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Breath of Life

by Milissa on December 12, 2010

in Breath,Philosophy,Seasons

During this season, there are many boons for contemplative practice. If we honor the rhythm of the natural world—as Winter Solstice approaches—we become more internal, increasingly drawn into the center of being.

Like the mother bear and her young, we are called to enter a cave of sorts. In Sanskrit this cave is called guha—the innermost heart. If we give ourselves time to be present—the most precious gift of the season—we may enter a rarefied realm, discovering riches beyond our wildest imagination.

Focus on the breath is a tool that has been used in diverse cultures, throughout the millennia, to bring us into presence with that deepest part of ourselves. In yoga we practice pranayama, learning to circulate the breath in order to increase our body’s capacity to open to the spiritual. Prana is the life force, so when we lack an adequate amount of it we feel depleted. At holiday time—despite the call to rest and rejuvenation that nature reminds us of—many of us do too much, eat poorly, sleep too little. And, while the days are often sunny in winter in the upper Midwest, it’s too cold to spend enough time outdoors to absorb an abundance of prana.

I find it is vital to pay attention to the breath, this time of year in particular. Pranayama not only assists me in deepening my spiritual attunement, but it helps to ward off the doldrums, to maintain resistance to seasonal flu, and to help manage the additional stress of family and cultural expectations around the holidays.

A breath practice doesn’t need to be highly structured or time consuming. While I do recommend taking some time each day just to focus on the breath—completing exhalations and allowing fuller inhalations—this is also a practice you can take with you as you go about your day. Once you have established the practice of breath awareness—in sitting meditation, walking meditation or resting in savasana—it’s always available. Before getting up in the morning, while out walking the dog, waiting at a stoplight or for the tea water to boil, during a meeting or riding in an elevator, you can focus on some soft belly breaths.

Let go of your ideas about the breath and just breathe. Feel the breath physically moving the body. Feel the energy moving as well. Or, at least, pay attention to how awareness of the breath effects sensations, thoughts and feelings.

There are many technical forms of pranayama, but my favorite—and the one I find most portable—is to synchronize the breath with a mantra, prayer or aspiration. Especially when I’m feeling overwhelmed, depleted or frustrated, I repeat Metta phrases: May I be safe, may I be happy, may I be healthy, may I live with grace and ease. Or I’ll choose a prayer that I resonate with—Salve Regina comes to mind lately, especially as I sink into bed exhausted, and wonder how I’m going to do it all again tomorrow.

Your breath practice can be as simple as a gentle reminder to release what’s not serving your highest intention for the season: Let, on the inhale, Go on the exhale. Not a command or a reprimand, but a gentle reminder to take soft belly breaths, opening up space for you to Be.

I’ll “Be” on my annual personal retreat next weekend, attending to my breath. Look for a new post after Christmas. In the meantime, Happy Solstice! Wishing you increasingly lighter, warmer and prana rich days.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

paula January 1, 2011 at 10:48 pm

Mililssa, your writing is beautiful and inspires me to look for deeper meaning in my moments. I appreciate how you break down the practice of pranayama into mangeable bits that I can add to my days.

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