When you really pay attention to your breath, it’s astonishing how much you notice. As I follow the sensation of cool air flowing into my nose, I feel a gentle expansion, a widening through my nasal cavity, back into my skull, and down my throat. My collarbones rise and spread; my ribs separate and widen like a bellows.
Exhaling, my diaphragm contracts into the cave of my abdomen, my spine curling ever so slightly around it. All the while, my body feels as if it’s sinking into the floor. My mind follows the gravitational pull, its perpetual whirl slowed to a pleasant hum.
This single breath cycle takes less than 20 seconds, but an hour could easily have passed. It occurs to me that it’s like that movie Interstellar—as if I’ve left the normal time–space continuum and awakened to a whole new world of sensation inside, as I lie here, covered in blankets, a weighted pillow across my hips, drinking in this wildly restorative substance called air.
I’m not normally so observant of my breath. But I’m following Jillian Pransky’s voice, a bit raspy, slow and clear and incredibly relaxing. She’s guiding me through her signature Deep Listening practice, which, in this moment, I could honestly describe as liquefying. As in, it feels like my muscles have separated from my bones and both are suspended in some viscous substance, my mind contentedly floating alongside.
“Let your breath arrive in your body,” Pransky says, and if I could, I would nod in assent: I think it’s here. But I really don’t think I can move. And then a tiny thought bubble rises up from the deep: Thank goodness I don’t have to drive right away.
I’ve come to meet Pransky to experience her body-based relaxation system that blends yoga, mindfulness, and somatic awareness into a delicious low-tech stew—a nourishing and welcome response to our hyper-connected and overstimulated lives. It might just be the antithesis of popular modern yoga styles—no overheated room, no endless Chaturangas-to-Up-Dog vinyasas, no orders to in-hale! ex-hale!
Instead we move slowly and deliberately, warming up with a few gentle poses. With calm assurance, she is beginning to direct our inner attention to how we hold ourselves in our bodies, before we head back to lie down on our mats, surrounded and comforted by the support of bolsters and blankets. As we lie in postures designed to encourage the gentle release of tight and shortened muscles, we “receive” the breath as it enters the body. Then, we mentally trace where our feet, legs, back, arms, and head touch the floor, like kids making body outlines they’ll later paint in art class, and imagine expanding the imprint with our awareness.
We invite the breath to meet any hard or stuck places in the body, washing over and around them like water, releasing the tension and pain held there. In a contemplation she calls Making Space, Pransky gently urges, “Let yourself be opened by your breath.”
Welcome the breath with a receptive belly. Your breath will gently unravel the tension it meets. Your breath will tenderly expand you inside. Allow your breath to unwind you, unfurl you.
From Go-Go-Go to Slow-Slow-Slow
Twenty years ago a different yoga attracted Jillian Pransky. A different life. Absorbed in a busy marketing career with a major publishing house in Manhattan, she was a go-getter, a climber, focused on success and her ability to create it. “Jillian the Achiever. Jillian the Tenacious. Jillian the Succeeder,” she writes in her 2017 book Deep Listening. “All the foundational ideas I had about myself were validated by my job.”
She was also athletic, pushing herself through any physical challenge. She played soccer throughout school, and as an adult she taught aerobics in addition to her day job. She tells how she began running, proudly finishing a five-mile race soon after. Then someone suggested she should run a marathon, so she did…just five months later. “Because I had cultivated a mind-over-matter attitude, I was actually able to cross the finish line,” she writes. “But then I was sick for a year. I had pushed myself too much, although I didn’t make that connection at the time.”
When she discovered yoga, it became an obsession. She practiced at the studio across from her Flatiron Building office at lunchtime and again after work. She became certified to teach, and started doing that in her off hours.
“I loved how powerful my body felt when I practiced yoga,” she writes. “I loved the sensations of openness and expansiveness when challenging my physical boundaries. I did headstands so I could feel mighty and successful and strong.”
Then her world turned upside down. Her beloved sister-in-law, Lisa, was diagnosed with lung cancer, and died just three years later. The shock of it deeply impacted Pransky; alongside the pain and loss a harrowing truth was revealed, she writes: “We are not really in control of our life.”
We invite the breath to meet any hard or stuck places in the body, washing over and around them like water, releasing the tension and pain held there.
Not long afterward she experienced her first panic attack, sending her to the emergency room and followed by the development of debilitating fears. “I was scared to ride the subway, scared to fly in a plane,” she writes. “I felt as if I were forever running away from danger.”
The yoga that had made her feel strong and powerful didn’t help. “In the wake of Lisa’s death, I suffered from both anxiety and exhaustion. As my health faltered, I realized that the yoga practice I had created to make myself feel solid and secure was not the type of practice I needed to become a more active participant in my own well-being.”
Somewhat ironically, it was a yoga class that changed the trajectory of her practice, and as it would turn out, of her entire life. During Savasana, the finishing “corpse” pose where you simply rest in meditation and allow the practice to sink in, she became aware of how hard she was working, and how frustrated she was that her teacher did not acknowledge her efforts during class. An uncomfortable realization began to dawn on her: Underneath all her pushing was a pervasive longing for approval, a deep desire to be “seen.”
