I once read a story that asked a singer/performer, I think it was Bonnie Raitt, “What was the best piece of advice you ever received?” Her response consisted of a single word:
The songstress had been given this tip from her father, who had pointed out that when we’re stressed or feeling a little bit tense, we tend to shorten our breath. And at those moments, there’s nothing better we can do to steady ourselves than to take a big, deep gulp of air.
I was reminded of this advice when reading The Last Barrier, the autobiography of the late English author 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.”
It was instruction that Feild took to heart, and as part of his life work, he continually stressed the importance of breathing. Feild was also the founder of the Sufi-inspired Chalice School and if you go to the school’s website, in large ninety-point type, you will be greeted by the following message:
“All is contained in the Divine Breath, like the day in the morning’s dawn.”
There is a section of the Chalice School site that is devoted to the importance of breathing titled “Breath is Life.” Here, Feild echoes the lessons he was taught as a young man telling us:
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.
Feild recommends that we engage in a practice he calls the “7-1-7 Breathing Exercise” also known as the “Mother’s Breath,” a simple exercise that originates from ancient Egypt. I have edited Feild’s words on the subject and put them into the eight-step practice below.
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 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, 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 seven, 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 your center.
- To complete the practice, return to your senses. Come back to your body and be awake to the room and your surroundings.
The whole exercise should only take you about ten 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 Feild says, it will leave you with a “tremendous sense of wonder and gratitude.” And if you can’t spare the 10 minutes, remember this simple advice when feeling stressed: Stop what you’re doing—and simply breathe.
This story is included in the new book Wake Up Call: Daily Insights for the Spiritually Curious, now available from Wildhouse Publishing.