by Michele Ashley: Growing up in the “City That Never Sleeps”, I had always equated strength with energy…
I always assumed the more “life” you brought to a relationship, project, idea or work, was always directly connected to how much drive you possessed. And, in order to get that “drive” or even maintain it one had to work hard; real hard.
In New York City, hard work always meant late nights, walking several extra miles – sometimes literally, always figuratively. If it meant hours at the gym to stay “fit” and look the part, that is what you did. If it meant extra hours after work to take new clients out to dinner as a smart business move, you did it. And it always most certainly meant arriving at work before the crack of dawn with at least two cups of New York’s finest coffee and a bagel shoved down your throat before 9 am.
Those were the rules, the expectations, and the standard. But what was even more astonishing is I was not the only one following these unspoken rules. There were, and still are, millions of people who walk around believing the source of life, our capacity to bring as much life and passion to anything in our lives, is connected to how far can run our lives into the ground.
Scary, yes. Bizarre, you would say that. Mass miscommunication on several levels, absolutely.
And enter into the space: Yoga.
Diving deep into pranayama
It took me a “New York” minute, a few years, and a major move to the mountains of Asheville, North Carolina, to experience what would become the defining moment in my life when I chose yoga; long after yoga had chosen me. I had explored a weekend of diving deep into pranayama with my Yoga Nidra teacher, Tracee Stanley. I had been practicing yoga for a few years by this time, I had never really spent more than an hour (not including Vipassana) focusing on my breath.
What I learned that weekend changed my perspective on how I nurture and nourish the prana (Sanskrit for energy) that animates my physical form. It was also the weekend I learned how important my relationship to my body is and how to harness that energy to live a conscious and impactful life.
As someone who was raised on the motto of “hurry and wait” as well as “the early bird gets the worm,” I was programmed to believe the harder I worked the more I could get done. I also believed anything of worth or value in my life required me giving it everything I had until I was literally ready to collapse or I hadn’t tried hard enough.
Yoga taught me differently and revealed the truth which is I had it wrong — backwards even.
As I learned consistency with my practice of pranayama which is the yogic practice of “controlling the breath,” (prana means life force or breath sustaining the body; ayama translates as “to extend or draw out.”), I became aware of how I felt, literally, and I learned how to harness my own energy to create vitality and passion in life. Whether I engaged in Ujjayi breathing (breath of fire) or Nadi Shodhana (alternate nostrils breathing), my awareness of how prana (life force energy) either increased or balanced out increased.
Finding more energy and a clearer mind
And as my practice grew, I noticed how much more energy I had throughout my day and how clearer my mind was. Most importantly, I noticed my capacity to sustain levels of high intensity over a long period of time increased. An interesting thing began to happen over a matter of months. The more I chose to slow down, drop into my breath whether directly following an asana flow or as a lead into my meditation practice, I began to notice my energy increase. It became about making my own practice, and space to breathe, just as much a priority as catching that 5:00am train to work had been for me many years ago. It became more important for me to sit in practice learning the language of my own prana and how to harness that power for who I was in the process of becoming.
Understand, from a city girl’s perspective, this seemed rather odd and backward in my mind. It also rang as “not normal” because it was not what I saw a great deal of people around me practicing every day. Yoga taught me to be fully engaged with my life, in the here and now — it taught me to breathe. It also taught me that to be present for the past, present and the future, I would need to be fully present for myself first — it taught me to keep breathing. And, this meant taking the time to drop into my practice and allow the practice of pranayama to guide me to a deeper, more expanded version of myself. A version of myself that could hold all my dreams for my life, all the vision I had for a better world and all the compassion for those who were searching even if they weren’t aware of it at the moment.
I learned that it was not about working harder to show up for my life but about simply engaging with my life smarter. I learned the importance of breath is life and it’s connection to my life force and how that force that lives within impacts and sustains the work I choose to do on the inside and the work that calls to me out in the world. I’ve learned intent does not equal impact and if I plan to be in the work of equity and liberation for all, my work must be sustainable. My life became about my practice and asana began to shrink in comparison to my practice of pranayama.
Our breath is life
For without breath there is no life. Without energy there is no motion or momentum. And without motion or momentum, there is no vitality nor passion to pour out into the world to bring to life what matters most. As yoga teaches us to look inward so our lives may reflect the divinity within, so too does the energy we choose to harness and nurture determine how much vital life force and passionate energy we can provide to all we touch.
If there is one thing we can all agree on, it is the fact we all desire to live a life of impact. We all desire for our lives to speak to the worth and value we possess and to share that life with others for the good of all. We all desire for our lives to matter; no matter what. And it is true, our lives matter, no matter what. And our choice to be responsible for the energy we bring to the room, the table, the relationship, or the cause matters just as much.
How we choose to take care of our life force and what we choose to do with it matters not just to ourselves as individuals but to the world we choose to live in and life we choose to show up for day after day. At the end of the day, we all are deserving of breath. And what we do with the life force that animates our physical form, brings vitality and passion to so much, makes all the difference in the world.
At the end of the day, it’s the long game that matters.