Updated: Dec 2, 2020
My partner and I certainly can’t claim to be young Dads, but we are new Dads.
And we’re six weeks into a different phase in our lives – co-parenting our little baby girl with another couple in Springwood.
It’s a new world for us, and with it comes an array of unfamiliar terms, and things to learn, such as self-soothing.
Our little girl seems fine one second and then her face can change, and before you know it, she’s screaming her head off. She’s a placid baby, but at this age she can’t self-soothe, according to those who know about these things. So we need to be straight onto it.
And that means addressing what might be wrong.
In reality, there aren’t too many options at this stage. Needs a feed? Needs to burp? Needs a nappy change? Needs to be wrapped? Too hot? Too cold? Needs a change of position? A nice bath? etc.
And the beauty of it is that we get instant feedback as to whether that was the issue or not. If the crying stops, we’re sorted. If not, then move on to the next possible solution and keep going until she’s content again.
Which brings me on to Pranayama… breath awareness and breath control.
That might not seem like a natural Segway. But 6 weeks into parenthood, my sense is that Pranayama and caring for a new baby are not as far apart as they might at first seem.
The difficulty, perhaps, is that our own breathing doesn’t seem to in any way resemble a crying baby. We breathe automatically without us even having to think about it. And our breath never seems to complain, unless there’s a really good reason such as intense physical activity or an asthma attack.
So it’s easy to take our breath for granted, and to want to skip through the early stages of Pranayama, or ignore it altogether, which many of us do.
Long-term, ignoring Pranayama is not an option, if we wish to progress in yoga. Pranayama is the fourth limb of Ashtanga yoga and builds concurrently with the third limb, which is Asana, or physical postures. We understand through practice that as we become more aware of our physical body, then we can also explore something more subtle, which is the movement of breath.
Skipping the early stages of Pranayama might seem more logical, since what harm can it do if we’re just breathing? Yet yoga masters give strong warnings about the power of breath, and direct us not to take it lightly. And not just to cherry-pick certain types of breath work, without the foundations of a broad, integrated yoga practice. When one Indian teacher was pushing the ‘cure-all’ benefits of kapalbhati (a type of kriya or purifying breath), BKS Iyengar pushed back. In 2011, The Times of India reported him saying that ‘over-publicizing of specific aspects like 'kapalbhati' is wrong and is a "short-cut" best avoided’.
Perhaps you have experienced the power of the breath yourself in a negative way. Sometimes there can be quite harsh feedback from breath work – headspins, overheating, gasping for breath – particularly if we have not picked up on the earlier, more subtle, signs that all is not well.
So if we can’t ignore Pranayama and if skipping ahead is not recommended, then where do we start?
To my mind, we can learn from how we relate to young babies.
Learning about my baby girl and what she needs has been a very satisfying and rewarding experience thus far. I feel like my bond with her has strengthened over these first few weeks of her life, as I’ve become more attuned to her, and more attentive to what she needs. More able to read her.
And my own breath should be no less important to me. As breath is vital for living and breath control brings with it the promise of also being able to direct the Life Force (or Prana) within us.
Which raises some questions. Can I be as attentive to my own breath as I have to be to the needs of my small baby? Can I find joy in being with my own breath, in the same way that being in the presence of a contented baby can also bring joy? Can I self-soothe myself, in a way that a baby cannot?
Naturally, with a baby, we do not rush ahead. We know that what’s important initially for the baby is sleep, food, human contact and nurture. And if her basic needs are met, there’s every chance she will thrive and develop.
So it is also with Pranayama, if we focus initially on the foundations. Integrating Pranayama alongside our Asana practice. Being attentive to how we set ourselves up for lying or sitting Pranayama**. Stilling our mind to the breath (as best we can). Becoming attuned to ourselves.
Breath work may not give us such obvious and immediate feedback, in the way that a baby does. But both require us to be responsive, both require us to care, both can give us a sense of joy and contentedness in life.
A young baby cannot self-soothe. But through Pranayama, we may find a way to do that for ourselves.
** For a great introduction on how to start a Pranayama practice try BKS Iyengar’s ‘Light on Pranayama’ – pages 129-134.