Breathwork: An interview with Valerie Moselle

“Our movements become more fluid, and we can access a state where we are connected to our inner rhythm…and the natural, organic pulsing movements that I believe we would do regularly if they weren’t conditioned out of us in childhood. Breath helps us ‘tune in’ to our inner experience. But if a student is detached from that experience, they don’t naturally come into it with ease…you have to ask them to do it, to remember it again and again.” ~Valerie Moselle, on breath.

I began studying breath work in 2011, when one of my graduate school professors recommended Charlie Weingroff’s DVD set “Training equals Rehab.” In it, Weingroff laid out the foundations for stability, beginning with the breath. I was immediately curious, and what ensued was an all encompassing quest to understand how breathing works, both physically and emotionally, and why (and how) to teach it.

Fast forward eight years later, and teaching breath work is a regular part of my practice. It finds its way into workshops and I almost always end up teaching breath to all of my clients at some point as a way to support their physical practices.

I recently interviewed Valerie Moselle, founder of Luma Yoga in Santa Cruz and author of the upcoming book, “Breathwork: A 3-Week Breathing Program to Gain Clarity, Calm, and Better Health” on her thoughts on all things movement related. Below is her story. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

How did you become interested in yoga/movement?

“I was a dancer…started when I was 3. So crafted movement was part of my life from the time I was very little. I have a BFA in Dance from a small art college in Seattle called Cornish, and though I took my first yoga classes with my mom in the late 70’s, I started taking classes in Seattle in my early 20s as a supplement to dance training. I was struck by the suggestion of movement for movement’s sake, rather than performance…and the absence of mirrors (an invitation to experience movement internally, rather than to be observed…or in competition…as in sports.)

In the early days I took Iyengar. The focus on perfecting alignment was familiar as this is what you do all day as a dancer. I found Bikram in SF. This was before his ‘explosion’ of popularity. Bikram had started this tiny studio in North Beach. I didn’t take class with him because he had recently moved to LA to open his studio there. There was no such thing as “hot yoga” at that time. I was drawn to the heat and the intensity of it. I think it spoke to me as a dancer. There were 2 excellent teachers there. Kind, careful people. I think Bikram developed the ego and allowed his abusive tendencies to flourish later, as he became famous and people started flocking to him. These two teachers in his studio eventually were replaced by other teachers, didn’t have such depth. It started to feel scripted and the movements too repetitive (only so much you can do with 26 postures), so I moved onto Ashtanga Yoga at Larry Schultz’s studio. Ashtanga spoke to me as a dancer because of the kinetic ‘flow’ of the Suryanamaskaras. I remember I used to think it looked like people were flying. From there, yoga started to explode. Studios were opening everywhere, and ‘flow’ yoga was starting to appear. I took all kinds of classes all over town, and my first teacher training was Iyengar with Lisa Walford.

When I moved to LA, I took an Ashtanga-based training at Yoga Works, before Maty and Chuck sold the studio and the first corporate yoga entity was born. But I fell in love with Max Strom’s studio and wound up being more engaged in that community, The Sacred Movement Center for Yoga and Healing. His classes were breath focused, moderately paced, and welcoming. A little less ‘culty’ than the practices I was into before, a little more permissive, and less radical. I found this environment more healing and less dogmatic. I began teaching there. As I rubbed shoulders with LA’s yoga elites I got to see a lot of the ugliness behind the scenes. Competitiveness, lack of integrity, ugly displays of ego, etc… I decided that integrity in a teacher was super important to me. I still work with Max, and that is one of the reasons why.

In 2006 my husband and I went to India with our 8-month old daughter and set up a household for a 6-month work opportunity my husband had. I found a teacher there. He taught me what we would refer to in the West as Ayurveda…holistic lifestyle management…seeing-treating the whole person, rather than trying to perfect asana specifically. We spent most of our time there in practice on pranayama and philosophy. He has been a great inspiration.

