Yoga Sutra 1.34: Going to the depths of your soul- start by exhaling

Last week we talked about compassion, friendliness, acceptance and acknowledgement. Building on the peace that comes when we find those four qualities, we have the next sutra:

Or that calm is retained by the controlled exhalation or retention of the breath

We have posted on our Facebook page today a little excerpt on the inspiration for our deep dive into this focus this week, but here is the full story:

Last week I had the privilege of traveling to San Francisco and visiting Alcatraz. On the boat ride over to the island, I marveled in distaste and macabre interest at the hundreds of people flocking to see a prison. “Why do we care so much?” I thought. “Why are we celebrating crime and delinquency, instead of peace and love?”

Upon arrival to the island, I was still perplexed at the necessity of people to peer into the lives of criminals. As I strolled around the island, I came across an exhibit called ‘Prisoners of Age’. The exhibit hosted 10 X 8 foot photographs of prisoners who were 50 years or older. The portraits shared each individual’s crime, how long they had been in prison and their own version of why they landed in the place that they were in. The exhibit also went on to explain the intricacies of the penal system and that a prisoner over the age of 50 costs, on average, $70,000 annually. It also outlined the increasing number of female inmates, as well as the disparity in numbers between white and black inmates.

The exhibit was mesmerizing, haunting, exhilarating and sick at times. Some criminals seemed to be serving a fair sentence, others seemed to have served their time years ago when they committed the crime (often inmates had been there since they were in their 20’s, now in their 80’s, still serving a sentence from their youth), and others seemed to have been wronged by our legal system, shedding light on flukes of democracy.

What became so abundantly clear to me was the ability of us all to wind up in this situation. These were not uncommon people. They were mothers and fathers, siblings and friends. Each prisoner had either wound up in a bad situation or were simply at the wrong place at the wrong time. We are all capable of unspeakable acts, all capable of going to the darkest corners of ourselves and our humanity.

What if these prisoners had learned to control their minds, emotions and impulses by using the breath prior to their decisions? What if they were more mindful of the trillions of perspectives to take on any given topic outside of their chosen path? What if they could learn to breath through the anxiety/depression they were experiencing, instead of lashing out or retreating within?

Our breath is our greatest teacher. Where the mind goes, the breath goes. Observe next time you are sitting at your desk deep in thought. What is your breath doing? Catch how quietly it becomes. Observe the next time you go for a long run, or an intense workout. What is the breath doing now? Probably vastly different from a focused session at your desk. The point is that in our exhale, when we sigh after a long day or after a big laugh we have a natural relaxation mechanism. In that comes a calm and a release. What if we began to control that? Use that to our advantage on a daily basis? Perhaps our potential for hate, judgement, greed and selfishness could be halted, and we could instead feel the magnificent gift of the moment and of full control in it.

As I looked at these prisoners photos, I saw more alike within us than our differences. These were thinking, breathing beings. I could easily be one of them, and so what I can take away from this is to use my yoga practice to help me not become one of them. To use the release in the exhale to find the calm in my mind. I’m a redhead, so naturally I have a vicious temper :), but using my exhale can always bring me down off the ledge.

We can’t undo what has been done, we can only grow from what we know. Take a look at these people’s stories and decide for yourself how you feel. Regardless, get on your mat and channel inner peace so that we start to spread that kind of energy through the universe. It is that energy, that mindfulness and that calm that will start to enable people to make different choices.

Check out the exhibit, it’s rad! And don’t forget to come practice with us this week!

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