Recently in my classes I’ve been talking quite a bit about active exhalation, the practice of focusing primarily, or solely, on your exhale rather than your inhale as we tend to do when we think about taking a big, deep breath. It's a foundational concept of vinyasa yoga, as outlined by Beryl Bender Birch in her book Power Yoga. Through active exhalation you focus your energy on contracting your ribcage, drawing your navel toward your spine, and lifting your diaphragm in an effort to fully and completely empty your lungs when you breathe out.
This action results in a kind of a vacuum, so that when you release the contraction, the expansion of your inhale comes naturally, without you really having to think about it. There is a natural and instinctual fullness of the inhale that is only made possible by the complete emptying—you have to recreate new space for each in-breath. The depth of your exhale is directly correlated to the expanse of your inhale.
So, since yoga never just applies to your body, this has got me thinking about the ways we take this practice into our lives. I’m not talking about the literal way that we use conscious breath when challenging situations arise, though that’s obviously a valuable practice in its own right. I’ve been thinking about active exhalation more figuratively, in way that we need to make a conscious and active effort to let go of things in order to make room for all of the new things life might be offering us at this moment.
The effortless inhale is, quite simply, impossible unless you have emptied your lungs all the way first—you’ve got to get rid of the old air to allow the new to enter. What a concept. Let go of the old in order to clear a space, that something new might enter.
To take the analogy further, if you’ve closed your fists around something, grasping on tight, you won’t be available to receive anything else. So the best way to always be open is to let things come and go, enjoying everything but grasping nothing, and that, in essence, is the practice of non-attachment, isn’t it?
You may be familiar with the Zen proverb, “Let go or be dragged.” If that isn’t the simplest way of putting this, I don’t know what is. Leave it to the Zen Buddhists to pare down the incredibly complex (and difficult) concept of non-attachment into one five-word ultimatum.
So amigos, whatever it is you’re holding onto, give yourself permission to take a breath and let it go. And if you're not quite sure how to begin letting go, just start with your exhale.