Flat on my mat, I take another deep breath. The calm voice of Jason, our yoga instructor, floats through the overheated room. “Stay with your breathing.” Easy for him to say! I was wobbling so precariously in tree pose minutes ago, I couldn’t really imagine doing anything other than falling over. “Breathe,” he admonishes us again. Stretching my limbs across the floor, I reach for my towel to wipe the sweat dripping from my torso. As I suck in my gut to take another breath. I gasp to fill my lungs again. Jason stoops down and puts his hand on my chest, gently pushing in. “Empty your lungs,” he coaches me.
I never do well at deflating myself when someone is crouched over me, watching me. I started to discretely panic. Simultaneously, I realized I was aggressively sucking in a lot more sticky air than exhaling. Slowly I pushed my breath out. It didn’t require as much effort as I assumed. Why is my default response to gasp for more air? I began to relax. My breathing became steadier and slower. And there was only 10 minutes left to class.
I resist emptying. And it matters. It matters a lot. Why? Because there is a natural rhythm to even the most stressful activity. Too often I fail to get in sync. My default seems to be to take in more, fill up more, rather than to find a flow that includes emptying, letting go. Recalling my yoga instructor’s coaching, I forget to breathe out.
Emptying takes many different forms. I recall the tedious last few hours of a 2.5 day executive offsite at Rock Springs Ranch some years ago now. “Prioritize your targets, don’t just list them,” I urged the participants one more time, trying to close out a tense day of strategic visioning. Re-arranging the post-it notes one more time was not going to cut it. They were beyond ready to be done. And then it hit me!
“I want you to get up and go for a walk,” I abruptly announced. “Don’t talk to anyone. Don’t check your email. Or make phone calls.” Eyes rolling as they anxiously fumbled their muted mobile devices, I sensed their disbelief. “Please go outside, walk some of this beautiful countryside for 15 minutes in silence.” “You’ve got to be kidding, “ one exec mumbled as he sauntered to the door.
They did return – eventually. Refreshed and more present, they settled in quickly. Less anxious chatter. More listening. Less arguing. A new unanticipated consensus on priorities emerged. They closed on the task at hand, feeling a surprising sense of accomplishment. As they departed, one of the group commented to me, “I had a good talk with the horses out there. Thanks!” I was astonished but pleased.
I sweat emptying, whether practicing yoga or working with a client group. But emptying creates more space to breathe. By now I should know that is essential for a deep, sustainable vitality.