This is another in a series of book extracts by Uma Dinsmore-Tuli that we are publishing on the yogayoga website.
• If you are interested in further reading, we stock a small selection of Uma Dinsmore-Tuli’s books at the studio.
Circle of breath
- the Rhythmic Breath Cycle
By Uma Dinsmore-Tuli
This the seed from which Mother’s Breath grows. The Circle of Breath brings clarity of awareness to the rhythm of the natural breath cycle. All of the subsequent practices in this book rest upon familiarity with this practice, so it provides a vital foundation for everything which follows.
How to do it
Choose a comfortable and appropriate resting position.
When you are first learning this practice, it is often best to begin by lying down, but once you are familiar with it, then it can be done in any posture, even on the move.
This breath can also be done whilst holding or feeding a baby.
Let yourself yawn a few times. Close your eyes.
Then settle deeper into your chosen position and just let the breath come and go, in and out through the nose.
Notice when the breath comes in.
Notice when the breath goes out. Just observe this coming and going.
Allow for the breath to move at an easy and natural pace – if there are quick breaths, notice them. If there are slow, deep breaths notice them.
Then, as you get used to the comings and goings of the inhalation and exhalation, begin to notice the rhythm of the shifts from in-breath to out-breath.
Inhalation - exhalation. A rhythm of two parts – the coming in, and then the going out.
A circle of breath – one half going out, and one half coming in.
Then notice that a part of this rhythm is the place where the inhalation turns into the exhalation. Notice when the rhythm of the breath comes to this place.
Then begin to notice the place where the exhalation turns into the inhalation.
Notice when the rhythm of the breath comes to this place.
Watch these places, and acknowledge the turning of the breath at these places.
Feel that rhythm of the breath is set by these places, these tiny pauses between the inhalation and the exhalation, and between the exhalation and the inhalation.
As your sense of the rhythm of the breath becomes more acute, begin to notice how these pauses are not really pauses, but little places all of their own.
The rhythm of the breath as you watch may now seem to shift from a rhythm based on the relationship between two – the inhale and the exhale – to a rhythm based on the relationship between four – the inhale, and the place between inhale and exhale; the exhale, and the place between it and the next inhale.
The circle of the breath expands into this awareness.
Inhale, and the place between in and out; exhale, and the place between out and in.
The rhythmic circle of breath moves easily, freely, effortlessly.
The rhythmic cycle of breath turns around, spinning at its own pace from in, to out; with space enough to notice the rhythmic pattern that links the in-breath with the pause which follows it, and the out-breath with the pause that follows it.
Each rhythmic cycle of the breath is unique. Observe its own quality, time and pace.
Each rhythmic cycle of the breath is part of a pattern. Notice its relation to its neighbour breaths – faster? Or slower? Louder? Or quieter? Heavier? Or lighter?
Each rhythmic cycle of the breath is unique, and part of a pattern.
Observe the rhythmic play between each circle, each cycle of breath, and those which precede and follow it.
Know that within this continuous rhythmic cycle of circles, everything is the same, and everything is changing. The breath keeps coming, and the breath keeps changing.
Every breath is a complete rhythmic cycle – in, and the pause that follows it, out, and the pause that follows it.
Every rhythmic breath cycle leads away from the breath that is past, and leads into the breath that is to come.
Every rhythmic breath cycle contains within its circle all that we need to know.
Things always change: the inhalation turns into the pause that follows it; and the pause turns into the out breath; and the out breath turns into the pause which follows it.
And the individual breath cycle is complete. But the rhythm continues on.
Watch the rhythm continuing, containing within it the individual breath circles, the cycles that lead one to the next.
Know that the truth of the breath circle is just this: right now, I am breathing in; right now I am watching the breath turn to leave; right now I am breathing out; right now I am waiting for the breath to turn back in.
The cycle is complete but the rhythm continues.
Each circle contains within it moments of change, pause, and release.
Each component of the breath contains within it moments of change, pause, and release.
Each rhythmic cycle of breath invites us to understand that these moments of change, or pause, or release, are happening every moment.
Watching the rhythmic breath cycle, we see the patterns of change, pause, and release.
Over, and over and over again – each rhythmic breath cycle is unique, and each one part of a pattern. A rhythmic pattern of change, pause and release.
When you are ready take the awareness gently away from the breath, and back to the position in which you are lying or sitting. Take a big breath in, yawn and stretch. Open your eyes.
To begin, it works well to follow the breath as you read the instructions. That way, you are not struggling to remember the points at each breath.
The Circle of breath practices offers many possible interpretations. The appropriate focus for our specific present needs becomes apparent as we gain ease with being aware of the circling rhythm of the natural breath. Close the eyes and just observe the movement and rhythm of the breath. The important thing is to watch the breath closely enough to become intimately familiar with its current rhythm, and then to accept the breath’s invitation to lead the mind in its dance.
