Breath is the foundation for many religious and magical practices. We settle our breathing when we sit before our altar. We deepen and change our breathing to enter into altered states. Breath is the beginning and the end.
So, how do we develop breathing as part of our religious practice?
Too Much At Once
Just like New Years resolutions, we tend to stack our plate too high when we begin devotion and magic. This can be seen in how often we recommend beginners to meditate or engage in contemplative practice for long periods of time. Long here doesn’t mean actually long, like an hour or more, but relatively short periods of time, like ten to twenty minutes.
Even such seemingly short times can actually be quite large chunks depending on one’s circumstance. People with children or those working long hours may not feel able to fit a half-hour practice into their day. A ten minute practice might seem small, but when there are a dozen other things you have to do, a dozen other tasks you’re juggling? A budding spiritual practice might fall to the wayside because you just don’t have enough time.
It doesn’t help that when we’re beginning (and even well into our practices), contemplative and meditative exercises often feel futile. If we’re trying to clear our head, we find ourselves cycling through our thoughts. We may find ourselves focused on everything else we could be doing at that moment. Even during guided meditations we may find ourselves simply too distracted by life and its troubles to focus. Much less if we’re trying to traverse the otherworlds!
One thing that really changed my practice was taking time to focus on my breath for just a minute or two. This wasn’t limited to my time in front of my altar. It was a practice I adopted into the entirety of my life.
Simply notice your breath. You don’t need to change it – though you will inevitably end up breathing differently through the act of taking note. Focus on your breath for a few moments. Let yourself reconnect with your body. Let momentary anger, frustration, and distress melt away in the face of breathing. You may find yourself sinking into your feet and centering your body, naturally. Return to whatever you were doing, more grounded than before.
Building such a small practice into your life helps with more intentional practices later on. Nowadays I am better at feeling when the distractions and concerns of the day have fallen away and I am ready for focused devotion, because I’ve built up my breathing and focusing enough to feel the shifts inside myself. Integrating a short breathing exercise throughout the day means that when you have time for a bigger activity or ritual you have more experience under your belt.
I naturally began to extend these mini-practices. A few moments becomes a minute. It eventually became natural enough to sit down for longer periods of time to contemplate, pray, or meditate.
A Place to Return
It is natural for our religious or magical practice to wax and wane. This normal shifting is why I think some form of daily practice is important, whether it be a daily Tarot draw, offerings to the Gods, or contemplation. We can adjust how long we spend on these practices, but they should stay with us, a constant buoy through the troubled waters of our lives.
Whenever I go to give offerings, after I’ve lit the candles and incense, I sit and just breathe. My mind turns and focuses upon the Gods with each breath. The ease with which I can do this has been built up over years. And it does take a long time to build up that ease. As competent as I am in preparing myself for such devotions, I am much less competent with preparing to manipulate energy for circle castings. Being able to deepen and focus the breath underpins both practices, though. A small, gentle, daily integration of paying attention to our breathing – noting it and, if needed, calming – can ripple throughout the rest of our devotions.
(Though the site is no longer active, I am participating in the ‘Pagan Blog Project’. The PBP encouraged writers to write throughout the year, focusing on prompts based on the letters of the alphabet. For the ‘B’ prompt, I chose ‘breath’.)