Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Breath of Life

Breath is life. If we don’t enter this world with a lusty cry, then we are hung by our heels and thumped until we take that first necessary breath. From then on, most of us don’t pay much attention to breathing. We just do it, unless we’re asthmatic and struggling for air, or fighting a cold, and forced to breathe through our mouths instead of our noses. But after we reach for inhalers and decongestants to get us through the worst, we get right back to breathing without a second thought.

When I was a preteen, my dad lived in a house with a swimming pool for a few years. My friends and I would entertain ourselves in it for hours. Our favorite activity was holding our breaths. We’d take a giant gulp of air, dive underwater and see how many widths of the pool we could swim before we shot to the surface, gasping for air. Each summer, we’d improve our distance, developing little tricks for our sharp inhalation, for pushing off the pool walls and gradually releasing air from our mouths, short bursts or long trails of bubbles. We each developed a rhythm, a system.

There, underwater, the world was reduced to the pool, to the pull of our bodies and release of breath, back and forth through the clear thick world. We were perfectly attuned and fully focused in the moment, not thinking about the progress of our summer tans, or our Shasta colas heating up on the pool deck. Thinking of those days now, I’d say we were practicing mindfulness, or even praying.

Back then, we would’ve laughed at those very ideas. Practicing mindfulness would’ve been something our hippie aunts might do, something psychedelic and drug induced. Prayer was something confined to church or rosary beads, or something our parents or grandparents might do before dinner. Prayer definitely did not take place in a bikini.

With the exception childbirth, where I trained with three different breathing techniques, and two bouts with pneumonia, I hadn’t really concentrated on breathing until I signed up for “Relax with Yoga,” Integral yoga taught by Radha Vignola, through Dominican Hospital’s education program. I went because I needed to stretch my low back, the spot where all my troubles seem to get stuck.

Once I was there, I found that more important than the stretch was the breath, and with that focus on breath came the invitation to pray, to bring in beautiful thoughts, to close our time sending out light and peace and healing energy to a world in pain. What a gift, especially to a pastor, who is usually “in charge” of prayer! In that breathing, I am brought back to myself, just like I was in my dad’s swimming pool.

My twelve-year old self and my twelve-year old daughter, who observed a class a few years ago, think the “skull shining breath,” and other yoga practices are completely odd and bizarre. They do take some getting used to, but science is catching up with this ancient practice. “Mindfulness” is mainstream, and touted by folks like John Kabat-Zinn, professor of Medicine at the University of Massachussets Medical School.

Kabat-Zinn says that if we could adopt one simple practice to eliminate stress, it should be the awareness of breath. When we pay attention to our breathing, he says, we aren’t thinking about the breath before, or the breath to come, we are fully in the moment of this breath.

In Hebrew, the word for Spirit is Ruach, which also means breath. God brought humans to life by filling them with breath, with spirit. In Christian tradition, Jesus tells his followers that after he is gone, he will send the Holy Spirit to be a comfort to them. He sends breath and it brings new life.

The spirit of the divine is with us, as close as our breath. The Apostle Paul encouraged others to pray without ceasing. That seems impossible when we think of prayer as desperate imploring or nonstop conversation. With prayer as breath, and breath as prayer, each inhalation offers us the opportunity to be fully present in the moment, and to be connected with the creative force of the universe.

May you breathe deeply of the breath of life.

©Cathy Warner 2005

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