“It was one of the big pivotal moments for me that made me ask, Why do I push so hard?” she says.
That realization prompted an exploration to understand her need to be recognized and validated, why she drove herself to exhaustion and even to the point of illness. She dove deeply into the study of somatic therapy, structural and functional anatomy, and mindfulness. She worked with a Gestalt therapist, “starting to peel the onion” of her personal history, discovering how a troubled relationship with her chronically ill and volatile father fueled much of her drive.
“With my training in yoga and somatic therapy, I had tools available to work with to go deeper, and to finally listen.”
Our Stressed Minds and Bodies
Pransky understands firsthand the stress faced by the people who come to her classes and workshops. She recognizes those driven by ambition, those buckling under the weight of their responsibilities or barely balancing on the edge of overwhelm. And she knows well the anxiety that lies just beneath the surface. Anxiety about the future or what’s on the news. About keeping their jobs or about their kid getting an F and whether he’ll get into college.
“I have rarely met someone who doesn’t say they’re somewhere on the spectrum of anxiety,” Pransky says.
She also hears the opposite, she says, when people believe “stress is their friend.” She relays the story of a former client, the founder of a big nonprofit who began working with her after an accident left him unable to use his legs. “He said, ‘I haven’t felt this at ease and this relaxed in, like, I forget. I forgot this place,’” she recalls. But just two sessions later, he told her he couldn’t continue. “He was overwhelmed with the possibility of what real relaxation would mean for him,” she says. He told her, “It’s going to make me lose my edge. If I relax too much, how am I going to have the command and respect that I need to do what I do?”
She was able to convince him to continue, but she recognizes how difficult it was for him “to get over to that place where relaxation didn’t mean surrender, loss of power.” Instead, she says, he learned how it could help him be “more deliberate about how he used his energy, and how he took his rest, so he could be less reactionary and more purposeful.”
Whether we consciously choose to hold tension or our bodies and minds do it for us, when we do, Pransky says, we feel in control. “When we relax, we feel vulnerable.”
Tension becomes our armor, holding the fear, worry, and vulnerability at bay. But eventually, inevitably, it fails us. With stress hormones coursing through our bloodstream, as we hold ourselves so tightly to stay “safe” that we forget to take a deep breath, we’re just one fender bender, one work crisis, one sad and senseless loss away from falling apart. That’s when we get sick. Or stop sleeping through the night. Or blow our stack at someone we love, or suffer a panic attack and become afraid to live our lives.
Before we can release tension, however, we have to know where we hold it. And it’s not always obvious where it resides, Pransky says. “We’re so used to living with it, we think we are relaxed while, in fact, we are still harboring tension.”
Lying with my head and back supported by a bolster, my mind idly following my breath as it moves through my limp body, I’m suddenly aware of a sensation of opening deep in my core, and something seems to shift within. As my breath sinks into this new space, I feel a sense of sadness. I feel how weary I am. I’ve been traveling for almost two weeks, and it’s been emotional, visiting with older family members and coming face-to-face with how much has changed, and how much more change is still to come. I’ve spent hours on planes and trains and in cars, and I haven’t done any yoga or much exercise at all. I’m ready to go home, but some things there too are uncertain. I miss my dog.
“Just welcome the breath,” Pransky is saying, and as the emotions fill me, I’m grateful for this guidance. I touch the sadness lightly with my breath, exploring its shape and size, its texture and density. After what could be a few moments or an hour, it starts to grow lighter, thinner, and more transparent, until…it’s gone. I feel lighter, my mind suddenly alert, yet my body is still deeply relaxed.
As we just notice, just rest, just listen, we offer ourselves a great kindness that makes us feel cared for.
This experience is why Pransky is a proponent of pairing mindfulness with somatic awareness. When we engage in restorative poses, opening the anatomy and welcoming the breath deeply into the body, we not only trigger the relaxation response, we uncover those deeper areas of tightness and holding. And as we just notice, just rest, just listen, we offer ourselves a great kindness that makes us feel cared for. “It sends our mind a signal that right now, in this moment, we’re OK,” she says.
She describes it like a plane coming in for a landing. Before the plane can touch down, the pilot needs to receive a message: “Welcome! It’s safe to land here.” Having the embodied sense of being supported by the ground, of being safe in our own bodies, we can start to lay down the armor of tension. “And our mind can begin to shift into a new conversation: ‘I’m OK here on the ground.’”
The more familiar we are with how and where we hold tension, the easier it is to notice “how we are closing down or opening up to the current conditions in our lives,” she says.
This is where Deep Listening becomes a tool for life. We’re building resilience “over time, making more space and capacity to stay open with whatever arises.”
The Power of Softness
Releasing our tension requires softness.
It does not require knowing all the answers to whatever may come up. We don’t need to figure everything out. We just need to give ourselves kind and friendly space to receive not only our first uncomfortable thought or feeling but every uncomfortable thought or feeling. If we can trust the ground to support us, we can open more fully to what we discover. It’s like allowing our breath to come in. We don’t have to do anything. We simply need to welcome it.
