I’m breathing . . . Are you breathing too? . . . It’s nice, isn’t it?
Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons
(A meditation in a time of no theater)
by Jeff Grygny
Actors, singers, dancers and musicians all need a particularly intimate knowledge of their breath. Like a lot of theater people, I learned how to breathe in acting class. Nobody had ever talked about breathing in any of my prior education, but here I was, in Acting 101, lying on the floor while the instructor was saying “Let your breath come from your diaphragm; feel your stomach rising and falling with your breath. That’s how infants breathe, not the chest breathing we learn later on.”
I’ve been breathing successfully ever since, and belly breathing has served me well. It’s a fine way to calm the tension brought on by the incessantly worrying brain. Neuroscience tells us that our forebrain’s executive functions are always making up stories about potential dangers or opportunities, but that these stories can lead our bodies to generate stress hormones that can alter our heart rate and shut down vital functions like our immune system, making us more vulnerable to disease. A few minutes of good breaths from your belly can help bring you back to a less stressful body and mind. It could possibly save your life, as medical science has learned that breathing exercises can actually help you survive a Covid 19 attack, and even keep you from needing artificial ventilation (which is by all accounts no fun at all).
As I went on in life to study Buddhist meditation, and later a cornucopia of wonderful somatic practices, I learned many variations of good old abdominal breathing. (I recall a Zen monk telling me “We don’t communicate with words, we communicate with our hara.” That’s Japanese for “belly”.) But recently, while I was relaxing by the banks of a wide shimmering river, I found myself breathing in a way I’d never noticed before. It’s simple and even more relaxing than vanilla abdominal breathing (for me at least), so I thought I’d pass it along, in these days while the world is going through its virus-induced metamorphosis.
It goes like this:
Breathe in just a bit deeper than normal; enjoy the stream of air cooling your nasal passages, swirling in your sinus cavities. As the air goes down into your lungs, your relaxed belly rises, your lungs effortlessly inflate, then deflate, in and out, belly rising and falling. Let the inhalation go all the way down to touch a spot deep at the bottom of your belly, somewhere around or below the level of your navel. Once you hit that spot, you can relax your breathing to its natural level, until it’s just the wind moving through your body, gentle and unforced, touching your core like a tender kiss. That’s it. Nice, isn’t it?
Breath has always been connected with spirit, all over the world. In Hebrew, the breath that God breathed into Adam is ruah, the wind. The Greek anima is the wind that literally ani-mates all living things. Yogas prana and the ki of tai chi and martial arts, similarly express wind, breath, and mind all together. Especially in uncertain times, it’s good to take care of your body—that inescapable animal that is not quite “me” but also most intimately “me.” Our breath joins us to the greater world; like the wind, the songs of birds, and the luminous moon and stars, it can inspire (literally “in-breathe”) us to witness a universe far vaster than the tiny circle of space-time we’re currently passing through. Today’s troubles will also pass.
Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!
Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like wither’d leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,
Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawaken’d earth
The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
“Ode to the West Wind” by Percy Bysshe Shelley