Breath of Life

By now we all know of the tragedies and struggles emerging in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.  There will no doubt be more as the days and weeks go by and people try to move forward with their lives.  Soon, too, we will be able add tales from those enduring Hurricane Irma and the storms and other events that will inevitably follow.  Our hearts go out to all the people encountering so much loss.  Many of us are trying to help in any way we can.  With these events happening over such a wide swath of our country, everyone seems to know someone who is personally effected.  These are events beyond our control.  Technological advances have helped give some warning, but ultimately these events often behave in ways that are unpredictable and difficult to foresee.  No one is at fault.  It’s just the way things are.

While Houston struggles to emerge from the watery deluge, the opposite problem has been creating disaster conditions in several northern states.  These states have been experiencing extreme drought.  In addition, years of various fire suppression policies have resulted in an abundance of fuel susceptible to any stray incendiary source. As a consequence of this volatile mix, fires are burning out of control in many areas from central Canada south to Montana and beyond.  The smoke has been drifting southward for most of the summer and is now being acutely felt in my area, the Black Hills of western South Dakota.

As I looked out my window last week, I could see the haze settling among the trees.  Each morning the sun has risen as a blood red disk in the sky, its light being filtered through layers of smoke.  Last Sunday was so bad that it was difficult to be outside.  The Rapid City Journal reported that “wildfire smoke exceeded unhealthy levels” over Labor Day weekend. The smoke stings your eyes and the back of your throat.  Locally we, too, have had small fires all summer and, in fact, there was one burning a few miles south of my town a few weeks ago that caused some home evacuations.  Still we in the Black Hills have gratefully been spared any major fires this summer and we remain quite a distance from the worst of the current burn areas.  Yet here we are, having to rely on our internal filtering systems to be able to absorb the air that we humans depend on.  Those of us with weaker systems or respiratory ailments have an even harder time getting what they need from the air.  And those living closer to the fires themselves are in real danger from the many problems the heat and smoke can cause.

All of this serves to highlight both the fragility and amazing resilience of we human beings.  These conditions also remind us of the importance of the true necessities of life.  We may be able to live without our houses and our cars, but we can’t live under water and we can’t live without air. This is true for ALL human beings.  It doesn’t matter what color you are, what language you speak, where your parents come from or any of the other ways in which we each think we are different from each other.  The basic necessities of life are great equalizers.   They are also things we derive directly from the earth and the sun.  We may think we can be independent and self-sufficient, but are all dependent on the gifts of the planet.  And we are all subject to the whims and uncertainties of the atmosphere that surrounds us.

As humans, we have specific requirements for survival.  We all need nourishment.  Although water is essential to our survival, no human can live under water for long without accommodations.  Which further reminds us that we all need to breathe.  We take these things for granted, allowing ourselves to get caught up in our small concerns and petty grievances.  Some of us even have the hubris to believe that they are somehow more deserving of the basics of life than others.  True, we each have our own unique qualities, but there are so many ways in which we are all in the same boat (pun intended!) just trying to survive and make the most of our short, mysterious and perplexing lives.

Being directly in the path of the smoke, I could not help but reflect in particular on the importance of each breath.  Breathing is so instinctive that we usually don’t even think about it until something interferes with it.  Yet inhaling breath is the first experience we have when we come into this world and exhaling is the final experience we have when we leave it.  Every breath in between is hugely valuable and worthy of celebration.  Yoga and Pilates teach us to focus on the breath and its relationship to movement in particular, but also to our health and well-being in general.  In fact, Joseph Pilates theorized that because most of us, to our detriment, breathe too shallowly.  We neglect to exhale fully leaving as much as 30% of our intake of air sitting at the bottom of our lungs.  Take a moment to think about that. This could mean that you’ve had some of the same stale air inside you for years.  No wonder we have lung diseases!  In fact, it’s a wonder we don’t see more of them.

On a more positive note, here’s another concept of breath that I’ve heard in different ways from several sources including yogic breathing specialist Leslie Kaminoff and native plant specialist Michael Stuart Ani.  Earth’s atmosphere has been circulating wind and water all over the planet since its inception. These elements carry with them minute traces of everything that exists on Earth.  This means that the breath of all living things has also been circulating for all of existence.  We are, therefore, connected to our ancestors – and to each other – through our breath.  This concept can be extended to reveal that each of us contains all of us and every human life that has ever existed.  Wow!  What a concept!

In yoga classes we often incorporate various breathing practices as part of the experience.  These serve as a reminder that although many of our bodily functions are not easily controlled (e.g., heart beat, cellular functions, nerve impulses, etc.) breathing is one essential bodily function that we can control to some extent.  For example, we can change the length of our inhales and exhales.  Some people can even train their bodies to go for extended periods of time without breathing.  But there is always a limit.  Humans like to test their limits to see how far they can be pushed, but there is always still a limit.  We might last a few days or weeks without food or water, but we won’t last very long without breath.

