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For the Week of July 21 - 28: Transforming Practices: Breathing

Kexin Di, Breath 2018

"Your breath is a symbol of the closeness, the intimacy of God.Your breath, like God, is always with you in this life, from the moment of your birth until the instant of your death."
- David Frenette, The Path of Centering Prayer: Deepening Your Experience of God, pp. 51-52

God's breath it was that made me; the breathing of Shaddai [God] that gave me life.
- Job 33:4
 

This week we focus on breathing as the third exploration in our series of "transforming practices." Breathing practices have existed for centuries, primarily within the religious traditions of India and Asia. Yogic, Buddhist and Tibetan practices became widely available only in the latter part of the twentieth century when teachers from India, China and other countries brought them to the West. Where once one had to have a teacher and be part of a monastic community to learn them, today we can easily access instructions for almost any practice on the internet. Instructional videos abound, posted by established teachers, as well as many others. 

It is wonderful to have these resources, yet it is also good to keep in mind this note of caution by Maurice Nicoll:

"We cannot observe the instinctive center and its intricate task of attending to the inner work of the organs. But we can observe the results of its work – namely, that after running we breathe more deeply or if we are feverish we breathe more rapidly and realize that this is because the instinctive center needs more oxygen, and so on. But breathing is not only carried on by the instinct-moving center. There is an overlapping of control for we can breathe deliberately – that is, voluntarily. … But a man can interfere with his breathing and make himself breathe more slowly or more deeply and so on. This is a dangerous thing to do but there are moments when it is very important and when, in fact, it can save a man’s life. If, however, a person tries to control his breathing without understanding what he is doing, and without knowledge, he may interfere with the normal working of the instinct-moving center, which then becomes lazy, and, as it were, hands over the business of breathing in part. I remember hearing G. say more than once that people who expect to gain increased powers by means of breath-control were fools unless they had gone through long preliminary training under a teacher and had been selected by him. They were fools because they interfered with a function which, once wrongly interfered with long enough, might never work normally afterwards" (Commentaries, "Wrong Work of Centers," November 9, 1941, Vol. 1, p. 75). 

It is a wise reminder in our world of sound bites to slow down and use discernment in deciding which practices might serve our bodies and larger aims. For the purposes of our Journey School work at this time, our aim is to become more conscious of our breathing, which requires engaging both our former practices of noticing and attending.
 

Physical Respiration

The process of respiration is complex and awe-inspiring. The respiratory system organs include the nose, pharynx (passage from the back of the nose to the larynx), larynx, trachea, bronchi and lungs. It is basically a tube with many branches that end in minute sacs called alveoli which are surrounded by blood capillaries. Here the miraculous exchange of gasses occurs by the process of diffusion, which interestingly is a passive mode of transport. The process of breathing is controlled primarily by the instinctive center, yet we are able to consciously control it to varying degrees. When inhalation (or inspiration) occurs, the diaphragm – a dome-shaped muscle at the base of the lungs – contracts and flattens out, drawing air into the lungs. During normal exhalation (or expiration), the diaphragm relaxes, pushing air out. When a more forceful expiration is needed, such as when we sing or speak loudly, muscles between the ribs (intercostal) and in the abdomen become engaged and squeeze the ribcage, forcing more air out.

In his NY Times bestseller, Breath, The New Science Of A Lost Art, author James Nestor presents a fascinating and in-depth study of the mechanics of breathing, and how changes over centuries in how we eat, live and breathe have negatively impacted our facial structure and overall physical and mental health. Today, many factors in the environment affect our breathing negatively, but studies are showing that how we breathe matters. The following are three key areas that the book addresses:

  • Mouthbreathing: Studies show that this unconscious habit raises blood pressure and blood sugar levels, lowers oxygen levels and heartrate variability (the speed at which the heart recovers during exercise), and causes the body to lose water. "Mouthbreathing, it turns out, changes the physical body and transforms airways, all for the worse. Inhaling air through the mouth decreases pressure, which causes the soft tissues in the back of the mouth to become loose and flex inward, creating less space and making breathing more difficult. Mouthbreathing begets more mouthbreathing. …

    "Inhaling from the nose has the opposite effect. It forces air against all those flabby tissues at the back of the throat, making the airways wider and breathing easier. After a while, these tissues and muscles get 'toned' to stay in this opened and wide position. Nasal breathing begets more nasal breathing" (p. 27). Breathing through our noses encourages blood pressure and sugar levels to drop, and heart rate variability and oxygen levels to rise. Observing our mouth position during the day can be quite enlightening, yet to breathe consistently through the nose requires quite a bit of attention. 

  • Overbreathing: "Most of us breathe too much, and up to a quarter of the modern population suffers from more serious chronic overbreathing" (Ibid, p. 86). From our work with Dr. Christine O’Brien, we know that when the sympathetic nervous system becomes activated during an emotionally identified state, our breathing generally becomes rapid, erratic and/or shallow. To move back into the parasympathetic system, bringing our awareness to our breathing – slowing and deepening it – is most helpful. 