—Jillian Pransky in Deep Listening
When she teaches, Pransky uses cues, simple words or phrases that seem to bypass thinking and land right in your body. She talks of a “spacious belly” and “effortless legs.” She asks you to “imagine the breath flowing in through the front of your heart and out through the back of your heart. Washing through your chest. Softening you.”
And she refers to the body, breath, and the earth as “family.” During our session, as I lay in repose, no tension left anywhere, this notion immediately hits me as so simple and beautiful and true that I feel my heart melt. No matter what else is going on, these things—the breath, the body, and the solid support of the earth itself—are always there, steady and real, for every single one of us.
“Similar to the way we learn to rely on the support of the ground, becoming aware of our partnership with the breath reinforces our experience of connectedness. Of not feeling alone,” Pransky explains. “The breath is always there for us, without question. It is our life partner. Really, it’s family.”
And this feeling of belonging, of safety, helps you to stay soft. To stay open. To let in the good while knowing that you are also strong and stable, supple and responsive to whatever comes. You are listening, deeply.
Try These Four Practices
1. Listening Softly
Imagine you could breathe directly through your heart. Imagine this is where the air flows in and out of you.
Let your breath flow freely in and out through your heart. Let your breath soften you. Uncovering layers of you. Allowing room for you to unfurl. All of you.
Your breath tenderly receiving everything it comes in contact with. Welcoming your deepest feelings openly, unwaveringly. Welcoming all your feelings. Your joys and your sorrows.
Your breath is a gentle listening space.
Your breath listens wholeheartedly to all that it meets, staying with you no matter what arises. Your breath is always present. Always listening.
Listen to your infinite breath as it flows in and out of your heart. Your breath will teach you how to listen.
Listen softly. Listen to yourself as your breath listens to you.
2. Letting Go of Tension
Helping the psoas muscle to release tension, to lengthen to its optimal state, is an important step in deep listening, according to Jillian Pransky. This is done through supported long-held poses that open the front of the hips, and by welcoming the breath into the body.
The psoas is the longest and strongest of the hip-flexor muscles, connecting the lumbar vertebrae to the femur on both sides of your body. It helps stabilize the spine and support your internal organs, while supporting the movement of blood and lymph through your cells. It’s involved with almost every motion, from bending to twisting to walking and running. And, it’s intimately connected to the breath, sharing space with the diaphragm and contracting when you feel afraid or stressed. Sitting for long periods of time, excessive movement, or any repetitive motion that compresses the front of the hip, contracts and shortens the psoas.
“Our gut environment has to feel safe. If it’s squeezed because of our six-pack abs, if it’s squeezed because we don’t want to feel it, if it’s squeezed because the psoas is short, as it is constantly from walking and riding and running and driving and sitting, then all of that inhibits our ability to calm ourselves,” she says.
“When the belly can soften, when we provide a place for the breath to move at ease, we create an environment where we can feel more, know more, receive more guttural, preverbal cues that inform us on what would really be most wise. Insight and wisdom are then available in a way that they’re not when we’re rushing around and not seeing a bigger perspective.”
3. Soft Belly Breathing
Sit in a comfortable position on the floor or in a chair. Close your eyes, if you wish. Take a few long breaths, inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth.
Let your body land on the ground. Let your breath arrive in your body.
As your breath flows in, feel it move down into your belly. As your breath flows out, let your belly be effortless.
On your inhale, think, “soft,” allowing your belly to receive your breath.
On the out breath, think, “belly,” letting go of any holding and resistance.
Each inhale, imagine your belly being cared for by the breath. Each exhale, let the breath loosen any solidity. Let your breath make room. Let thoughts, emotions, sensations rise and fall in and out of a spacious belly.
Since our belly is our emotional center, when we soften it, a variety of feelings, thoughts, images, and memories may bubble up. Welcome all that rises and falls. If you find yourself in conversation with a thought or feeling, simply acknowledge that observation, meet yourself kindly, and draw your mind gently back to the flow of your breath.
After 5 to 10 minutes, place your hands on your belly. Feel your breath meeting your hands. Little by little, expand your awareness into the space around you.
Close your practice by setting an intention to stay connected to your breath and your belly as you move slowly out of the meditation.
4. Appreciate the Open Sky
Use this reset practice while looking at an open sky.
Stand outside or in front of a window, or gaze at a photograph that features an expansive sky.
Pause and sense where your body meets the ground. Soften excess gripping in your face, neck, and shoulders. Feel yourself landing completely.
As you bring your attention to the flow of your breath, gaze into the openness of the sky.
Follow your next three breaths as they come in from the space around you and expand into your body. Follow them as they move from the space inside you back out into the world around you.
Notice the continuum of your breathing flowing from outside in and inside out.
Feel how your breath connects you to the space around you.
To finish, notice your feet on the floor and imagine your head—and your heart—in the shape of the sky. Move into your next moment grounded and open.