In meditation, we are guided to follow our breath. To notice where we feel it — at our nostrils, in our chests, in our bellies; to look at the quality — the stickiness, the smoothness, the coolness, the heat. And as we sit and our bodies begin to relax, our breath does the same — it begins to develop more fluidity, contour and softness.
In becoming a doctor, I learned about the respiratory system and how our autonomic nervous system functions independently of conscious control. Our diaphragm pulls down, expanding the intercostals and other muscles to expand the rib cage and generate negative pressure within our chest cavities to pull air in. Then passively we relax and the air pushes back out.
In my yoga anatomy book, the title of this section on the diaphragm is “The Universe Breathes Us.” Leslie Kaminoff and Amy Matthews write,
“It is important to note that in spite of how it feels when you inhale, you do not actually pull air into your body. On the contrary, air is pushed into the body by the atmospheric pressure that always surrounds you. In other words, you create the space, and the universe fills it.”
Viewing the breath with this inner and expansive outer perspective was liberating for me as a physician. Respiration moved from a purely physiologic process of chest mechanics and chemical exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide to an integrated, organic, connected action where I was engaged in an interplay with the living, breathing natural world around me.
As the days passed at a recent silent meditation retreat, I began to rest into the comfort of my breath. Take refuge in the wavelike nature of the inbreath and outbreath. And shift from what started on the surface as jagged, roughly hewn concrete to the silky smoothness of polished granite. My breath became lighter and lighter.
At moments my breath became almost imperceptible. I noticed the stillness of the pause between the outbreath and the inbreath. The focus on my breath felt both microscopic but also expansive at the same time. I could feel the tiny shifts of my breath while also feeling a greater outer layer of air enveloping around me.
My interest was deeply drawn to that exquisite moment at the very start of the inbreath. What started that? Where was the action or energy that initiated that movement? From where does that impulse arise?
And from a place of holding both inside and outside simultaneously, during moments when my breath was so quiet, I felt a pull from outside me. Like when you rest on your lover’s chest and your head rises and falls with his/her every breath and your breaths begin to synchronize, to follow suit. Or when you float on an ocean wave and you feel the pull of the tide and you follow. So I felt the gentle but insistent expansion of a soft cushion of air and energy around me that pulled my body open to allow the air to flow softly through my nostrils following the path down my throat into my chest and body. My breath felt like the softest downy feather, barely perceptible.
I thought, this must be what a newborn feels to breathe.
Just out of the womb, having cried and wailed and peeled open for the first time those sticky balloons replacing air where water had been. Exhausted from the process of entering from the muffled quiet, darkness and warmth of the womb into sound, shining light and cold air on wet body. Having nestled in the warmth of her mama’s chest nursing on the first droplets of nourishment, she finally rests. And breathes.
The softest most imperceptible breaths. New parents often awaken panicked at night checking to see if their babies are still breathing. Newborn breathing is so light, so soft, so imperceptible.
And so she breathes.
Air for the first time. Connection with our outer world for the first time. But there is no effort on her part. She is a gathered puddle of the tenderest skin, muscles and soft bones resting deeply into her receiving blanket. She sleeps and allows the universe to breathe her. Noticing everything, feeling everything, she follows the breathing of the field around her. The breathing, living world around us — the one we slowly begin to forget — but is always there and we can always choose to remember.