“If you don’t go within, you go without.”
From ‘Conversations With God’ by Neale Donald Walsch
“God is in every breath.”
It’s remarkable how I can completely miss the obvious. I astound myself sometimes, I really do. I’d bypass the point even if my life depended on it. Take breathing, for instance...
The first thing I learned in yoga was how to breathe properly. And the first thing I forgot was how to breathe properly. Phenomenal, isn’t it, what an autistic mind can misplace when left to its own devices? And that, unfortunately, is what I was left to – to try to learn yoga by myself, with only the aid of a book for me to work through and attempt to understand, and no-one to keep reminding me of the salient points: like the need to focus on the breath.
So of course, once I’d read the section on breathing, I promptly forgot most of it in my excitement and impatience to move on to what I viewed as the REALLY important bits – the asanas (that’s postures or poses to you non-yogis). Plus, I probably knew that trying to rein in my mind to pay attention to what I was doing was going to be a bugger, so I conveniently consigned that part to the ‘inconsequential’ pile, possibly to be attempted at a later date – when I was able to focus better. Yes, I imagined that simply doing yoga postures, without specifically practicing concentrating on the breath or on what my body was doing, would somehow miraculously teach me how to focus - whilst I continued to let my mind wander wherever it wanted. This is what I call the autistic version of multi-tasking: I appear to be able to do two things simultaneously, but one of them is suffering badly from a lack of attention – and it isn’t the thinking.
At this point in the proceedings (just over nine years ago) I hadn’t yet discovered that I was autistic, or had ADHD to explain the decided lack of anything resembling an attention span. But when I did find out, I came to the erroneous conclusion that this explained why I hadn’t been able to attain any measure of control over my mind (thereby completely circumventing the fact that I actually hadn’t tried very hard either, it being excruciating, like trying to keep a jack in a box when the lid’s broken); and that the book was written for non-autistics, so this definitely meant that I was not going to be able to do it at all, thus letting me off the hook. I thought.
The funny thing is that once I started to progress in my yoga practice, I found myself wanting to be able to attain what was promised in my books, which drove me to make time to include the practice of breathing and meditation techniques. And, remarkably enough, they started to work. I actually found myself able to sit still and do nothing, other than breathe and try to focus, for longer than thirty seconds. Okay, so my mind was still rampantly running amok, but it was no longer dictating what my body should do – a bit like sitting still in the middle of a war-zone, with people yelling at me that I should move out of the way. Not a lot of peace, but I wasn’t going to shift until I decided it was time.
And then I discovered that, even though I still couldn’t seem to control my mind, which insisted on attaching itself to every thought that came my way (the opposite to what you’re supposed to do, which is to let the thoughts flow in and out – totally not autistic!), I felt calmer, and my mind was quieter: it was like someone had finally managed to find the volume control and turn the noise down. I wasn’t reacting to every thought that entered my head, trying to analyse and talk myself out of having them. It had finally clicked that the moment I engaged in any way with my thinking, was the moment when my mind had won the battle to get my attention, thereby diverting it away from what I was supposed to be doing, what was really important – focusing on the breath, and being in the present.
The irony is that my best friend has been telling me this for years, with regard to the rest of my life. It’s one of a number of phrases she has to keep repeating to me, parrot-fashion, until I get the meaning. “Stop analysing, stick to the plan, focus on what you’re supposed to be DOING, and ignore what you’re THINKING and it’ll go away.” Unfortunately, I was always too busy listening to what my mind had to say about it all, and analysing what she’d said, to actually follow her advice.
And I basically did the same when it came to reading my yoga book which, coincidentally (or not), contained almost the exact same advice: “Just enjoy what you are doing, give it your full attention, stay present in what you are working on, and keep focusing on the breath ...”; and: “The mind loves to wander to the past or the future; try and stay in the present moment when you practice. Keep the mind on the breath, observing what it’s doing and how it feels. By doing this the mind stays in the now.”; and one more time, just in case you missed the point (which I did, repeatedly): “Thoughts will begin to slow down and you will find yourself simply observing their flow, without grasping at them or becoming attached to any of them.”
So, what is it that is so special about the breath? Well, in yoga they consider it to be the essence of existence, so that when you inhale you not only take in oxygen, but the energy of life, out of which everything in the universe (including us) is made. Another name for it is God, which I personally prefer: it’s a lot less of an abstract concept to have to deal with, especially when it comes to the question of talking to It. “Good morning, energy, please help me stick to my plan today,” would make me feel rather as if I were talking to nothing in particular,just a lot of air – or myself. Whereas the word God denotes that I am talking to a friend.
I also find it amazingly symbolic that in the Bible it tells of how when God created man, He breathed life into him. Yep, breathing is probably the most effective way of connecting with God (or your spirit, soul, or higher Self, whatever you want to call it), and it doesn’t cost a thing. You just have to learn to slow down in order to be able to listen, not just talk, otherwise it’s like asking someone for directions to somewhere, and then walking off before they get the chance to tell them to you; which is the kind of relationship I have frequently had with Him. Fortunately She’s never taken the hump and walked off when I’ve returned to talk at Her.
When you breathe deeply, into your tummy, you slow down the breath, and when it slows down the mind slows down too. And if you practice enough you can actually shut it up completely (for a while, anyway): it’s almost as if it gets bored when it’s not being listened to. But you have to practice A LOT – this thing, this mind with its plethora of thoughts, is persistent, patient, and has had a great deal of practice at running the show: and it requires the exact same attributes in order to take back control. Attributes with which an obsessive/compulsive autistic, with ADHD, is not exactly naturally endowed. I can spell them, and I know how to use them in a sentence, but the Three Ps have left me frequently perplexed when it comes to applying them in my life.
Which is why it’s only taken me just over nine years to work out that I’ve been missing a bit in my yoga practice. That it just happens to be the essential bit is par for the course for me. And the final irony is that the word ‘yoga’ actually means ‘to unite, combine, yoke’, which translates to meaning that the body, mind, and soul all end up working in unison through the practice of yoga. Mine have all been doing what they always do, going their separate ways, whilst I have questioned whether yoga is really as effective as I’ve read that it is supposed to be. After all, it’s only been going for about three thousand years!