Breath and belonging

I like being calm.

Some days, when I’m sipping morning coffee, reading the newspaper without railing at the news, or serenely waiting to be connected with a customer service agent while ads stream scratchily through the phone, I can’t believe it’s me who is breathing so evenly. Am I the same person who used to pitch fits? Slam doors? Who punched (yep) her high school boyfriend on the subway platform?

Am I the same person who was curled in sorrow on the sofa? Sprawled drunk in the hammock too early on a weekday afternoon? Stepped away from, stepped down from, stepped over every difficulty and obstacle instead of stepping through?

Sure. I’m that same person who feels deeply, cares mightily and lives with the genes of addiction. In fact, the more years I acquire the more I recognize the seven-year-old girl who is devoted to animals, sunshine, rain, who is skipping, swinging, cooking, laughing and sitting on the stoop with a friend.

Yoga scholar Richard Rosen teaches that the ancient yogis believed we’re each allotted a number of breaths. Pranayama, the yoga practice of breath control, allowed the yogis to extend their breath. I think of it as adding water to the last of the orange juice in the jug so it covers breakfasts until the next shopping run.

Meditation is the heart of yoga.

The postures, Rosen emphasizes, developed as a means to prepare the body for extended periods of sitting. Why sit?

Why live long? To increase the odds of acquiring knowledge, and wisdom, knowledge’s joyful, loving appendix.

When I picture old-time yogis sitting under trees on antelope skins, buying time by slowing their breaths while accruing awareness of bird song, breeze, their own ragged feelings and tangled thoughts, I recall people I have known who died too soon. They include my 8th-grade student, Carrie, who took her own life in a moment when no one was looking; a friend’s baby, Lindsay, who was shaken into silence in a fit of caregiver’s frustration; my husband’s best friend, Mike, whose last breath was underwater near the boats he’d restored. I think of those who made it to the end, last breaths tied off like a knot in run-out thread–my grandmother who held my hand as hers stilled; my husband’s grandmother, who had held her great-granddaughter shortly before she died; and my stiff old dog, Sasha, who accepted the veterinarian’s kindness with a slow blink of brown eyes followed by a quick release from pain.

When I played guitar as a child, the metronome taught me to keep time. I’d mark out a period to practice, establish the space by placing a cane bottom chair beside the music stand and setting one foot on the dented blue stool, pick up the guitar and begin to play. Tick-tock, the notes from the strings aligned themselves around the measured beat. I wasn’t particularly good. I could synch with the rhythm, but my ear is far from pitch-perfect and I have little recall for tunes. So simple scales made sense to me. The even repetition of finger movements and the predictability of the notes rocked me into emotion. Alone in my little pink-walled room at the back of the house, where no one could hear me but robins and sparrows in the trees along the alley, I lost track of time and place, the action of moving and making transporting me to a sense of belonging.

Trace the stream of the word “belonging” back to its spring and you find the Old English gelang, meaning “at hand, together with.”

Yoga is translated as union, with connotations of yoking or joining with, as in linking breath and movement or attention with movement or self with whatever the other is, a past-time, a friend, a sport, a book, a gesture or god.

Home practice is both the effort of stretching a bit, literally and figuratively, by making a shape with the body, an “asana,” filling it with breath, then releasing that breath to let the next one return. The Sanskrit word asana is related to the English “sitting” or “seat.”  The idea is that in a stable, easeful seat, we feel situated in an essential part of our selves, peaceful and aware.

Try it a little home practice right now

Sit where you are. Come forward on the chair seat so the back body is freed of the chair back. Establish sitting bones with the chair bottom. Let the feet rest solidly on the floor or a stool or a pillow. Imagine drawing the breath up through the feet, as if they have gills, up the legs, around the hips and waist, straight up, up, up through the neck and cresting at the crown of the head and then exhale imagining the breath showering down the outside of the body. Breathe steadily, un-forcefully. Align mind and breath. Express nothing more, nothing less than your being, alive.