The lesson of Heart-Centred Breathing
At a recent mindfulness workshop in Amsterdam with A.G. and Indra Mohan we learned more about the meaning of the “Hridayam point“, a place where we feel all our emotions. The translation of the Hridayam point is simply the heart–not as the physical organ we know–but as the centre where anger, fear, love, happiness and all our other feelings are based. A.G. Mohan reminded us that it is important to be aware of this point when we do our breathing practice, because here is where everything begins: our breath, our digestion and our emotions. This is the home of Prana, or life force.
Physiologically, this point is found by the xyphoid process, which is the slightly bony end of the sternum, 3 times 4 finger widths up from the belly button.
When we begin heart-centred breathing practice, our eyes should look down toward this point, and our hands should be placed lightly on it. As we inhale, the breath travels throughout our body and our arms start slowly opening to the sides, in a movement similar to spreading our wings. We feel the flow of the breath is unrestricted, that it reaches every part of our body, from the fingertips to the toes.
In the exhalation, we begin to slowly recoil, bringing everything back to the centre (the Hridayam point). For a full experience of this form of breath, see our breathing video set “Heart Centred Breathing” in which Emile demonstrates how to practice it in standing, sitting and lying positions.
After the workshop finished, I was so enthusiastic about this beautiful form of breath that I started straight away in my own daily routine. However, after dutifully practicing it in the morning, afternoon and night (in the 3 different positions, respectively) for several days, I noticed that I had developed a slight discomfort in the centre of my stomach area. Although I really enjoyed every breath while I was practicing, there seemed to be an unwanted side effect: the upper part of my abdomen was clearly upset. Either I was doing something wrong or this didn’t work for me…then I remembered A.G. Mohan’s words on the practice of Yoga and Pranayama:
“Offer your breath. Don’t force or push your belly in and out forcefully as you breathe. Yoga physical movements and the practice of breathing should become natural, effortless and habitual“.
Sure enough, the moment I stopped trying so hard, breathing from the Heart Centre became softer and I enjoyed it without any discomfort. This doesn’t mean that it is not as effective; quite the opposite, as Yoga in all its forms, whether it is body or breath, should be “Sthira Sukham Asanam” (Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras 2.46-2.48), that is, “Steady Comfortable Meditation Posture”.
As part of my own teaching philosophy, I have always encouraged my students to practice Yoga with a “comfortable effort” rather than in a forceful manner but, as I am reminded once more, Yoga is an internal process. It is all fine for me to teach the concept of “comfortable effort” to others outside of myself, yet when it came to my own practice in this particular case, I suddenly forgot about my heart, instead practicing with my head.
Rather than gently offering or inviting the breath, I just did the technique as I was told, forcing the inhalations and contracting the exhalations to the point that I got hurt.
Heart-centred breathing starts and ends in the place where Prana, or life force, is based. Life force, as the breath, should flow freely and without obstacles through the body, so it can be open and healthy, without pushing or trying too hard. When you practice yourself, remember my mistakes…but then again, you will only learn from your own heart, not mine.