In 2007 my friend Denise Kaufman encouraged me to study with Paul Grilley…and my eyes were opened to variation and morphology. At the time yoga was all alignment and rules. We were gobsmacked. Whaaaaat? There is no ‘right’ way to do a pose? This kind of thinking is more out now, but at the time it was a complete deviation. Breaking the rules has been my favorite thing ever since. Why? Why are we doing this. Let’s look at it again. Why? Yoga teachers really need to be asking this. We have inherited a plethora of mythology that is based on very little…and we have perpetuated it.

As for my life’s path, in SF before LA and India I started subbing yoga classes. I was teaching at a little dance studio in Berkeley, and had been for about a year…It made sense to teach yoga…because I had before been teaching dance. I started subbing at Yoga Tree in SF…which was brand new then. I remember teaching this class and this thing happened (which I would now call a state of flow) where I felt I was channeling. I had led an experience…not a lesson. I see this now as one possibility of what our job is as yoga teachers…to get someone into that zone…that state of flow. It’s a form of meditation. I felt completely at home, and solid…even though I was a new teacher, nervous and inexperienced. Later, a work colleague who had come to that very class at my invitation expressed to me that she felt something special happen in that class. She told me she and her boyfriend had a new saying between them, “like Valerie teaching yoga.” Meaning…you’re in the groove, you’re “on the jazz.” I’ve only recently been able to reflect on that moment from the perspective of that being a moment where I became deeply intrigued and inspired to keep digging into the practice.”

How has your idea of yoga/movement changed in the last decade? How have you evolved as a teacher?

“It depends on which day you ask me. There is a way in which I’m very much a purist. The practices of yoga (asana and breath) have brought me deeper into my experience of Self. I feel I have learned so much from the perspective of my organism and how it is in relationship to the forces around me. I try to embody the thoughts and ideas of interconnection…opening myself in practice, musings, imagination, human interactions and play to the idea of being able to tap into that more original energy, flow, current that is present both within us and all around us. That IS us and everything around us. Visiting that place is deeply nourishing. The philosophy behind it is fascinating, and also provides a structure or construct that I find useful for making sense of my world. So in the last decade I have dug into these aspects intellectually, and viscerally…actually trying to feel, through my body, that sense of integration and connection.

Separately I have become fascinated by the paradox that is yoga. On the one hand, yoga (historically especially) asks us to transcend the body. On the other hand, yoga claims therapeutic properties. What we (Modern Postural Yoga Teachers) who have been at it for a while are discovering is that these two ideals are sometimes at odds. Here is an example. In meditation when the body starts to complain, in many philosophical schools that have personal transcendence as a goal of meditation, you train yourself to ignore the needs of the body. Your goal is to transcend physical reality, and connect to the underlying energetic structure. These schools teach the body is to be sacrificed. This is the root of austerities. It shows up in the forest yogis of the Mughal era, in Buddhist monasteries all over the world, and even in Christianity in the form of self flagellation. This might be a path for a certain kind of devotee seeking a certain kind of revelation. But it’s not necessarily physically therapeutic.

However, we have sold yoga in the West as healing to the mind-body continuum. If yoga’s going to heal the mind-body, from the perspective of the body we have to understand the biomechanics of tissue adaptation, the neurological aspects of pain, and the relationship between physical practice and the nervous system. We have to be educated in exercise science, but then take it a step further and make space for our psychology. This is a tall order. Most yoga teachers are not equipped to do this. But this is where yoga is going. But it probably won’t be called yoga…because what the layperson thinks of now when they think of yoga is basically that hot, physically exhausting thing you do in gyms and fancy studios in special pants. A great (if not sound) hot, sweaty workout with an endorphin high that is conflated with shallow promises of transformational bliss and inner peace. (Yes…I’m bitter and disappointed).”

What role does breath work play in your teaching? What about in your personal practice?

