Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Pause At the End of the Exhale

My attention in practice the past couple of weeks has been to the relationship between breath and action. What happens in the pause? What happens at the end of the exhale?

I’ve noticed as new poses are added to my practice or when I come to any pose that I find especially challenging, I tend to shorten the inhale. I notice many new students initially shorten the inhale in sun salutation B. As they learn to stretch the breath and coordinate with movement, students sometimes resort to what my teacher calls “guppy breathing”…a short big gulp of air on the inhale followed by a longer exhalation.

But Claudia’s recent post got me thinking that it had been awhile since I really put some attention on the exhale. So for the past couple weeks I’ve been watching and playing with the exhale.

I noticed that I don’t tend to shorten the exhale. My breathing pattern of the past remains. If I shorten one part of the breath, it is the inhale that gets shorter. What I had not noticed until my recent play with the breath was that although I don’t shorten the breath on the exhale, I do shorten the corresponding movement that should match the exhale. Apparently, I’m in a hurry!

For example, in sun salutations when completing the exhale in downward dog, I notice I start hopping the feet forward before the exhale is finished and well before the slight pause that comes after the exhale.

When I caught this and began to hold the heels in place in downdog until the end of each exhale, I felt a sense of uneasiness, fear.
Fear, I think, of emptiness, the undefined moment, the moment of pause at the end of the exhale when there is nothing to do. A similar sensation comes up sometimes when I do retentions after the exhale in pranayama exercises.....and by pausing without moving after the exhale, I was asking what would happen, if for a moment, I stopped defining and doing? Would I just disappear? Of course, no.

As with any part of practice, after a few repetitions of finishing the movement on the exhale, it became more familiar, lost it's feeling of stepping into the unknown, and the uneasiness faded. Practice went on.

Iyengar’s commentary on the Yoga Sutra in sutra 2.3 says abhinivesa (the fear of non-being, fear of death) "is instinctive" .
Chogam Trungpa says something related in CTSM "People are afraid of emptiness of space, or the absence of company, the absence of a shadow. It is generally a fear of space, a fear that we will not be able to anchor ourselves to any solid ground, that we will lose our identity as a fixed and solid and definite thing."

So the feeling of uneasiness and anxiousness in the pause at the end of the exhale is the fear of non-being leading to acting out of ego, acting out of a want to label the moment, out of wanting to have something to do to push back the fear of disappearing into the ether.

This got me thinking further about Claudia’s post and the link between past experience (and samskara perhaps?) and breathing pattern. Even as a kid, I was in a hurry to move on and grow up. I was sending away for college brochures when I was 12. I didn’t pay attention to my breath then, but I suspect even then, my actions were ahead of my breath. I defined myself by what I imagined I would do, careerwise.

I have a terrible habit of cutting off the end of other people’s sentences in conversation. I’ve noticed it in the past few years, but tend to catch myself just a bit too late to shut myself up!
If it's a pattern in practice, that usually means the same pattern is present elsewhere in life off the mat. Now I've begun to look for the “pause after the exhale” in life off the mat and am working on resisting the urge to fill it with something.


  1. Very insightful post. I noticed that I have the tendency to do the "guppy" breath in kapotasana. I have been working consistently to lengthen my inhale in backbends, specifically in kapo.

    I like what you said about the link between past experience and breathing pattern. Perhaps the fear of the emptiness after the exhale is linked to fear of emptiness/wanting to hurry on and "label" the moment. But sometimes I think one can also swing to the other extreme. One can linger too long in the space after the exhalation, become too attached to this space, and neglect to move forward. I think this translates into passivity/lack of assertiveness off the mat. Just my two cents'.

  2. Hi Nobel!

    I agree, the opposite of "hurry" can also happen. We can definitely "linger too long in the space after the exhalation". I think I would agree also that it might show a pattern of "passivity/lack of assertiveness off the mat" as you said.
    It's my current habit/personality/pattern to hurry forward, but I do see the pattern of "neglecting to move forward" in students sometimes....a tendency toward lengthy pauses and a sort of drifting off between poses. I usually encourage them to pick up the pace of the breath when I notice that pattern. As this is not my personal pattern, it's taken some time to learn how best to encourage them to move forward and look for a balance between inertia and rest. I'm learning to be creative with breath and pacing...but still lots yet to learn here I think! :)