One of the first yoga skills that I try to cultivate in new students is the practice of paying attention to the breath. Breath awareness is central to all yoga practice: breath draws the spirit inward, calms the monkey mind by giving it focus, and nourishes the body. It’s no coincidence that the ancient words for spirit, ruach (Hebrew), pneuma (Greek), and spiritus (Latin) also mean breath. The quality of the breath reflects our state of being. When we are stressed our breath becomes fast and shallow, preparing us for a quick burst of energy to run away from the proverbial tiger. A deep and slow breath, on the other hand, indicates that the body is in a healing “rest and digest” mode.
I knew all of this in my head but it wasn't until I learned a new way to pray that I was finally able to stop viewing the breath as a physiological event and actually experience my breath as a vehicle of the spirit. This happened last fall when I had the pleasure of attending a women’s retreat with the wise and wonderful Rev. Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis. The theme of the retreat was “Savoring the Sacred Pauses: Practices for the Rhythm of our Days and a Rule for our Lives”. I found myself particularly resonating with Bishop Jennifer's descriptions of the Daily Offices or “Hours” – prescribed periods of daily prayer commonly observed in many monastic and church communities. Pointing out that “the well-being of creation does not depend on endless work,” the Bishop described practical ways for us to tap into the spiritual power of praying the Offices to increase our awareness of God’s Presence and experience our Holy connection throughout each and every day.
I’ve summarized what I learned from Bishop Jennifer as “Seven Sacred Breaths”, listed below. While we may not have time for daily Lauds and Compline services, we all have time to pause and take a life-affirming breath, to check in with our body, mind, and spirit, and rebalance "the rhythm of our days." The practice is especially helpful for those of us so caught up in our busy lives that, like the Israelites, we neglect our spirits and then wonder why God’s promised presence seems so elusive. Try these Seven Sacred Breaths for a week and let me know what you discover. (Permission to skip the Night Breath goes without saying!)
Awakening Breath: Sunrise (Morning Prayer/Lauds) Praise! You are a beloved child of God. Pause, take a full enlivening breath, and set an intention for the day.
Blessing Breath: 9am (Mid-morning/Terce) Send loved ones on their way with the breath from your kiss. Pause and with breath, consecrate your work day.
Illumination Breath: Noon (Mid-day/Sext) The sun is at its highest. Pause, breathe, and notice the world around you.
Wisdom Breath: 3pm (Mid-afternoon/None) What else needs to get done? Prioritize and move to completion—the rest can wait for another day. Pause, take a breath, and settle your heart.
Twilight Breath: 6pm (Evensong/Vespers) Reconnect with life outside of work. Pause for an evening meal and conversation. Breathe in grace and exhale gratitude.
Silent Breath: 9pm (Night Prayer/Compline) Pause and quiet your breath with a long, slow exhalation. Let the day go. Put your concerns in God’s hands and rest well.
Night Breath: midnight to 3am (Vigil/Matins) Pause and send out your breath to those who watch over us during the night including those on night shift, those up with newborn babies, and those not sleeping.
Chittister, Joan The Rule of St. Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century, 2010 Crossroad Publishing
Farrington, Debra Living Faith Day by Day: How the Sacred Rules of Monastic Traditions Can Help you Live Spiritually in the Modern World. 2000 iUniverse