I once read a story about a singer who was asked what the best advice she ever received was. Her response: “Breathe”. She had been given this life tip from her father who had correctly pointed out that when we’re stressed or feeling a little tense, we tend to shorten our breath. And at those moments there’s nothing better we can do to steady ourselves than take a big gulp of air.
I was reminded of this advice the other day when reading The Last Barrier, the autobiography of the English mystic and spiritual teacher Reshad Feild. In the book, Feild is told by his spiritual mentor that learning to breathe properly is “the study of a lifetime” and the rhythm and quality of your breathing can “help change the course of your life”.
Today, almost 40 years later, Feild is still stressing the importance of breathing. He is the founder of the spiritually-based Chalice School and if you go to the school’s Web site, in large 90-point type, you will be greeted by these words:
‘All is contained in the Divine Breath, like the day in the morning’s dawn’
There is a page at the Chalice School site that is dedicated to the importance of breathing titled “Breath is Life”, where Feild echoes the lessons he was taught so many years ago. He tells us that:
The secret of life is in the breath. We come into this world on the breath and we go out on the breath; but if we are not awake to breath, we will surely die asleep to the reality of life itself. Breath is life.
He recommends that we engage in a practice he calls the “7-1-7 Breathing Exercise” which is also known as the Mother’s Breath. This simple exercise originates from ancient Egypt and is designed to get you totally focused on your breathing. I have edited Feild’s words on the subject and put them into 9 steps:
Practicing the 7-1-7 Breath
- Sit in a hard-backed chair. Keep your back straight, without forcing it. Feel the flow of energy move through you. (I imagine it moving up and down my spine.)
- Place your feet flat on the floor, with heels together and toes apart forming a triangle. Legs should be uncrossed. Your arms should be relaxed and your hands should rest on your knees.
- Before you start the conscious breathing practice, visualize the most beautiful object in nature you can imagine. It could be a plant, a tree, a waterfall, the sea, or whatever has special meaning to you.
- Your eyes can be open or closed. Either way, focus on a point approximately eight feet in front of you. If your eyes are closed, imagine the picture of what you’ve chosen. If you’re focusing on an object, put it as close to eight feet away from you as you can.
- Next comes the sacred rhythm, the 7-1-7-1-7 rhythm of the Mother’s Breath. The method is simple, though initially it may seem difficult, since we are used to breathing without any form of attention or consciousness.
- Breathe into the solar plexus (the pit of your stomach) for the count of seven, pause for one count, and then for another seven counts radiate out breath from the “heart center”, the point in the center of your chest. IMPORTANT NOTE: When counting to 7, you do not have to count in precise measured seconds. It’s not the speed that matters, it’s the actual number of counts. Choose the speed, fast or slow, that suits you.
- Having breathed in for the count of seven, pause for one count and at the same time, bring your attention to the center of the chest. Then breathe out for the count of seven. As you breathe out, radiate love and goodwill from the center of your chest.
- To complete the practice, return to the senses. Feel your body and take responsibility for it once more. Be awake to the room or your surroundings.
- As you continue your practice, you’ll become better at it and find there’s no need to force the breath. At this stage, you are not breathing. Rather, you are being breathed.
The whole exercise should take you about 10 minutes and Feild recommends trying it a few times a day. I find it’s a great companion to and substitute for meditation, with many of the same calming and revitalizing effects. As Field says, it will leave you with a “tremendous sense of wonder and gratitude”.
This post previously appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, October 7, 2014.