If you are comfortable with the pause places at the end of the exhale and at the end of the inhale, then allow yourself to rest there momentarily. Don’t let this resting disrupt the naturally occurring rhythmic flow of the breath cycle. It is important in pregnancy and the postnatal period not to extend this easeful pause into an enforced retention of breath. There should be no holding or forcing – just resting with the pause and waiting for the rhythm of the breath to take you over into the next change.
Noticing the turning moments between inhalation and exhalation can impart a sense of spaciousness, as if the Circle of Breath expands to accommodate our heightened awareness of its rhythmic pauses. These pauses offer the potential for profound insights and deep calm, as Sandra Sabatini recognises:
the pause at the end of the exhalation
and the pause at the end of the inhalation
is a special place
where nothing happens or nothing seems to happen
yet the old air is travelling away from us
and the new breath is ready to move in
in that space in between
there is silence
more than anything else
Once the practice of the Circle of Breath becomes familiar to you, you can if you wish change the focus of the written instructions to respond to the needs of your present circumstances.
For example, when life presents a series of rapid changes, it can be helpful to focus our attention upon an appreciation of the stabilising properties of the constant flow of breath. By acknowledging the continual circling of the breath, we comfort ourselves that that some things are always the same. This awareness can help us to cope with changes, especially those that are beyond our control, like how big our pregnant belly grows, or how many times our baby wakes each night. In times of uncertainty and surprise, the reassurance that the ‘breath is always the same’ can be a helpful focus. On the other hand, in a situation where we feel stuck, or static, it may be more encouraging to shift the focus of this practice to the process of change and unfolding which the circle of breath can reveal: the sense that it is always changing, even within its constancy.
The Circle of Breath awareness practice, and the respectful allowing of a free movement of breath which it encourages, is the foundation of all the practices in this book. It is especially helpful during times when you feel disoriented because everything seems to be changing so fast. When you feel overwhelmed by change – for example during early or late pregnancy when the physical changes of pregnancy can be quite dramatic, or when your baby is very tiny, and seems to be visibly growing before your eyes – then it can be comforting and reassuring to use the final stages of this breath awareness, with whichever focus seems most appropriate to your needs. As babies grow, and seem to be gaining new skills every day – talking, grabbing, crawling – then this practice’s emphasis on the letting go into change can be very valuable. ‘On days when I don’t know which way is up, and my daughter seems like a different person each time I look at her’ commented one of our postnatal yoga teachers, ‘then I stick with this breath awareness. It gives me great strength, and helps me to cope, to accept the changes in my life.’
Conversely, at times when life feels permanently stuck in a place where you don’t want to be, for example at the end of a long night nursing a sick child, or an afternoon of struggles with a reluctant baby or small person who simply doesn’t want to do anything you can think of, when you’ve run out of ideas, then a pause to acknowledge the changes present in every breath can open up your connection to the understanding that ‘it won’t always be like this’ (Lasater 2004:53). The rhythmic breath cycle shows us that everything changes.
In the emotional and vulnerable time immediately following birth, this form of breath awareness can be a lifeline. Clare Benge wrote to tell us how she had used a variety of different pranayama practices to help her through the birth of her first baby, Eve. Across all the practices, including the birthing breath and the postnatal chanting, Clare applied the heightened awareness and respect for the rhythm of the breath cycle. Her comments tell us how this helped her:
‘Everything I learnt in the pregnancy yoga classes was invaluable during pregnancy, during the birth and afterwards. It taught me to listen to my body and connect with my baby. During the birth, my midwife was really impressed with the various positions that I adopted … My labour was very long: I found the Golden Thread breath very calming; and then once I was on the maternity ward I found the full yogic breathing a good way of relaxing when sleep was impossible due to all the noise on the ward. Now my baby is here, I chant to her - I am sure she recognises the sounds and it helps to calm her down.’
Clare’s comments highlight a subtle and very practical understanding of the benefits of yoga breath in pregnancy. Although the benefits of yoga for the mother during pregnancy are widely discussed, it is not often pointed out that the practice of pregnancy yoga, and especially of pranayama, is helping to build a bond with the unborn baby. Babies tune in to the rhythm of the breath. They know when you are taking time to relax. They can feel the humming breath on their skin, like a sonic massage for them within the womb. Practicing yoga together in this way is establishing the basis of a relationship with the baby once he or she is born. Babies who have experienced yoga in their mother’s wombs already recognise the relaxed breath, and readily respond to all the sounds and movements of the practices. This recognition of the rhythm and sound of pranayama can be invaluable in the immediate postnatal period when you and your baby are getting to know each other.
Pregnancy & Postnatal yoga book extracts by Uma Dinsmore-Tuli:
Mother's Breath: Postures for Pranayama
more extracts from 'Mothers Breath' soon to follow...