My watch tells me that my average heart rate is 60. That is, if I count my heartbeats over a minute, I will get a total of around 60. But if I count them over 30 seconds, I don’t get 30. I get 28 or 31 – it’s different every time. Similarly, in 15 seconds I’d get 14 or 17, rarely 15. In other words, my heartbeat constantly accelerates and decelerates – the average head rate really is just an average, and doesn’t tell me anything about what my heart is doing moment by moment. But my breath would. Changes in pulse accompany changes in breath. It’s going to be subtle, but that’s how the body works.
Things really are changing all the time. In one moment, a text might arrive that irritates me somehow. But then I see something that reminds me of a good holiday. And then something else happens, and something else, and so on. My personal experience, moment by moment, is punctuated by flutters of pleasant and unpleasant feelings about what’s happening between me
and the things in my world. In fact, I’m so busy processing all the moment-by-moment assessments of circumstances that I don’t even notice myself doing it.
My system does its best to keep up, and there is continuous fluctuation in heart rate as I get a tiny bit happy and then a tiny bit sad, over and over, all day. In a way, my individuality is defined by these fluctuations: the things that irk me might not be a problem to someone else, and the things I like won’t be too if everyone’s list. If I could learn to make every breath a conscious breath, then I’d notice these subtle mood variations in my breath. In other words, there is a breath pattern unique to each person. My particular pattern is the signature of my relationship with my world.
But there is one world. Yes, there are situations that seem unique to me, but really the sources of pleasure and pain are the same for everyone. Everyone has a different experience of love, death, work, family, friends etc but these things do present to all of us. I’m going to approach this from a different angle now and tell you about my morning walk to work. Sometimes I go in VERY early, and there are feral urban foxes wandering around, looking for discarded food. I find myself thinking: none of them styles themselves differently from the rest of their pack. If I could follow them to their dens, the dens would be pretty much the same. Shelter, enough space to sleep and possibly some young foxes, too small yet to leave the den. There would be no spare rooms, no tastefully chosen decoration, no tributes to past or future times. You can bet that the fox’s heart beats faster if (s)he sees food or danger. You can bet it beats slower when they rest. Their experience of their world is much closer to what the world actually presents – ours is mostly based on how we see ourselves in the world. In that way, most of what I experience moment by moment is fiction. Yes, things are happening out there. But my primary concern isn’t so much what’s actually happening, but more the way that integrates with my personal likes and dislikes.
With me so far? I haven’t said anything about One-ness yet, I’ve just tried to show that we people live in a story about ourselves and that everyone creates their own story. It’s based on real events, like all the best stories, but a story it remains. You really might not agree with that – and you don’t have to. Just for a moment, let’s pretend it is true. Then I can demonstrate how the argument flows to the conclusion that all are One, and actually the same entity presenting in almost infinite ways.
People often get into Yoga because it helps them switch off. During the movements, they find they stop thinking about their world and their day. They lose themselves in movement. Then I’m savasana, they sometimes drift into a liminal space – not quite awake, not quite asleep. It’s a refreshing experience. For that moment when you’re not thinking about your dramas and joys, are you still there? Physically – yes of course you are still there. Mentally? Well, yes. If, say, the fire alarm rang, you would know what was happening and immediately respond. Yogis are fond of saying, “You are not your thoughts” and at this level it’s obviously true. The thought can be absent and the person still present.
It runs deeper than that. You might have to take my word for it on this one, but when you meditate, you eventually notice that the pace of thoughts slows. In fact, you notice that there is a gap between thoughts.
Hang on. If you’re not thinking at the time, then how can you notice anything? Surely to notice IS to think?
Again, you might have to take my word for it at the moment, but there is an awareness that is present even when the mind is quiet. It’s palpable. You can feel and you know you are there but there’s nothing going on upstairs. That awareness knows what’s going on but it doesn’t relate events back to personal likes and dislikes.
Can you see where we’re going? This awareness isn’t personal. What does that mean? It must be trans-personal. The same awareness is present in everyone. Not just the same neurological setup generating a feeling of awareness. Actually, the same awareness inhabits every person. It’s a bit like a computer network. Every unit has its own processors that runs its particular programs. But the same electricity powers all of them. And when the electricity supply stops, the unit shuts down and begins to gather dust. Eventually, it will rot to nothing.
Is there any evidence of this? Nothing scientific as far as I know. I guess science would say that there are some brain cells that give a feeling of awareness. These brain cells are present in each person, so each person has the same feeling. Maybe that’s correct! However, it’s interesting to note that, at the moment of death, there is enough oxygen in the system for another couple of minutes of activity at least. Why don’t people phone for their own ambulance? Something has gone at that moment – the most notable absence is breath.
If I reach a state of trans personal awareness in meditation, then my mind will of course be calm and so will my breath. Breath correlates to heartbeat when I process life events in the light of personal likes and dislikes – when I think as an individual. But in the spaces between thoughts, the individual is not present. Here, the breath is not individuated. Although we all breathe different air molecules in and out, Yoga posits that there is one life force present as awareness and animating the breath cycle in all people. Underneath the surface layer of many beings is one “being-ness”, so the books say. Clearly, from this point of view, it’s very important to study and develop the breath – hence the practices of pranayama have evolved.
Like any ancient language, some of the terms and concepts don’t have a direct translation to modern UK English. So when you read old Yoga books, you’ll see that the world and the people in it are described as “unreal”. It doesn’t mean “unreal” in the sense that we would know today. The people are here, the world is here – they are “real” in the way that we normally use the word. But they change; people and planets and everything between arise at a point in time, stay for a while, and then deconstruct and all the material in them is reused for something else eventually. That is what the Yoga books mean by “unreal”: these things are only here for a time as an assemblage of other parts. The awareness that brings breath to people however is the same in all people and therefore the same for all time. It doesn’t depend on anything else, and so it is considered “real”, or really real we might say.
In that sense, my personality is not real. People change as they get older. What seemed appealing or even vital when I was in my 20s might seem unimportant or even frankly a distraction when I’m in my 50s. But the essence of life that allows for the network of biochemistry in which the personality can form and operate – that is real. If breath is the connection to that awareness, then breath practice again is advised.
What does this mean for today’s Yoga Teacher Trainee? I think it’s about just letting the ideas in. There’s no requirement to believe that any of this is objectively true. It might sound like a level of nonsense, and that is usual, to be expected. But even if you don’t buy that we are really all this One, take a moment to reflect on the suggestion that we might be. Yoga is suggesting a radical unity exists, deep and intrinsic. What might it mean to you if you were to discover that it was true for you? How would that change your attitudes, lifestyle, your likes and dislikes? Remember, no one is asking you to believe this. Just spend a moment imagining what would happen if you did. In fact, don’t believe it. The magic of Yoga is that all the practices – all of them – lead to us discovering truth for ourselves. There’s nothing to believe because if you practice consistently, you’ll uncover truth in yourself and for yourself.
So, just practice. Practice the things you like, and add in some pranayama. Try 3 x 3 minutes to start with, and build up from there. If you’re still not sure where to begin with breathing exercises then join us for our Pranayama classes, courses and Yoga Teacher Training.