When I was in high school, every year in gym class we’d get to the unit where we had to run a mile. I dreaded this unit each and every year because, although I was in good physical shape and could dance for hours on end, I could. not. run. It was humiliating to be one of the only kids who was walking before the first of four laps around the track was completed. So obviously I hated running and for years that stretched well beyond high school fed myself the story that I was incapable of running.
Later in my adult life, I found liberation and reprieve from the demands of my life by walking for miles at a time. My walking turned to power walking and morphed into something that was approaching running. Through this gradual process, I came to understand that what had been holding me back from my ability to run was my inability to breathe fully and properly while doing so. I had never developed the skills of conscious breathing and therefore wasn’t tapping into the power potential held within that most important skill. Once I unlocked that awareness and developed the ability to breathe fully and effectively, my running story changed forever.
We forget how powerful our breath is. Each inhalation and exhalation is pivotal to our body’s functioning. The equal contraction and expansion of our diaphragm is a powerful tool for life and movement. When we can learn to move together with our breath (whether we’re running, performing asana, or dancing), we can facilitate more strength, power, grace, and capacity within our movements. Each inhalation enables greater expansion. Each exhalation contracts, and thereby stabilizes, our core. Our breath becomes a tool and a technique for better performance.
This idea of expansion and contraction is fun to play and experiment with when we’re talking movement…but it gets a little tricky when we apply it to life itself. When things go wrong, when we are sad, or when something in our day to day life becomes confrontational; we contract. Often this emotional response of drawing inward and closing off is coupled with a physical response of rounding our shoulders and contracting our core muscles inward. It can be an unpleasant experience and period of time as we inwardly work through whatever triggered our contracting. But it’s important to see how equally necessary, beautiful, and beneficial this time can be. While these times of contraction don’t hold the outward grandeur of our times of expansion, they are the power behind them…the yin to the yang.
The Sufi master Rumi speaks of matters of the heart so profoundly and articulates the physics of our contractions and expansions so beautifully in this excerpt from one of his poems….
“Seeker, when you feel your soul contracting
know it is for your own good
allow not your heart to burn with grief.
In times of expansion you spend
and this expenditure requires
an income of painful soul searching.
If it was always summer, the roots would burn
and the gardens would never become green.
Winter seems bitter but it is also kind.
When contraction comes, my friend,
behold the expansion within
be cheerful, do not complain.
The eyes of a child are fixed on the wants of now
while the eyes of the wise see to the end.
When you close your mouth
another one will open, seeking nourishment
in the mysteries of Spirit.
The sugar of sensual joy
is the fruit of the garden of sorrow
this joy is the wound, the sorrow is the plaster.
Learn to embrace sorrow
look straight at its face and joy will reappear.
All action sways between contraction and expansion
both as important as the opening and closing
of the wings of a bird in flight.”
May we embrace all of our contractions and expansions and learn to honor the power contained within them both.