Breathing life: yoga, inspiration and human receptivity

What is it about a crowded yoga room that inspires practitioners? Why does a confluence of sweaty bodies contorted into a variety of postures motivate students in the same room to enter into their practice more deeply and absorb its benefits more fully? This mysterious dynamic between individual and crowd is perhaps heightened in a Mysore class setting, where students do what is called self-practice: rather than being led by a teacher such that all students perform the same asana at the same time, practitioners are taught a set sequence of postures in one-on-one instruction, following the traditional sequence of asanas designed by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. Practitioners memorize this sequence of asanas and progress through their practice at their own pace, each student adhering to the same order of poses yet performing them without the constant instructions of a teacher. In a self-practice setting, then, students are both deeply enmeshed in their personal practice and profoundly inspired by the collective body of practitioners that surrounds and encompasses them.

But what is it that makes a room feel full? How does the atmosphere of a full room work to collectively inspire practitioners in it, even as they might be undergoing very personal experiences? The question of inspiration is, I believe, one which may be approached on etymological grounds. The Oxford English Dictionary notes that ‘inspire’ comes from the Latin inspirare and lists its primary definition of as ‘to breathe or blow upon or into.’ The secondary definition is ‘to breathe (life, a soul, etc.) in or into’ and the source of this meaning comes from Genesis 2:7: “Then the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” Translated to Latin, the second half of the verse reads as: “inspiravit in faciem eius spiraculum vitæ, et factus est homo in animam viventem.” From this origin springs the figurative meaning, which has now become the primary definition: ‘to infuse some thought or feeling into (a person, etc.), as if by breathing; to animate or actuate by some mental or spiritual influence.’

From spirit to respiration to inspiration: the role of breath in the cultivation of an inspirational practice space is vital. Our yoga practice is founded on an attention to breath that returns us to the mechanism of our embodied existence—the cycle of inhalation and exhalation that heralds our birth and whose cessation signals our departure. Through our asanas, we seemingly allow the practice to breathe into us and reanimate our bodies and minds. We open ourselves to the continual possibility of being inspired by the breath of life. In this sense, it is as if practice is like a joint or a metaphor, a structure that allows passage and transference from one configuration to another: inside to outside and out to in, from psychological to physical and back again. Inhaling the world in and letting it back out again, breath is indeed is our embodied tool of passage and transformation, of being affected by others and in turn affecting others. It manifests the great fact of our human receptivity, a gift of both vulnerability and strength. When we share a practice space with fellow practitioners, we breathe in each other’s breath. As a collective body, we inhale and exhale together, literally creating the inspirational atmosphere that motivates a focus and commitment that might otherwise be beyond our capabilities.

Put simply, the vitality of a room of breath circulating from one practitioner to another allows us the opportunity to have more life breathed into us by others. All of this is to emphasize the point that we probably don’t realize, though it seems so simple: in a crowded class, we as individual practitioners benefit from our fellow students. We are inspired by their presence and energy.  Yet, in the same moment that we are recipients, we are simultaneously active agents in inspiring fellow students and our absence and presence in class is felt. Our presence, your presence in practice inspires. When you come, you breathe life into the studio and into your practice—you both breathe life into and accept the breath of life from other practitioners.