My friend Kari has been on a journey with her breath, and she has graciously allowed me to share some of our recent conversation about this journey. As a result of practicing yoga and going through massage therapy school, Kari has become more aware of her own breathing.
Breathing is unique among the bodily functions – it is both an involuntary and voluntary action. Without thinking about it, you can go on breathing, yet, if you think about it, you can change how you breathe, or stop breathing altogether.
Kari started noticing times when she was involuntarily holding her breath, and, as she remained attentive to this, she realized it happened when she was anxious or fearful about something. As she named her emotions and intentionally resumed breathing when she realized she had stopped, something else started to happen. She began finding it harder to breathe during the rest of her day. It was as if holding her breath had been her unconscious way of compartmentalizing her fear and anxiety into little segments. Now that she was overcoming that compartmentalizing tendency, those emotions were released into the rest of her life, affecting how she breathed overall.
Kari’s journey is such a powerful witness to how, if we attend to our bodies – even to something so mundane as breathing –, we can begin to recognize patterns and tap into a deeper flow of signals that reveal glimpses of our true state of being. We can also begin to work in the other direction – working through our bodies to affect change at those deeper levels.
As Kari’s story shows, breathing intentionally is a powerful way to do this. In yoga, which I taught for a period, I reminded people to keep breathing during challenging poses. The tendency to hold our breath when things get difficult seems to be universal. Ironically, it makes us less capable of handling the challenge, because we are not nourishing the body with the oxygen it needs.
Yoga instructors also teach people to take deep, full breaths through the nostrils and slow exhalations from the very pit of the lungs. When pressing deeper into a stretch, I told people to release the stretch slightly during an inhale and then go in a little deeper during the exhale. By working in tandem with the breath, we are able to access places – physically and perhaps also emotionally – that were previously inaccessible.
I never quite understood how this worked on a physical level until recently, when getting acupuncture at a local clinic. The acupuncturist asked me if I wanted to “work with my breath” while getting needled (weird phrase, I know!). She explained to me that for a split second during an exhale, your muscles release. If you insert during that involuntary release, it can ease any pain from the needle.
As Kari and I talked about the breath, we struck upon an interesting little paradox. The word “spirit” originates from the Latin word spiritus (soul, courage, vigor, breath) and spirare (to breathe). Thus, our definition of the spirit is very much rooted in the embodied action of breathing. You can see this more clearly in the book of Genesis, where God breathes into Adam’s and Eve’s bodies of dust to in-spire them with life. C.S. Lewis also takes up this imagery in The Chronicles of Narnia. When Aslan, the majestic lion, breathes onto the children in those sharp, short moments of encounter, they somehow feel stronger, braver, more themselves. The impartation of life, in both cases, comes through the very physical, very bodily medium of the breath.
Yet, in contemporary thought, we usually think of the spirit as dis-embodied. The connection between body and spirit has somehow been severed.
Perhaps we need to re-attend to our breath and our bodies in order to gain a fuller understanding of our spirit. I love what a teacher of mine, Fr. Stephen Gauthier, repeats to us faithfully, “Your every breath is a testament to God’s confidence in you. Whenever you feel discouraged and purposeless, remember that you are still breathing. It means God still has a reason for you being on earth.”
(To hear a lovely song about breathing, get a free download of Bonnie and Trevor McMaken’s worship song “Breathing with Both Lungs Open” from their album In Wilderness and Glory.)