I teach breath in the way Max taught me to teach it. I instruct it constantly, until I feel like a broken record. There are times to be more intuitive and elegant with the breath…and often…in my own practice the breath is less scripted than I invite students to do. But what I have noticed is that first you have to break the ‘breath barrier’…a student won’t free the breath on their own. They hold onto it, like they’re bracing for a car accident. Once you get the breath flowing, you can back off of it and let it come more naturally. When we breathe deeply and consciously we detach from the ‘busy mind’ and instantly come into a more visceral moment-to-moment awareness experience. Our movements become more fluid, and we can access a state where we are connected to our inner rhythm…and the natural, organic pulsing movements that I believe we would do regularly if they weren’t conditioned out of us in childhood. Breath helps us ‘tune in’ to our inner experience. But if a student is detached from that experience, they don’t naturally come into it with ease…you have to ask them to do it, to remember it again and again.

I go through phases, I sometimes teach more formal pranayama in the beginning of class, I sometimes arrange whole classes around scripted breaths with lots of standing breathing exercises. I sometimes get infatuated with breath-initiated movement, and then sometimes I just get bored of hearing myself talk about it and I let it go for a while. When I do this, my students stop breathing. They look more anxious and stiff. I think it’s important to insist on it as a teacher. To constantly remind us to pay attention. There is something in us that releases when we replicate the kinds of breaths we would take if our lives were more kinetically varied and less sedentary. We return to our bodies.”

Speaking of personal practices, what does your current practice look like? How has it changed in the last ten years?

“Ugg…honestly, a few years ago I took a meditation class for women with Camille Maureen where she suggested that practice could be what it needed to be in the moment. You could roll around and growl, you could sit in meditation, you could eat chocolate. I took that as an invitation to listen to my internal ecosystem and do whatever it was calling for. This released me from all the ‘shoulds’ that made practice a chore. Again. permission…liberating. I’ve been teaching yoga for a long time. What I teach is entirely different from what I spend time doing in ‘practice’. So for my physical body I lift weights. Maybe take a dance class. Go for a walk. In my room on my bedroom floor practice looks a lot like rolling around on the floor until my body feels a little less creaky…maybe doing a few strength inquiries which could sometimes be postures…and could be push ups or squats or burpees until I’m a little worn out..I usually resolve with stillness. I love to sit and make micro movements with my spine and see what emotions come up. I sometimes focus on a pain I have in my body and try to figure it out, does it have an emotional component, which muscles are those. I often listen to the birds or sit quietly in the dark and become so still I can feel my heartbeat rocking my spine. I let the breath ripple through my spine…I call it the ‘breath wave’. Sometimes I don’t practice for a long time because I’m too exhausted or busy. Middle age with family is work to dinner to putting kids to bed to showering and preparing for work again…This too is a practice…or an excuse…but probably both! Right now I’m into handstands. I gave up learning to balance them when I got pregnant the first time 14 years ago. Now I want that skill. Attachment, Desire. Sometimes for usually short periods, some number of months, I commit to getting up every morning and sitting…that is usually not sustainable in the long run, sleep always wins. So I let it go, and then reinvest in it again later. I’ve noticed a seasonal relationship to my ability to sustain early morning meditation practice. I’m curious to see how my practice changes as my kids get older and more self sufficient. I don’t really enjoy taking classes much anymore…I’m too busy paying attention to the teacher…I don’t like the pacing…I want to listen to my body. How’s that for all over the place? I try not to be too hard on myself.”

What do you see as the biggest obstacle to the health and well-being of the general population in the US?

“Sedentary living and a feeling of separateness from the earth and from one-another.”

What role (if any) do yoga and movement professionals play in making movement, breath, and mobility a larger part of people’s lives?

“We provide opportunities for people to regularly engage in the experience of flow, to systematically stress (just enough, not too much) different physical, neurological, and psychological systems promoting integration between the different structures and aspects of ourselves, AND in group settings, we provide opportunities to experience community…to move and breathe together.”

Is there anything else you would like to add?

“What great questions! Thank you!”

To pre-order Valerie’s new book, please click here.