Learning How to Breathe

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Breathing means life. It is the most basic human instinct. We come into this world knowing how to breathe. By what other act could an infant muster the energy and air required to cry the way it does upon entrance in the world? No one teaches us this.

Do you notice how your exhales become longer than your inhales when you turn your attention to it and remember how to breathe?

Have you ever watched a child breathe? Do you notice how their exhales are longer than their inhales?

Have you ever woken up in the night and noticed how your partner breathes in their sleep? It is the same. Their exhales are longer than their inhales.

Have you ever taken a moment to notice your own breath? Do you notice how it slows down? Do you notice how your exhales become longer than your inhales when you turn your attention to it and remember how to breathe?

At some point, we forget how to breathe properly, but never notice. We don’t notice until we experience that proper breath again. For many, it is in a yoga class or meditation retreat. For some, it’s their therapist's office or the doctor’s office or a meditation app on their phone. But a moment hits, when the awareness is turned towards the breath, and we learn to breathe again.

This is a moment, my life plays on repeat. Sometimes it is the yoga class, sometimes it is my meditation practice, sometimes it’s a whirlwind moment as I slow down before walking in late to a meeting. And sometimes, it is in the middle of the woods with a group of teenage boys. 
 

sun rising over confierous forest in snowy winter

I stood on the wooden platform of our canvas shelter. The snow had come in overnight. Painting the woods of Vermont in pristine white. Not even the animals had dared leave their tracks yet. There are a certain purity and stillness to these winter mornings. I wanted to stay in the silence with my Japa just a little bit longer, just one more minute before the noise of the day could settle in. That’s the funny thing about humans, we always want just one more minute. 

But like most things, it's not really about what I wanted. The silence broke as it was meant to break that morning. It was more like shattering. Splintering. The complete devastation of silence the way only six teenage boys could manage during the early light of day. They pulled tired bodies from sleeping bags amongst the chorus of profanity and laughter and the heavy thud and thump of boys who grew faster than they could learn how to move their bodies.

You’d think it wouldn’t take long to pack up backpacks and get the show on the road for the day’s hike. But you would be wrong. Somehow this team of teenage boys had an uncanny ability to take their sweet time and still make it look like they were doing something productive. But finally, they stood ready for the day's trek with bellies full of oatmeal and packs on backs. We started our opening circle with a moment of silence. 

“When you’ve finished with your moment of silence, take three deep breaths and then turn back to the group,” my co-guide said.

And I breathed. I breathed, letting my lungs fill to the utter brim with the crisp air of mountainous winter that burned the lungs on the way down and made you feel alive. My breath danced in front of me before dissipating into the light. 

And I listened. I listened to the breath of my boys. Some shallow, bored. Others deeper, taking a moment to experience this silence. The steady rhythm of my co-guide’s deep, full breaths next to me, apparent above all else. 

And I felt. I felt the steady rise and fall of my chest, the way my chest strap moved and gave for each inhalation. The heavy pressure of a full pack on my back and the comfort it brought me. The wind, cold enough to sting despite its gentle movement. My feet, buried deep in layers of socks and boots, were firmly rooted down past the hard crunch of the first layer of snow. 

The silence came back. The stillness became present, just for a moment. I could have cried. Together, we breathed. 

We all forgot how to breathe on that hike. The noise and clutter came rifling through our minds that day. It became noted by the rough and ragged sound of breath even at rest. We made it to camp with just enough time to set-up before it got too dark to see. The fire glowed and made shadows to keep us company. The cold was getting deeper. Starting to sink beneath heavy layers and into the bones. Sleep was calling us and the boys were fighting it off with every word tossed out as an insult towards rest.

With time and coaxing and a lot of breathing, we finally had pots and pans cleaned, water ready for the next day, and teeth brushed. Everyone was ready to make their way to bed.
We stood in a circle once again. I looked out at the dirty faces, hidden by buffs, and watching tired and restless eyes flicker in their heads.
“We’re going to breathe. Follow my lead,” I said. “Inhale, 1, 2, 3, 4. Exhale, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.”
We practised breathing together. I watched their chests rise and fall, tense shoulders relax, nervous eyes closed. We breathed.

Breathing, breathing properly, that is, requires awareness. Awareness requires practice. Practice requires dedication. And dedication requires motivation. What is this thing that motivates us to breathe properly? Why bother if the breathing my body does naturally is good enough? 

Well, answer the questions yourself.

Have you ever felt like your mind is running a million miles an hour and no matter what, you can’t keep up with the race car thoughts? Yes? Then learn to breathe properly. When you breathe properly and slowly, your thoughts will mirror that. 


People turn to meditation for a thousand different reasons and more, but maybe one of the most important things meditation does is teach us to breathe properly. When we breathe properly the mind calms and when the mind calms, we are closer than we've ever been before to experiencing God.


Have you ever said you feel like you’re missing something, but can’t quite figure it out? Yes? Then learn how to breathe properly. With breath awareness, you can tap into your intuition and follow the guidance of your heart. 

Have you ever felt so in awe of a moment you wanted to imprint it into your memory forever? Then learn how to breathe properly. With breath awareness, you can learn to be present in any moment.

People turn to meditation for a thousand different reasons and more, but maybe one of the most important things meditation does is teach us to breathe properly. When we breathe properly the mind calms and when the mind calms, we are closer than we've ever been before to experiencing God.


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