February 13, 2011

Max Strom: A LIfe Worth Breathing

The Tao is the breath that never dies  
Tao Te Ching
Skyhorse Publishing, 2010
We may think we know how to breathe already. Think again. Perhaps there is an inch more oxygen to be inhaled by expanding your lung power? Attending a Max Strom class with my wintry chest cough, I felt I would not be able to get through it, but he taught me how to enlarge my lung capacity, and it was just the thing I needed. Fuller expansive chest breathing gives us more energy as it is literally the spirit and soul of life. In many languages the root of the words ‘breath’, ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ is the same.Hence the title of this book. Life is definitely worth breathing some more.

We can all breathe, but often we do not know how to do it fully and consciously. Once we realise however, that the body contains and stores emotions like grief and anger, and that the breath controls this, then healing can begin. Strom’s message is - Breathe More and watch this healing evolve. He has a deep, mellifluous tone, which comes from a source deep inside him and I can almost hear him say the words on the page: people are scared of breathing deeply because they are scared of their emotions.

Strom shows that even to know simple things about yoga can help us to integrate different elements of our personality. It does not have to be esoteric. You don’t have to be able to wrap your legs around your neck to be enlightened. Flexible does not equal spiritual.

Many great saints actually had stiff necks or legs. They were not nimble-footed when old, but walked like broken robots, spine bent, or not at all, as unfortunately many elderly people do. The most dangerous place for the over sixties in the USA is the bedroom and the bathroom where falls occur that can be fatal. Flexibility could help maintain a healthier, longer life. Similarly, people who are incredibly flexible, able to do the most gymnastic of  poses, can still be thinking what's for dinner, or how much they hate the grouchy person next to them on the bus.

Max Strom is a kind of teacher’s teacher. He has that something ‘extra’, a deeper understanding,  a balanced tone, a sharp intellect, a kindness towards those who struggle to learn, such as the over 60s, who have little coordination or balance. This may be because of his own personal struggles with pain- his clubbed feet, but he quickly realised aged 15, after starting with Chi Gong, and Chinese yoga, that  yoga is transformational, and catches you for life.

I still can’t do the full wheel – it’s like hitting a wall every time I try.  Deeper chest breathing could help it to eventually happen. His inclination, both in the book and in his classes, is to be calm and explain things in a way that seems simple, yet lucid, fresh and illuminating.  So,  the real change are not in being able to do the Side Crow, or Peacock pose, but in opening up as a person to the world around you; seeing the world differently with the ‘ears’ and the ‘eyes’ of an open heart.

It seems a lot for yoga to manage to be able to do all of this.  Yet it is deceptive.  It is a big mistake  to confuse ‘yoga’ with a lightweight work out session, or think it involves doing  asanas (physical postures) only. The physical positions are only one of the eight limbs of yoga. Other branches are Pranayama (breathing) and Samyama which is the combined simultaneous practice of Dharana (concentration, intent), Dhyana, (contemplation) and Samadhi (unity). These are words he rarely uses as they tend to scare off beginners who don't like mystical claptrap. But these deeper approaches to yoga help us respond to dilemmas, connect to the world through focused attention, deeper breathing which leads us to be more present in any moment. And that can't be a bad thing

Strom’s words are so apt here: to the outside observer, looking through the window of a yoga class, it is just a bunch of people stretching hamstrings, nothing more. If an illiterate person watches someone reading a book, all they see is a person with their head in pages filled with black indecipherable squiggles on. They cannot fathom the possible impact of reading, even less gauge if that person happens to be reading a life-changing novel. 

We live in a market driven culture that puts premium emphasis on physical health, often overlooking the emotional and psychological issues that underpin illness. Through yogic breathing our nervous system becomes more relaxed and open to giving us heightened experiences. This is what yoga does for us. It can heal emotional complexes like depression – it can also make you look fitter and be more confident,  and have a sexier butt, but the sexy butt is not the goal- just the bonus. All sensory and positive experiences are enhanced.

Yoga has to be experienced to be known fully. People come to yoga to heal their back pains, their dodgy knees, and it helps them, but what keeps them coming back for more is that it heals their lives too.

This book could help trigger your desire to breathe and connect to the world in fuller, more satisfying ways. It is that simple. It is full of graceful, healing thoughts which linger in the mind just like the impression the man himself makes. It is a book worth reading for that alone.

Kieron Devlin


Anonymous said...

Thank you, Kieron for your kind words. I am happy that the book as been helpful to you on your journey. Keep up the good work.

In peace ~ Max Strom


KJD said...

Thank you Max.
I think it will be helpful to many others too.