Breath. So simple. So constant. So unnoticed. Sit for a moment and just watch yourself breathe. Turn your attention inward as you read this and notice: What parts of your body move as you breathe? Does your chest rise and fall? Your ribs? Shoulders? Belly? Does breathing feel labored and constricted? Or easy, relaxed and full? Perhaps you notice that you are holding your breath? What is the significance, the power, of this ongoing movement in our bodies that is so light, so quiet, so automatic that it’s mostly overlooked?
The Christian tradition tells us that God breathed into man “the breath of life, and man became a living soul.” The yogic tradition views the breath as a vehicle for prana, or life force. Your breath is your link to life. When breath ends, life in this body as we know it is over. Until then, we are quite literally ‘being breathed.’ Try to hold your breath indefinitely and eventually the body will take over, forcing you to draw in the next breath. As part of the autonomic nervous system, the breath is one of the body’s many functions that, thankfully, we don’t have to consciously remember to do or regulate.
Science and spirituality both point to the power and significance of the breath. Growing bodies of research confirm that proper or improper breathing have great physiological impact on the health of the body. Psychology tells us that the word ‘pneuma’ (breath) shares its origins with the word ‘psyche’; they are both considered words for the soul. Many spiritual traditions view the breath as the vehicle for the animating, eternal spirit; when breath leaves the body, so too will this spirit.
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Our breath is closer to us than our own skin, yet because of its automatic nature, it’s something of which we are seldom conscious. Perhaps that’s why we love activities and events that leave us breathing hard, ‘out of breath’, ‘breathless.’ Consider the joy in laughing so hard that you are left ‘gasping for breath’, or the life-affirming heaving for air at the end of strong physical exertion, or the stunning beauty of a landscape or experience that ‘takes your breath away.’ Having the breath leave momentarily and return with such force reminds us deeply, tangibly, forcefully, that we are fully in the exquisite experience of being alive.
Stay tuned for a deeper dive into the specifics of the science behind how breath heals, as well as some of the more subtly beautiful aspects of this bearer of our soul. And in the meantime – stop. Stop whatever you are doing even once a day and notice – I am breathing … I am breathing in … I am breathing out … I am alive!