Heart of Yoga

Spa Magazine – Jan/Feb 2003

An ordinary breath. It is nourishing, involuntary, indispensable yet forgettable. Similar to a heart beat, gravity, and the sun, breathing is one of life’s simple, profound and ever-present gifts, but we consistently take it for granted as we endeavor to do the important things – like watching television. Breathing is only noticed when illness and congestion prevents us from doing it normally. It is not surprising, then, that the average person uses only 1/8 of their lung capacity. According to the ancient science of yoga, shallow and irregular breathing can breed stress, tension and weak nerves. A habit of slow and deep breathing can help an individual develop patience, endurance, and create a sense of peace that illuminates the spirit.

When thinking of yoga, most people conjure up images of young, athletic bodies folding into difficult postures bordering on contortion. Indeed, asana (postures) is the most utilized tool in American yoga. A first yoga class can be a mystifying experience. Beginning students struggle to synchronize their breath with motion, while their classmates move from pose to pose seamlessly. Before long, the typical practitioner will focus on achieving more difficult asana, and work hard to bring strength and flexibility to her muscles and joints. The breath becomes an afterthought. At best it is merely a vehicle used to move into the postures. According to Mark Whitwell, author of Yoga of Heart, this is a very limited view of yoga. “Make the breath the central feature of your practice,” says the 50-something yoga instructor in an unmistakable Kiwi accent. “The proper way to do asana is to keep muscles and joints soft around the challenge of the breath.” Most students, beginning and advanced, concentrate on taking each asana to the very edge, and their muscles and joints dictate how far they can take it. Whitwell stresses a different approach, “Go to the edge with your breath. The breath should be your gauge, the breath is your feedback.” Mastering asana is not important, believes Whitwell. Anyone, no matter their age or body type, can experience yoga through the breath.

At its core, hatha yoga is a discipline that balances polar opposites. Ha means sun, tha means moon, and yoga means union or relationship in Sanskrit. Whitwell maintains that hatha yoga is the union of two poles – the left and right, inhale and exhale, male and female, and this union is at the source of all life. He designs classes that affect the left and right sides of the body, and allow for deep, complete inhalation and exhalation. Asana is only one of the tools that Whitwell employs to help students achieve equanimity. He also considers pranayama (breath control), mantra (sound), mudra (finger, hand locks) and yantra (visualization) vital to a holistic yoga practice.

Whitwell began studying yoga with T.K.V. Desikachar and his father Krishnamarchaya at the age of 20 in Madras, India, but it wasn’t until 12 years ago that spreading these ancient teachings became his life’s work. He returned to Madras in 1989 and endeavored into serious study. Before long he realized that there is nothing external to seek. Enlightenment, heaven and god-realization were social constructs, he thought, and it became clear to him that God was already present in everyone and everything. “Yoga is something you do as a joyful expression of that which is already given,” he says. “There is wonder in the body and breath, and all that’s left is for our mind to connect with it.”

Whitwell believes that when yoga is practiced with the breath as a focal point, it can balance the male and female aspects of an individual practitioner, and promote healthy intimate relationships. The inhale represents the innate female concept of receptivity, and the exhale symbolizes the male concept of action. When one practices yoga and develops their breath, they are able to balance the two. For example, when a male student breathes deeply and practices yoga consistently, they will be more available to receive love, in all of its forms, and that will automatically bring about a masculine, assertive character in his partner. According to Whitwell, this happens on its own and need not be verbalized. Key to realizing this natural, balanced state is creating a daily practice. “Actual yoga occurs in your own environment each day. 20 minutes is enough,” he says. “When you do it daily, it is a self-motivated discipline of pleasure, and it can have subtle and profound effects that change your life for the better.”

All it takes to begin is a deep breath.