Jessamyn-Stanley-Yoke-Excerpt
Credit: © Cornell Watson

Jessamyn Stanley Shares the Single Overlooked Thing That Will Make Your Yoga Practice Worthwhile

It's not about which shapes you make on the mat.
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The following is an excerpt from Jessamyn Stanley's new book, Yoke: My Yoga of Self-Acceptance (Workman Publishing, out June 22, 2021). Buy it on Amazon or Bookshop, which supports local bookstores.

You couldn't have paid me to care less about breathing when I first started practicing yoga. I thought it was a waste of my time and I completely disregarded it as a practice. I thought the most important yoga was the yoga of acrobatic oversplits and scorpion forearm stands, and I would gladly rush through my breathwork to get to the postural calisthenics that I favored over breathing.

When I did finally start to care, it was only after realizing that applying focus to my breath would strengthen my yoga postures. You really can't practice yoga postures without establishing a strong connection to breathing. Breathing is low-key the only thing that actually matters. When you're in yoga class and shit starts to go south, it's usually because you've stopped breathing. It happens with such a subtle quickness, too, that I usually mistake it for something else. All of a sudden, everything about practicing yoga becomes terrible: the postures are too hard, the teacher's a dick, the room's too hot, my pants are too tight, my mat's too small, the person next to me smells like garbage, the works. But all that really happened was that I forgot to breathe, and not breathing made me lose touch with reality.

Breathing is what defines a yoga practice because breathing connects you to the life force that's constantly flowing in and around you. Everything that lives is breathing, and that shared energy is what unites us. You, me, trees, maggots, whales, penguins, Santa Claus — we all breathe. Well, maybe not Santa Claus. But you get the idea.

It doesn't matter if you breathe through tubes, water, or photosynthesis because it's all the same breath. When you intentionally connect to this all-encompassing life force, you're reminded that life is a lot bigger than the jobs you do, the masks you wear, and the responsibilities you manage.

Find your breath and you're practicing yoga. The posture itself is irrelevant. That means you, me and, everyone we know are always practicing yoga in every posture, whether it's clear to us or not. When you realize yoga isn't just happening when you're on a yoga mat, it becomes clear that the breath is the first thing that should be established in every moment, and not just when you're practicing a sequence of postures. Because, really, every moment in life is a yoga posture. Standing up tall when someone's trying to shrink you is a yoga posture. Protecting your loved ones is a yoga posture. Finding the breath in these moments inspires you to action and confirms your faith. Sometimes finding your breath can be the difference between seeing someone else's point of view and punching them in the face.

Finding the breath isn't always simple. Sometimes it can be hard as fuck. I think it's impossible to remind yourself to breathe too frequently because there are endless opportunities to forget. Some days it feels like pulling teeth to remember. But to engage with your subtle, spiritual body, you've got to gain some level of control over your physical body. Postures are one part of how you gain control and pranayama, frequently translated as breathwork, is the other.

Prana is the cosmic energy that's constantly moving through and around all of us. Prana imbalance is the cause of most suffering and it physically manifests as injuries and disease. By controlling prana and how it flows through your body, you can be more aware of and present to all the nerve endings and thoughts within your mental and emotional bodies. When you hold your breath, you retain and restrict the functions of your physical body. Oxygen is the most important component to a functioning human body, and restricting access is literally the quickest way to die. But what happens when you're under stress — what's the first thing you kick to the curb? Breathing. You start holding your breath or refusing to breathe as soon as the panic sets in and the only way to release the sensation of nothingness is to breathe through it.

Yoga postures filter your breath through your body so that your physical body can find rest for meditation. Breath is the butter that sizzles on your body's cast-iron skillet. Like a cast-iron skillet, your body can cook all kinds of things, but it's gonna need a little fat to get shit poppin'. The breath is the fat.

Excerpted from Yoke: My Yoga of Self-Acceptance by Jessamyn Stanley (Workman Publishing) Copyright © 2021.