Breath is both our first and last experience in life. A delightfully important teacher for me in my day to day life, breath connects me more deeply with myself and to the world. I awoke recently with the words “breath is a life force”. As I looked at the indigenous origins of the word ‘breath’, a wonderful pattern started to emerge. Here are a few examples that I found where breath, life force, and spirit are connected within the same word: ‘Prana’ – India, ‘Ruach’ – Hebrew, ‘Ruha’ – Aramaic, ‘Qi’ – China, ‘Ha’ – Hawaiian, ‘Spiritus’ – Latin, ‘Pneuma’ – Greek , ‘Gast’ – Anglo Saxon, ‘Ik’ – Mayan, ‘Woniya Wakan’ – Lakota, and ‘Oenikika’ – Cree.
In his book, The Hidden Gospel, Neil Douglas-Klotz introduces the concept of ‘Holy Breath’. “We cannot, of course, forget to breathe. We can, however, fail to breathe with a sense of connection to other people and our surroundings. Our current Western culture does not, in fact, encourage us to be aware of our breathing communion with our surroundings. If it did, we would probably have quite a different world than we have today. Yet we can learn to heal our relationships through a deeper experience of breathing.” The Aramaic word ‘ruha’ means spirit, wind, air, and breath. So the non-ordinary world of ‘spirit’ at its roots is coupled with the physical phenomenon of wind, air, and breath.
On a recent trip to Orkney, I was blessed with winds unlike I have never experienced. When I picked up my foot, it was the wind that decided where my next step would be. I learned a lot about breath, spirit and life-force from the wind there. I discovered a vigor inside of me that that my body rose to meet within the wind. I was more alive and at peace with my lungs full of the North Sea mist. I could feel myself absorbing nutrients through my skin directly from the sun, rain, and wind. Wind taught me the place where ordinary and non-ordinary realities meet and that the forces of nature are something not only to be felt into, but also something to extend myself out towards – to meet and to be met. And my attention to my breath continued to inspire me to extend myself – to share even more of myself with the world.
What does it meant to have “conscious breath”? How do we translate our own rise and fall of our chest and abdomen, our own inhale and exhale, as a sacred act? I can look at my Buddhist-based practice, Naka-ima, which means ‘inside of now’, where I use my breath to clear stuck energy and attachments. I am amazed how breath helps me to let go of that which keeps me dense and grasping, sometimes transforming myself within seconds, into a more free and liberated place of peace and connectedness. I can also look to my own body as an organism connected to other larger organisms. My own respiratory system breathes and participates within a much larger respiratory system of the Earth. My own health of my breath participates in producing carbon dioxide for plants and trees to inhale, who in turn create oxygen for me. Together, all breathing beings: humans, plants, animals help to make the atmosphere around the earth. My breath participates in the cycle of life. It transcends time and connects us over time. I breathe the air my ancestors breathed as they were migrating 40,000 years ago across Saudi Arabia and future generations will be connected to me through this breath I am taking right now. I breathe the air of the whale spout that has dived thousands of feet deep in the ocean as the moon’s cycle controls the inhale and exhale of the ocean’s tides.
Bringing awareness to my breath has helped me to move away from self conscious alertness into more heightened perception of life around me. I have begun to see things not just as matter but as systems and systems within systems. I feel it in my body and sense it all around me – everything is in relationship. We are all connected. Breath has helped me to know the rightness and perfection of each moment. The task is to let such aliveness in, and so breath remains a teacher for me to learn how to expand into the fullness of each moment even more and therefore learn how to hold greater levels of joy.