I need a breath of fresh air.
You take my breath away.
It is breathtaking.
I am out of breath.
I need to take a breather.
Give me room to breathe.
He was breathing down my neck.
Don’t breathe a word.
Our breath is the most natural process in the body. Just look to our everyday language for our awareness of the importance of the breath. From the moment we let ‘er rip in that first bawling breath to the moment of our last exhale, we are being breathed every moment of our existence. I say ‘being breathed’ because, for most of us, this simply happens and thank goodness we don’t have to think about the breath! Inhale. Exhale. Repeat.
For millennia, the breath was thought to be inextricable from our being, our vitality and health, our awareness and our very essence. In the beautifully written and ever-so-helpful, The Breathing Book, author Donna Farhi shares the many languages that place breath front and center in the very nature of life. Here are a few:
- Greek: psyche pneuma – breathe/soul/air/spirit
- Japanese: ki – air/spirit
- Sanskrit: Prana – life force.
Farhi describes this early awareness in this way, ‘The breath was seen as a force that ran through mind, body, and spirit like a river running through a dry valley giving sustenance to everything in its course.’ It is only in recent times have we reduced breathing to a mere respiratory exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen.
While breath is with us throughout each moment of our existence, it has been uncommon in recent times to turn to our breath as a means of energizing, or calming, or improving our well-being. I find this fascinating! Take a quick inventory of your refrigerator, pantry, medicine cabinet or liquor cabinet. That inventory will likely reveal several tools used to medicate for energy, for self-soothing or for relaxation. These are items we sought out and required money, time and energy to secure, all while we breathed in and out unconsciously, likely in a shallow manner, high in the chest, further diminishing our well being.
Fortunately, people are waking up to the power of the breath. One self-proclaimed ‘skeptical engineer’ in my Meditation and Mindfulness class (dragged there by his wife) marveled after the last class that the tools for relaxation he had been seeking for decades really were as close as his breath.
Inhale. Exhale. Repeat.
When faced with disease, weariness, anxiousness or fear, it is all too common to turn first to costly, external solutions that, in reality, only address symptoms but never touch the root of the problem. We turn to stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine for some pep, or to drugs, pills and alcohol to chill out. As a society, we go to great lengths to artificially manipulate the body and mind, when some rudimentary skills and an awareness of our the breath can naturally bring us clarity or even solutions for the challenges that cause to reach for (fill in the blank).
Please don’t get me wrong. I love my coffee in the morning and I have done more anxiety eating in my life-time than I care to admit. Until several years ago, I was also part of the alarming statistic about women and wine. But lately, with a regular ‘breath practice’ interwoven into my yoga practice, the cravings have subsided and a natural, light, grounded sense of being has kept me from scouring the cupboards, from seeking ‘something’ to change my feelings, to make me feel, or to not feel anything at all. Instead, a calm, deeply satisfied sense rests well in my bones. I still have my full catalog of life’s problems. Breathing my way to clarity, however, keeps my head on straight and broadens my awareness of the banquet table of possible options.
I could go on and on about the toll of ‘breathing badly’ but, frankly, that’s boring. Instead, I would like to suggest that we consider the ease and fullness with which a child breathes. And with that breath comes an aliveness and an unbridled joy. (Spend ten minutes at a busy playground if you need a refresher on this simple life lesson.) Together let’s hold the image of the joyful breath of a child as we move throughout the coming week. Throw the shoulders back, open the chest and draw your next breath in, deep into the lungs filling them completely! As you exhale, draw the belly-button up and back toward the spine, wringing out all of the spent air, grateful that it served you well and making room for the next breath and for your very life force. Move gracefully and gratefully from the in-breath to the out-breath.
Inhale. Exhale. Repeat.
As you prepare for this weekend’s festive gatherings, breathe into and through your preparation. Visualize each breath infusing your joy and care into each task. As you travel near and far, remain focused on the road and breathe deeply in the present, attuned and attentive especially when so many around you are likely not. As you gather with friends, breathe in and out your gratitude for those who share your days. Wait not to express your appreciation for their presence in your life, using breath and voice. Breathe in and out an appreciation for peace and for freedom, sending your breath into a world in need of both.
And, finally, with all this mindful breathing, notice a sense of well-being and joy spread outward from your heart. You created this sense of well-being. You. It wasn’t expensive, nor was it difficult. Just you and your breath.
Inhale. Exhale. Repeat.