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Who’s Afraid of Breathing? Part II (the Tuesday post) January 27, 2021

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in Abhyasa, Art, Books, Changing Perspectives, Healing Stories, Hope, Life, Meditation, Movies, Music, Pain, Peace, Philosophy, Science, Suffering, TV, Vairagya, Wisdom, Writing, Yoga.
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[This is the post for Tuesday, January 26th (12621). You can request an audio recording of Tuesday’s practices via a comment below or (for a slightly faster reply) you can email me at myra (at) ajoyfulpractice.com.

In the spirit of generosity (“dana”), the Zoom classes, recordings, and blog posts are freely given and freely received. If you are able to support these teachings, please do so as your heart moves you. (NOTE: You can donate even if you are “attending” a practice that is not designated as a “Common Ground Meditation Center” practice, or you can purchase class(es). Donations are tax deductible; class purchases are not necessarily deductible.]

“Who’s afraid of a deep breath in, a deep breath in, a deep breath out? Who’s afraid of a deep breath in, a deep breath in, a deep breath out? Not I!”


– A parody of a parody of a Disney™ song

Even before you get to the fact that I’m making a pun (on top of a pun), one might wonder why anyone would fear breathing deeply in and breathing deeply out. It’s kind of like asking who is afraid of living. Of course, living is different from just being alive; living comes with risks. And so it is very common for people to fear life beyond the simplest forms of experience. Additionally, when speaking about prāņāyāma and breathing exercises, even people like the psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung have warned that the very thing that can bring peace and ease can also bring discomfort and dis-ease. It all comes down to how you do it and, to a certain extent, why you do it.

“People put their faith implicitly in the stories told them about the dangers attending the practice, without ever taking the trouble of ascertaining the fact themselves. We have been inspiring and expiring air from our birth, and will continue to do so till death; and this is done without the help of any teacher. Prāņāyāma is nothing but a properly regulated form of the otherwise irregular and hurried flow of air, without using much force or undue restraint; and if this is accomplished by patiently keeping the flow slow and steady, there can be no danger. It is the impatience for the Siddhis which cause undue pressure on the organs and thereby causes pains in the ears, the eyes, the chest, etc. If the three bandhas be carefully performed while practising [sic] the Prāņāyāma, there is no possibility of any danger.”


– quoted from the 1914 introduction to the Haţha Yoga Pradipika, translated by Pancham Sinh

The “on top of a pun” to which I earlier referred, is related to Edward Albee’s award-winning play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (which premiered in October 1862). When I first learned about the play, I expected it to be about people who feared and felt threatened by feminist ideas. So, I was really confused by the play which, while dealing with characters who (like Virginia’s Woolf’s characters) sometimes have a severe disconnect between what they are thinking and what they are saying, really has nothing to do with Virginia Woolf, or her ideas. While there is a little bit more to the story behind the name, ultimately the title refers to a pun based on the Disney™ song, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf” (1933) from the cartoon “The Three Little Pigs” – and the fact that the rights to the song and title were so expensive that people would sing, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” to the tune of “Here We Go ‘Round the Mulberry Bush.”

In the Disney cartoon and the nursery rhyme, three little pigs made houses out straw, sticks, and bricks/stones (respectively). Of course, the hay/straw and the twigs/sticks didn’t stand a chance against the big, bad wolf and the first two pigs had to escape to the home of the relative they teased earlier in the cartoon. Re-watching the carton as an adult, several things stick out to me. First, there are three obvious breath patterns exhibited by the pigs and the wolf – and a fourth, less obvious pattern of breathing. Second, the characters in the cartoon are anthropomorphic and so the four breath patterns in the story match common breath patterns related to real-life human experiences. Finally, when the characters are not exhibiting the fourth breath pattern (the one of peace and ease) the cartoon characters exhibit the same debilitating conditions Patanjali described in the yoga sūtras (1.30-31).

The first breath pattern is the one that allows the first two pigs to sing and dance (and tease their relative). After years working with professional performing artists, I can’t help but think of the level of training and conditioning that is required to put on a performance. The breath has to be deep and also sustainable. It has to be controlled and measured, in some ways similar to the way we control and measure the breath when practicing certain forms of prāņāyāma.

The second breath pattern is one that can be associated with fear. Fear is an emotional response to a perceived threat. It doesn’t matter if the threat turns out to be real or not, the perception is what kicks that body’s defense mechanisms into overdrive. This breath pattern can manifest as shallow breathing and/or an involuntary breath suspension or holding of the breath. If this fear-based pattern is sustained for too long, it can become a habit – just as it has for so many in the world who have had to deal with extended periods of trauma – and often results in the “unsteadiness or trembling of limbs” described by Patanjali.