  • Chewing: Humans on planet earth began as hunter-gatherers, eating mostly animal flesh and raw plants, rarely cooking food until agriculture came into existence 12,000 years ago. This chewing action produced wide mouths with naturally straight teeth and broad nasal openings. Once industrial farming and softer foods became widespread 300 years ago, faces and jaws narrowed and teeth became crooked and crowded. This made breathing much more difficult. Also, facial bone is lost faster as we age and chew less. However, Nestor writes that current studies demonstrate that bone in the jaw and face can regrow, despite the medical view to the contrary. "The more we gnaw, the more stem cells release, the more bone density and growth we’ll trigger, the younger we’ll look and the better we’ll breathe" (Ibid, p. 132). It might be an interesting experiment to view our diet from this perspective, especially if we experience breathing challenges.
     

Conscious Breathing Practices

In our community reading for May and June, Bodyfulness, Christine Caldwell brings the spiritual/contemplative dimension to the process of breathing, expanding beyond just the mechanics. She writes: "Throughout the ages, conscious breathing has been seen as eliciting mindfulness, expanded awareness, raised consciousness, and spiritual connection. In many cases, this breathing involves slowing down and paying close attention to the details of the inhale and exhale. Breathwork can also be linked to transpersonal states in which we feel connected to others, to all life, and to all that is" (p. 86). She enumerates many useful foundational practices to begin to become more aware of how we breathe. These include bringing balance to the inhale and exhale, and learning when it's appropriate to use either a stimulating or calming practice to regulate our emotional and energetic states. This is a rich field in which to incorporate our practices of noticing, attending and three-centered self-observation. Reading the entire chapter on breathing, pp. 67-87 is highly recommended. 
 

The Sacred Breath

When we contemplate breath and breathing, we see that it has rhythm, rhythm that varies depending on our activity, emotional and physical states, etc., yet it is always in motion, never stopping until our very last breath. This breathing rhythm is intimately woven into the rhythm of the heart, the steadier partner of the pair of systems. We also see this rhythm of in-breath and out-breath in nature, for instance in the seasons. In the fall and winter, (in the northern hemisphere) there is a long in-breath as both plants and animals hibernate while the earth draws life into herself to rest and renew. Then with spring and summer, life bursts forth in a long, continuous out-breath of birth and growth. Perhaps we feel this seasonal breathing rhythm within ourselves, heeding the call to greater inner reflection and Work in the fall and winter, and a desire for outer engagement as the light returns and the days grow longer. These movements of in and out occur throughout our daily lives if we look closely enough, and that includes our Centering Prayer practice. As we begin our prayer time and settle, we draw inward to rest as we consent to God's presence and action. Many use the breath as their "sacred word or symbol" when noticing they are engaged in thoughts during a prayer period. David Frenette, a longtime practitioner and teacher of Centering Prayer explains: 

"Because the breath is such an embodied and receptive symbol, many people are drawn to practicing Centering Prayer with the sacred breath at certain seasons of the spiritual journey, to help with the deepening of their prayer into contemplation and as a way of integrating and embodying their spiritual practice with their physical, human experience. … Practicing with the sacred breath is a wonderful way of learning and living the disposition that is at the heart of contemplation: amen, so be it." (Frenette, Op. Cit., pp. 41-47).

And Remember …

Air is the second-being food, ultimately yielding the very fine H 12 energy – energy for all aspects of our aliveness, creation and transformation. The first conscious shock also affects the energies of the this second-being food (see diagram in our email from June 23). One would want to know about and understand this miraculous gift that has been given to us.
 

Homework

Choose one or two of the following to work with this week. What do you discover?

  • From time to time during the day, practice inner-stop. During this time of inner stillness, observe your thoughts, feelings, sensations and your breath. Notice any patterns that emerge while in different states of being. 

  • Look at the rhythm of your days through the lens of the breath. What comes to meet you from this message?

  • If you wish, try using the sacred breath during Centering Prayer instead of your sacred word. What do you observe?

  • If you have Christine Caldwell's book Bodyfulness, re-read the chapter on breathing (pp. 67-87) and consider engaging one or more of the practices she recommends. 
     

July Practice: Watering Plants

Humans and animals inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. Plants and trees do the opposite: they take in carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. Our very breath and thus life depends on the silent service our green friends provide. Throughout the year and especially during the hot summers, our plants depend on us to help them stay alive and thrive. As you provide life-giving water to your silent servant-friends in the house and garden, envision yourself pouring out liquid love and gratitude for helping sustain our lives. Bless them silently or aloud for their part in the gift of reciprocal feeding.   


Attend The Journey School Thursday Class Tonight: All are encouraged and welcome to attend tonight's class for a review of these teachings and, importantly, to produce a container of beings seeking to be more conscious and whose efforts assist one another:  7:00 pm Central Time via Zoom only.

  1. Click on this link and Zoom should open automatically on your laptop or tablet: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/9961019778?pwd=aVFLZVQwNGZSNkQ4TDRTUW9yU1Ywdz09, or

  2. Open Zoom, click on Join Meeting and enter this meeting ID: 996-101-9778, passcode: CCH

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