Healing Breath

In practicing mindfulness and yoga, the breath is our anchor–when our minds try to tiptoe away toward distraction, we smile and gently remind our brains that our lungs are taking over for the present.

In our lives, we try to let the Holy Spirit take over.  We focus on God’s presence, God’s love surrounding us–just like the air we breathe–and we accept and let go of the other things that swirl up around us, tempting us away from the breath, distracting us from God.

Part of the breath’s power in yoga is how, during challenging poses, we imagine that as the breath and the heat it creates is being sent throughout our bodies–especially to those places that are in need of some loosening or some clearing out, allowing a deeper twist or a more complete bend.

The Holy Spirit is the Breath of Life that comes into our bodies, eager to brush out the stinky, dark bits inside us that are holding us back (or maybe that we’re holding on to).  God’s breath is the loosening, healing, heating agent of our souls.

Today, walking with my dog, I was practicing some deep breathing, and as I sometimes do, I was forcing the breath out, contracting my stomach to really squeeze out all the air–mostly because I love the energizing rush of air that rushes into my lungs afterward.  It occurred to me all at once that perhaps, just like our literal breath (and just like so many figurative, spiritual applications as I’ve found and shared above), the Holy Spirit is most ready to come in and fill us up with God’s presence and power when we’ve gotten the emptiest.

As Thomas Keating puts it, “The Gospel teaches that Christ is present in the storm, not just in emerging from the storm.”


Being Present – On Which to Chew

“The humans live in time but our Enemy destines them for eternity.  He therefore, I believe, wants them to attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself, and to that point of time which they call the Present.  For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity.”

– The Screwtape Letters

Screwtape goes on to talk about the various pros and cons of trapping a given “patient” in either the Past, or the Future; the Past, while distracting, is of limited use, he says, because there isn’t much unknown–it’s been experienced, it can draw one off a good path, but it doesn’t take them much of anywhere else.  The Future, however, is very fruitful for despair’s handmaids, as tempters may suggest all sorts of fearful, disastrous, unknown, untested events, possibilities, and thoughts, all of which come at an alarming speed, producing a scurrying mind with little connection to reality.

Mindfulness, a practice I suspect our dear mystical brothers and sisters knew well, is fantastically useful in combating the mind’s susceptibility to darting around anywhere except This Moment.  Reality, which can sometimes burn us with its brightness, might make us want to run behind the dark shadow of the Past, or to find tasty unreality in the Future, but it is only in living in the bright reality of the present moment that its healing heat can transform us (in this Church season of Epiphany, the bright truth of God’s love shines hot on humanity through the person of Jesus Christ).

More by me on The Screwtape Letters: here & here.

Paying Attention

Another yoga lesson:

Letting go of expectations and instead paying attention to what’s happening now.  …and now.  …and now.

In yoga classes, we students are encouraged just to breathe–to concentrate on breathing in, and then stopping for a second, breathing out, and stopping for a second; noticing how our bodies feel when they are full of air, noticing how much air there must be in there because of how long it’s taking to breathe it all out, taking stock of how our necks, and shoulders, and backs, and hips, and knees feel–what hurts, what is buzzy and tight, and what feels okay today after feeling crappy for the last few weeks.

Many of the church fathers talk about looking honestly at ourselves, taking stock of our faults and our gifts and our struggles and our service.  Even more true today than when Orson Welles penned it in the 1940’s, “the faster we’re carried, the less time we have” (The Magnificent Ambersons–the opening sequence is the high point of the film; I couldn’t bear to finish it); we look less at ourselves in assessment–or in amazement–than we used to, and we suffer for it.

If our expectations are out of sync with reality, what fault is that but that we cannot accurately project what we’re capable of accomplishing?  (in other words, making superhuman to-do lists because we have lost a conception of time hits us twice–we don’t finish the list, feeling inadequate, and we can’t quite figure out why we couldn’t complete it)  That may mean that we should look a little closer at what on earth we’re spending all these waking hours doing, but it also may mean we should consider what we’re fighting through at the moment, or what our companions need from us in the current phase of life we find ourselves.

In a yoga class, we show up and do our best to focus on the task at hand, putting all our concentration and effort into breathing and stretching and holding and breathing–and explicitly not thinking about other things–for an hour (or so).  What if we showed up in our lives and did our best to focus on the task at hand, putting all our concentration and effort into whatever was sitting in front of us at the moment?  It would be vital to understand that our writing, or our conversation, or whatever it is that comprises our work may not always come as quickly or neatly or easily as we think it ought to, but letting go of the expectation that our work will look and feel a certain way allows us to find new, perhaps more effective and joyful, ways of approaching our tasks and our days.

logs & specs (& yoga)

Two weeks ago, I bought new glasses (!).  After a five-year hiatus from the world of fashion specs, I was eager to try something funky–wearing contacts on a daily basis means that your glasses can be a little wild.  Enjoying my new eye wear extensively, I wore them to a yoga class last week.

Yoga is not particularly conducive to glasses-wearing–the upside down, bending, hanging the head, lying down–it’s not dangerous for spectacles, but it’s surely not as friendly as, say, reading.  I quickly realized: looking at the details of the world around you (which is, one might argue, the point of glasses) is NOT the point of yoga.

So, I took my glasses off.

What a change in perspective–no longer being able to see the little specks in other peoples’ eyes, I had to face the logs in my own “eyes.”  Without having others’ twisty bodies to judge (their form, their wobbliness, their breathing), I had to pay attention to my own.  My classmates dimmed in my view and I was forced to notice anew the stretched, achy, wobbly parts of myself–physically and spiritually.

My new yoga studio has opened up the world of yoga practice to me in a way I’d never understood it before: thinking of yoga (paying attention to your breathing and your body) as a sort of abstract (academically-speaking) or microcosm of your entire life.  “Are you rushing from pose to pose?” my yogi asks; “Are you trying to ignore the transitions in your own life?”  Is it very very hard to calm your mind or to still your breath today at yoga class?  Are you, perhaps, running yourself ragged at work or home, or ignoring the need your body has for a bit of rest?  Some days in class, your body is strong and balanced and you can take on more difficult postures for longer periods of time–and some days, you are just struggling to stay vertical (or horizontal!) for a few breaths.  Yoga practice allows you the chance to be gentle and patient and compassionate to your own body and your own mind, that hopefully, out in your life, you can start to take steps toward compassion and gentleness toward yourself and others.

Yesterday in yoga class, I had my contacts back in, and I remember who was able to do all the advanced positions and who wasn’t–but I was one of the latter, and I wonder if perhaps wearing my glasses to yoga more often might be a way of removing the log so often lodged in my eye.