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Cycles of Time, Cycles of Breath

At the end of a year, we can reflect on the passage of time, reviewing the events and growth of the past year and setting intentions for the next year. It’s a valuable time to renew values and goals, and to savor meaningful experiences. What did I enjoy this year? What do I want to do more or less of next year? What mistakes did I learn from? What obstacles did I overcome, and which ones are still ahead?

For me the highlights of 2016 included a trip to south India visiting ancient temples, and publishing my book, Anatomy and Yoga, a labor spanning many years. I also proudly saw my youngest son begin medical school, and I reconnected with friends from 40 years ago. Profound sadness came from losing two loved ones, both too young. Somehow each of these experiences related to the passage of time.

The year – and a life span – are long cycles, made up of billions of short ones. Each breath we take is a cycle, taking less than a minute of time. We have an infinite number of chances in any day to connect with our breathing cycle. Though our breath continues on its own, it welcomes our awareness and playful participation.

Right now as you’re reading this, take a big deep breath, filling yourself with Prana, the life force in the air. Then exhale until you’ve let out all the air, letting it subside naturally like a wave in the ocean. Reflect on the passage of that moment in time, the rhythm of it. The inhale is a new beginning, offering fresh energy, then the natural pause at the top is a time for assimilation, and the exhale is a release, a settling. So many cycles of time have these elements – creation, sustenance, dissolution – three of the “cosmic acts”, according to Hinduism. (There are more, but that’s for another blog). We know that conscious deep breathing is physically healing – it lowers blood pressure, boosts the immune system, and reduces emotional stress by shifting the nervous system to a calmer state. And it’s so easy to do!

This year, I recommend that you practice conscious breathing a little bit each day. It could be when you first wake up, or before you eat, or whenever there is a transition in your day.

Here are a few ideas.

1) Watch the breath play inside your body. Where do you feel it? What movement does it create? What changes does it bring about in your inner feeling? How is the breath being affected by what you are doing?

2) Practice slowing it down. This is a great one to do just before meditation. You can count the duration of your inhalation – perhaps 4-6 counts – and then see how long the exhalation is naturally, without doing anything about it. Then gently elongate the exhalation, so that it’s about half again as long as the inhalation. Then add a pause at the top of the breath, between the inhalation and the exhalation. The pause is a magical moment of entry into a deeper awareness – called the Madhya, the middle place where a more subtle state of consciousness is available.

3) Repeat a natural mantra along with your breath. This is a classical meditation technique that you can practice for a short few minutes to center yourself, or for a longer seated meditation. As you inhale, inwardly hear the internal sound “Ham”, and as you exhale, hear the internal sound “Sah”. This is said to be the natural sound of the breath, its meaning is “I am that”: the essence of each of us expands into the world, and the world also exists inside us.

Enjoy your breath, and please leave me a comment about your favorite kind of conscious breathing!

To read more of Ellen Saltonstall's work click here or follow her on Facebook or Instagram.

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