our perception of it. Hot weather is just like everything else that we interpret as reality: it's a brain thing. Focus your attention on the source of the heat - our minds - and maybe you'll cool yourself off by thinking about that instead.