So next time you are in a yoga class and find yourself resisting the breathing practices, or forgetting to breathe in a Pilates class, try to remember and treasure the value of each breath.  This is also something you can try if you’re feeling stressed.  Bring your attention to your breathing.  It is said that focusing on your exhales can be calming.  Just letting yourself recognize each breath can help bring your mind back from whatever brink it is perched on. Breath is life and without breath there is no life.  Breathe gratefully.

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Changing Fast and Slow

We know that everything is always changing.  Why is it then that some things seems to change too quickly while other things change way too slowly.  All it takes is a visit from friends or family members who don’t live near you.  It doesn’t matter how many Facebook posts you’ve seen through the years.  Seeing people in person always provides a jolt.  Children show enormous changes over what feels like a relatively short period of time.  Over the same time period the adults around them also change, but those changes seem more slowly paced.  The changes in young people appear dramatic to the observer while changes in adults might be less obvious, more subtle.  Yet we adults still know how much we are changing.  We may not notice it on a daily basis, but eventually change becomes evident.  You can try to stave it off with hair dye and physical fitness, but inevitably we move a bit slower.  Healing takes longer.  Certain actions require more effort or preparation.

Some of us choose to fight with change.  Huge industries have been built around masking change.  There is hair dye and make up and cosmetic surgery.  Once this was primarily the province of women, but increasingly cosmetic counters are appealing to men also.  Our culture values youth.  And not just in terms of years, but also the way we look and behave.  Every day we are presented with images representing ideals.  Although we have learned that those images are rarely real, we can still feel that somehow we have to live up to those standards.

Then there’s the flip side:  recognizing change can feel like a losing battle so we resign ourselves and give up.  We think, “I can’t do ___ anymore (fill in the blank with whatever activity you’ve written off) so I’m just going to stop trying”.  Of course, eliminating or altering certain activities as we age can be a necessity due to our changing bodies.  A wise person learns to back off when expectations of one’s abilities stops matching the reality.  But even then change doesn’t have to mean all or nothing.  Life is rarely that simple.  There are often tweaks and modifications that allow us to continue finding things we can do that still give us pleasure.

In another version of the same problem, a person might recognize and accept change in themselves but then feel frustrated when others around them can’t or won’t do the same.  That person might think, “I keep telling them how much better things would be if they made this or that change, but still they won’t do it.” Unfortunately, none of us has any control over anyone else’s behavior.  Even our children.  Just as we are each different from our parents, are children are also separate individuals.  Of course, we all learn from each other, but each of us has our own way of interpreting and internalizing the inputs we receive. None of us ever really knows what goes on in another person’s mind.  For example, I might be thinking one thing when I say something to you, but you might hear what I say in a completely different way from my intention.  This is why as a teacher I am always looking for different ways of giving the same instruction.  Some people will learn from one method while others need another way to understand.  In my most recent post I talked about perception and how it varies for each of us. This is an prime example.  It does make relationships complicated.  But it’s also a reminder that human behavior is not always easily labeled.

Sometimes what feels like stagnation is really just super slow change.  Things don’t always happen on a time line we would like.  Progress on any front may seem painfully slow.  But frustration with the pace or nature of change usually occurs when making comparisons.  That might mean comparing things to some ideal that may or may not be achievable or comparing the present to a past that no longer exists and is never coming back.  Alternatively, sometimes it can feel like things are moving so fast that your head spins trying to keep up with it all.  You feel like you just want to hold on to something familiar rather than face the uncertainty of change.

No matter what we want, though, change is going to happen in its own time with or without us.  Our lives are brief and finite.  For us as humans time just keeps moving forward.  How much better it would be to simply accept what is and work from there.  Whatever stage your physical body is in at the present moment, it will be different tomorrow.  Not good or bad, better or worse.  Just different.  You might not feel yourself changing in this moment, but you are.  Go with the flow.  Be who you are.  As the song says, ” we are stardust; we are golden”.  Wherever you are right now it is where you are.  Tomorrow may be different.  But today is what it is.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the spectacular reminder this week of how small we really are.  Of course, I am referring to the eclipse. Regardless of our petty concerns, the stars and planets just keep moving.  On my walk today I listened to a podcast from Radiolab about the Voyager probe which has now gone beyond the edge of our solar system and is still moving.  Several years back, before it’s camera was turned off, Carl Sagan convinced NASA to turn the camera around for one final look back at our solar system from it’s vantage point more than 4 billion miles from our earth.  In that photo the earth is a tiny, barely visible blue dot.  Kind of puts everything back into perspective.