The third breath pattern is the breath pattern of the wolf. It is a pattern of anger and or frustration; it is “huffing and puffing.” This could also be considered shallow breathing (and one could easily argue that sometimes fear-driven breathing and anger-driven breathing are very similar, if not the same).

The fourth breath pattern, as I mentioned before, is a breath of peace and ease. It is a resting breath, a breath we experience in deep, peaceful sleep and also in meditation. It is the breathing pattern of someone who feels safe and secure, stable and steady, content and at ease. This is the breathing pattern of the third pig (who builds with stone). It is similar to the first breath pattern in so far as the fact that, with training, hard work and exertion can be achieved while maintaining a deep breath in and a deep breath out.

“We are alive because we breathe. The more harmonious the breath, the more peaceful and organized the mind. Unsteadiness in the limbs and organs caused by a vast range of mental negativity – particularly anger and fear – has a direct effect on the breath…. According to the yogis, fear and anger are the major causes of chest breathing. Chest breathing limits the intake of oxygen and the output of used-up gases. Our lung capacity declines, the level if vital nutrients in or blood drops, and the level of toxins in the body rise. Our physical vitality and strength decline, as does our mental clarity and ability to think linearly.”


– commentary on Yoga Sūtra 1.31 from The Practice of the Yoga Sūtra: Sadhana Pada by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, PhD

Throughout the year, I repeat the refrain: What happens in the body, happens in the mind; what happens in the mind happens in the body; and both affect the breath. And the breath affects the mind and the body. I keep coming back to this not only because Patanjali and the authors of other sacred text kept coming back to it, but also because it is a truth we can all experience for ourselves. We can all gauge the breath and, in turn, use the breath as a gauge to determine how experiences (thoughts, words, and deeds) are affecting us. At any given time, we can just take a moment to notice the breath – and consider which breathing pattern most consistently reflects those four from the story. Additionally, at any given time throughout the day, we can harness the breath – and the power of the breath – by breathing deeply in, and breathing deeply out. Changing the pattern of the breath can not only calm and balance the mind-body, it can also cultivate a little more peace and ease or a little bit more energy. These practices have short term as well as long term benefits, both of which can be cumulative.

Prāņāyāma, meditation, and other practices that might fall under the “mindfulness” umbrella cultivate clarity of mind and also get us in touch with the heart. In the Eastern philosophies, like Yoga and Buddhism, every emotion has a near-relation, a near-opposite, and an opposite emotion. In the case of fear, wisdom is the opposite emotion; and in the case of anger/frustration, loving-kindness is the opposite – these are the expressions of the heart when everything is in balance. Everything is in balance when the we feel safe, steady, comfortable, at ease, and maybe even joyful.

One additional note to consider: Yesterday, I chose not to mention some of the culturally problematic aspects of Virginia Woolf’s biography. However, I will take a quick moment here to address one of the many problematic elements within the Disney™ universe.

The pigs, the wolf, and the overall situation in the Disney™ cartoon are all symbolic. The pigs represent the different ways people deal with impending and inevitable disaster and the wolf symbolizes that something that will destroy the known world. People, especially when the cartoon first appeared in 1933, looked at it as Disney’s take on the Depression; and, would eventually also relate the story to World War II and the rise of fascism. However, like so many cultural elements from our past (and like way too many Disney pieces), “The Three Little Pigs” originally contained a culturally insensitive and highly problematic element: in this case, an anti-Semitic element whereby the wolf was depicted as Jewish. The audio was re-looped early on and, in 1948, Disney™ re-edited the original animation in order to completely eliminate the anti-Semitic trope and move onto the right side of history.

“chale vāte chalaṃ chittaṃ niśchale niśchalaṃ bhavet||
yoghī sthāṇutvamāpnoti tato vāyuṃ nirodhayet || 2 ||

Respiration being disturbed, the mind becomes disturbed. By restraining respiration, the Yogî gets steadiness of mind”


– quoted from “Chapter 2. On Prāņāyāma” of the Haţha Yoga Pradipika, translated by Pancham Sinh (1914)


Tuesday’s Noon playlist is available on YouTube and Spotify. [Look for “07192020 Compassion & Peace (J’Accuse!)”]


The Tuesday evening playlist is also available on YouTube and Spotify. [Look for “10272020 Pranayama II”]




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