Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Matching Breathing

A challenging meditation I’ve tried this past week: Try matching your breathing to someone else’s. Observe the other’s breath pattern – it’s really only two or three issues: timing in, depth, timing out. Then match it with your own. This can be done with anyone whom you can observe, whether a newborn, a co-worker, a sleeping partner, your dog, or a guy on the train.

Resistances? If the other breathes more deeply than you tend to, it’s painful to stretch your diaphragm and intercostals to reach the other’s normal range of motion. If the other breathes more shallowly than you tend to, it can leave you feeling undernourished. If the other breathes more rapidly than you, it can increase your perceptions of stress. If the other breathes more slowly than you, it can produce a sense of lethargy, or, alternatively, of panic if you feel you’re not getting the amount of air you usually do.

But as a meditation, no matter what the other’s breath pattern, there are lots of mind effects associated with turning over to another something so central to one’s own sense of self, independence, and control. Emotions related to the other well up during this exercise, whether love or anger or otherwise.

I find this as hard as watching my own breath without changing it – something I’m not sure I’ve ever mastered. As soon as I begin paying attention to my breath, how can I know whether I control it more than when I’m not paying attention to it?

In teacher training, one of the first instructions we received is, before making any adjustment to a student’s pose, match your breathing to the student’s. Why? Breath-matching takes the teacher out of the position of dominion. If you’re matching your student’s breath, you’re changing your own actions and sensations to conform to another’s, not the usual approach for asserting control. Breath-matching begins to align energies of the teacher and the student. The more aligned their experience, the more the teacher’s perceptions, knowledge and intuition can be brought to bear on the student’s experience. Breath-matching reduces the likelihood of injury to the student, as the teacher is working with, rather than against, the expansion and contraction of the student’s body. Breath-matching through all these things, and through things less readily perceptible, aligns prana of the two, dissolving some of the distinctions between them, creating yoga.

Breath-matching, in this practice, is an extension of empathy and compassion. We tend to think of those actions as appropriate to suffering, since they aid in reducing suffering, but they are equally appropriate to joy, or to strain, or to peacefulness, or to happiness and ease. Compassion and empathy need not be left in the closet, like an umbrella, for rainy-day use only. Indeed, the best engagement with life is a constant connection and flow, whatever the weather.