Breathing in Summer

I knew I needed a different kind of summer. After teaching for thirty-two years, this last year, teaching during Covid, was the most difficult of all. I knew this summer had to be different too. I realized I needed a return to a more intentional meditation practice. So, I’m taking two Breath/Meditation classes each week, as well as a Slow Flow Yoga class with a wonderful teacher named Eric Brown. He teaches through Om Practice.

Many years ago, in a basement classroom at Moreau Seminary at the University of Notre Dame, we had a workshop on Centering Prayer, a kind of Christian meditation practice. I had never really tried any meditation before. But this was such a profound experience, it transformed my life. Nearly every meditation practice, from any spiritual tradition, focuses on one’s breath, being attentive and mindful to one’s breath. This can be as simple as noticing one’s inhalation and then one’s exhalation. Allowing the breath, and one’s attention to it, to slow you down and be in the present moment.

There is something about the empty bowl, the empty self, the space after the exhalation but before the inhalation.

Some years after that seminary experience, I dove into the work of a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. His work also focuses on attentiveness to one’s breath and he suggested the use of mantras, a word or phrase that one ties to the inhale or exhale. I read his books, listened to tapes of his talks and retreats.

After this difficult school year, when, due to Covid, I was pushed, pressed, and stressed in ways I never imagined, I knew I needed a deliberate way to heal stress, to focus my time, to center myself and return myself to myself.

In the Breath/Meditation classes I’m taking now, we focus on varied ways to be attentive to our breathing. Eric Brown draws on his long experience as a yoga teacher and as a practitioner of meditation. He offers us a rich diversity of ways to explore and attend to our breathing in ways that stimulate and calm us. Whether we are practicing alternate-nostril breathing, square breathing, various counting breaths, breathing tied to movements, it all allows us to focus on our breath as the central act of being ourselves. For me, it heals, slows, and transforms.

One element of his classes I find especially welcome is his non-judgmental way of teaching. Whether in the yoga class or the Breath/Meditation class, his focus is not essentially about doing anything right. It’s about doing it as one can. This is especially helpful in the yoga class. Some teachers, and I’ve had them, focus on achieving the postures correctly, a kind of perfectionism. While this can be useful, it can also bury the practitioner in a judgment-based experience. I appreciate being taught the ways to do a certain yoga posture fully, but I can only do it with the body I have today, at this time. So, rather than focusing on what I can’t quite do, this class urges me to do what I can. As a teacher, Eric invites us to let the postures lead us and teach us, but also to do them as we can. This is transformative for me. As one who can be competitive, I can focus on trying to “do” the posture and then be miserable because I can’t quite master it. The truth is, it’s not about mastering anything. It’s about letting the postures teach me, as they can, as I can enter them.

With the Breath/Meditation classes, I find clarity and calm in good measure. We are led in a wide variety of breathing exercises, for lack of a better word, that enable us to find a kind of mental stimulation, resulting from inhalations. Then we explore a kind of mental calming, resulting generally from the exhalations. Recently, I found an especially practical benefit for this. I had a dental appointment to receive a crown. When the procedure was particularly uncomfortable, I was able to use square breathing to ease myself through it. I felt the pain less, or rather, was less troubled by the discomfort.

I find now, during various parts of my day, that I am focused on breathing more intentionally, the three-part yogic breath: belly, ribs, upper chest. I’m also exhaling more fully. This makes everything easier: writing, running, walking, thinking.

As my students know, for the last twenty years or so, I start every class with a moment of silence. I always tell them to breathe slowly for a minute before we begin class. We do this together. For some, it’s just a moment they let pass. For others, it becomes a time to rest, breathe, and ready us to engage with the important ideas that will emerge during our class. For sure, in the coming school year, I will continue and enhance this experience as a result of what I’m learning this summer.

A final element I’m discovering in this summer’s practice is humility. I love being a student. I love learning, not knowing what I’m doing. During the school year, I’m expected to have answers. I help students improve their writing, their understanding of Langston Hughes, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, among others. In these summer classes, I am the beginner. I will always be the beginner. There is something very liberating about that.

Photo Credit:
I took the photographs above. That bowl, my favorite serving bowl, is as beautiful empty as it is full. JR

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Poet & Teacher. Author of four books of poetry: Raising King (2020) Ache (2017) Gospel of Dust (2013) Meeting Bone Man (2012)

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