The Harmonious Breath

We all have experienced moments, in locations, at events that have happily converged, leaving a profound effect on our consciousness. These aren’t usually the predictable sorts, such as rote observances; the calendar-year celebrations that are repeated rituals, touchstones that reinforce who we are and who we connect with. What I am talking about are the more unexpected happenings that surprise us, sometimes rendering us breathless. And leaving us desirous of them happening again.

These confluences, these special combinations of space and time – a place, a state of mind, the weather, nature and, sometimes, dollops of human-generated creativity – are brought together as momentary and ephemeral circumstances that can cause us to glimpse something out of the ordinary, pressing our noses to the glass between us and another realm of well-being. That’s what makes them so special. Really unduplicatable. And perfect. Instances like these can come out of nowhere or can occur within the context of a planned circumstance, but are still unpredictable things – “aha” moments that are surprising in their impact, unforeseen. We do not control these occurrences. We yearn for them but can’t generate them. We are lucky if we recognize them. And they can’t be recreated because, mostly, they are not of our making.

In this blog, we try to describe such instances of awareness, openness, being in the moment; e.g., sunlight glancing off wind-borne glitter, the meaningful placement of art in nature, magical discoveries of abandoned places, the interaction of architecture and its site, sounds that transport us to another place or keep us stupefied in this one. Our attempt is to be in tune with all that surrounds us. Open to the possibilities. Looking for the moments.

So, when the potential for such a convergence presents itself, we try to be there so that we are in a place of possibility. This time it was in a place that is full of seekers – Kripalu, a center for yoga and integrative health, nestled into a majestic site within the Berkshires. The workshop that spoke to us was “Zen and the Art of Harmonica Yoga,” and it proved to be an exhilarating mix of mindfulness, breath work and music. Imagining that this could be a recipe for placeness, we were hopeful.

Most of us don’t breathe – not well anyway – either because of vanity (holding in those abs), or fear, or hesitation, or the inhibitory power of stress. And, anyway, why would we want to breathe deeply in most of the environments we inhabit? It can be counter-productive. The mindfulness was meant to be used as a coping strategy, learning to be aware of our indicator lights that trigger anger and stress, and being able to control them, mostly with our breathing and, ultimately, by creating sound and music.

So, these elements of breathing and mindfulness can be coalesced into the act of  playing the harmonica – a seemingly small creation in the pantheon of musical instruments: the mouth harp. The breaths can be a little heady, the sounds can be soft and soothing, or bluesy-raspy. You can find your inner rhythm and clear your mind. Oxygenation and notes produced. Sometimes you become aware of your own voice. Other times you feel the combined energy of playing with others, a cacophony of breaths made resounding. In, out, in, out, in, out, in. I hear the beats in my head, the sounds in my ears, a quickening pulse, beautiful noise. Long in-breath, I feel dizzy. I am not used to this quantity of oxygen in my lungs. The other time I felt this way was when I went with a few people to an oxygen bar – I left floating. But that was delivered via a plastic tube; this is self-generated. Headier stuff.

I am not even all that good at harmonica playing, but I am getting better at breathing. I am in the moment, thinking about a moment past, of my first breath – the one that brought me consciousness. But this time it is different because I am aware of it and I can savor it. This time, this breath is not just reflex or survival instinct; it is spiritual, cosmic, poetic. In this setting, it is communal, contemplative, soulful … and necessary. It is experiential. That’s me floating overhead, playing notes, making sounds that come from my diaphragm. The harmonious place of life and sound. The zen and art of harmonica yoga. Arslocii.

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