The inhale and the exhale each create a pattern and effect in the body. In yogic terms, the inhale is the pranic pattern and is the feminine principle associated with creation. It fills the body with nourishing energy and has the effect of softness, receptivity, and expansiveness. It is largely focused in the expansion of the heart space. The exhale is the apanic pattern and is the masculine principle and is associated with dissolution. It empties the body of what it does not need, and has a strengthening, grounding and centering effect. It is largely focused in the contraction of the core and pelvic floor area. When we do not merely move from the inhale to the exhale, but merge these two patterns, something significant happens in our yoga practice. When the inhale draws from the strength of the exhale, and we maintain the contraction of the core and pelvic floor area, as we expand the heart space, we open the body without losing our ground or centre. This connection between the two breath patterns allows for a deeper expansion, because when we are centred, grounded, and strong, our energy does not dissipate in the expansion, but amplifies. When the exhale draws from the soft receptivity of the inhale, and we maintain an open heart space as we move into deeper contractions in the asana, these contractions do not become rigid or petrified, but are open to the movement of pranic flow that feeds the body with the energy it needs to maintain and generate its strength. This merger of the breath patterns has effect of making our transitions between the asanas and the asanas themselves extremely powerful.
An example of the power of the transition when the breath pattern is merged is between the forward fold and mountain. When we rise up from the contraction we have created in the belly and pelvic floor as we exhaled into the forward fold and feed this contraction into the opening of the heart space on the inhale into mountain, we experience the powerful buoyancy and elongation of the spine, whilst remaining anchored and strong. Like a tree we are firmly rooted in the earth, but our branches reach in all directions, and generate new shoots and leaves. When we move on the exhale from mountain to the forward fold and deepen the contraction, we feed it with to soft receptivity we have created in the inhale, and thus our body remains supple as we fold. We move in and out of the fold, and this movement creates space and opening in the body so that we can move into the forward fold move deeply. Again we can refer to the example of a tree to understand this merger between strength and softness. Like a willow tree our upper branches in their soft suppleness are able to move in and out from the trunk.
When we merge the breath patterns in our practice, our strength comes from softness and our softness from strength. Contrary to what society and culture has taught us, these two qualities are not mutually exclusive. In yogic terms, this is the unity between the masculine and feminine. We can see how our society and culture that has pitted the masculine against the feminine has produced distorted and toxic forms of both, and has been the cause of our issues with gender. Yoga is not separate from life. It is not a metaphor for life. What happens in our practice will begin to shape the way we live. So if we can harness the merger of the breath patterns in yoga – the merger between strength and softness – this merger will begin to shape our life so that we can live well, where we are centred, grounded, and strong and open and receptive to the flow of life.