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A Love Letter to Breath

Dear Breath, 


Recently, as I was meditating beneath a cherry blossom in an East Village community garden, I decided that you deserve a love letter.  There’s so much I’ve left unsaid, and now I urgently must tell you how I feel about you. 


I’ve known you since the instant I was born, but I love you now more than I ever have.  Reflecting on all the times you stuck by me when I neglected you, I feel adoration and admiration for your stoic and selfless service.  Understanding that you could walk away from this relationship at any moment, ending my life, has been a sobering realization.  You give literal meaning to the concept of need that so many people overuse and misinterpret.  Acknowledging my deep dependence on you has led me to realize how little else I require.  You are the most important thing in my life, or in anybody’s life.  You are life.  


There are few choices in this life that I cannot abstain from.  I have the freedom to refrain from choosing the words that I speak – silence – or the clothes that I wear – nakedness – but each day I am helplessly required to decide which food I eat and when I go to sleep.  Some days, I view this requirement as an impediment, mindlessly trodding the path of least resistance.  However, I feel most fulfilled when I use these choices to confidently and intentionally assert my individual perspective.  Though they are disguised as dull and routine decisions, they are emblematic of the way I approach the most pivotal and complex crossroads I face.  Encoded within the way I do one thing is the way I do everything.  


I carry this truth every morning when I wake up and decide how to treat you, for breathing is the ultimate choice from which I cannot abstain.  Life will go on whether I honor you with my awareness or stow your activity in my subconscious, but it will cease if I forcibly shun you.  Whenever I hold your hand passionately and breathe like I mean it, vigor and precision emerge in all the other choices I make.  I take my time nurturing our relationship, and consequently I become a better son, brother, friend, and lover. 


Enhanced relationships and energized actions would easily be reason enough for me to esteem you, but beyond all that, you also bring me much closer to my physiology.  Before you led me here, I was afflicted by the perception that my cranium resided in an ivory tower, far above the rest of my body.  My cerebral mindspace expanded to fill my entire field of awareness, and I remained numb to the subtle, thoughtless energy that truly makes me tick.  This ignorance persisted until you showed me how to curb my thoughts by amplifying my breaths.  Now I see that breath is a far more honest manifestation of consciousness than intangible mental formations.  My sentience exists throughout every cell in my body, not just my brain, and my breaths also reach every cell, not just my lungs.  Engaging with the neurons in my extremities reminds me how insignificant, irrelevant, and distracting my thoughts can be.  


When I hold this awareness that my consciousness vibrates through the tips of my fingers and toes just as within my skull, you show me your remarkable healing powers.  Facing physical ailments that once drove me towards medication, I now simply breathe into the anatomical coordinates of my pain and make space for you to liberate my suffering.  Contracting and engaging the muscles surrounding my injured tissue with every exhale, releasing and softening them with every inhale, we work together to relieve headaches, soreness, indigestion, and more.  Thank you for reminding me that my body is far more perfect and self-sufficient than the long list of modern-era illnesses suggests. 



Beyond reaching self-reliance, the human body is capable of miraculously daunting feats of strength when it partners with you.  Wim Hof, who summited Mount Everest wearing nothing but his shorts, credited you as his secret weapon and muse.  He’s devoted his life to teaching the art of breathing through the cold, but as you know, he’s hardly the first to discover your heating capabilities.  Through Wim, I traced the lineage back to the monks of ancient Tibet, who used Tummo Breath (the breath of fire) to withstand the fierce chill of their high-altitude environment, donning only their robes.  



Budimir Šobat, who holds the world record for the longest time spent without breathing, has such a strong relationship with you that he thrives even in your absence: he once submerged himself underwater for 24 breathless minutes.  I’ve never found the strength to be without you for longer than three minutes, and the difficulty of this severance reminds me how much I love you.  I may fall short of these dramatic athletic achievements, but I still regularly bring you into extreme cold with me, and sit without you for as long as I can manage.  Every time I surpass a personal record and expand my ability, I rediscover your potential as an agent of self-improvement.  Every race I run, every horn I blow, every word I speak, and every fragrance I smell is thanks to you.  You represent my most fundamental purpose of respiration, and you’ve given me an even brighter purpose in all these distinctly human acts, leading me towards thrills miles beyond the comprehension of the earliest breathing life forms.  


As tantalizing as these frontal-lobe activities are, our love increases even when I bring mindful awareness to simple, everyday breathing.  As cool air enters my nostrils and my lungs expand, you fill me with gratitude.  As warm air exits my nostrils and my chest falls, I release you into the atmosphere so that your gifts can be shared with others.  I bring my awareness to your craft, and I see that breathing involves far more than the chemical transformation of oxygen into carbon dioxide: it cultivates another invisible energy of mystical origin.  In Ancient Greece it was known as Ether, in Hinduism as Prana, and in China as Chi.  All these words translate into English as life-force.  My attempts to verbally describe this unscientific substance fail, but my undying faith that it courses through me prevails.  Having felt it, I feel no need to explain or rationalize it, but I cannot deny it.  


Concrete proof of this magical energy is found when I exhale vibrations into my larynx, catalyzing the spiritual and remedial act of singing.  My species has turned this sensation into an art of deep study and practice, but it’s found in instances as primal and involuntary as heaving an audible sigh of unsuppressable emotion.  These intonations are my reminder that you are always undoubtedly beside me.  My sighs, grunts, and whimpers are an indication that I need you more than usual.  The vibration we create is an opportunity to reset our rhythm, bringing me back towards equanimity.  But at its best, this is hardly an insular act.  Stringing these tonal breaths together in sequence forges an alchemy worthy of the world’s biggest stages.  Every day, music of the voice pulls me into bouts of spiritual release, inducing tears, laughter, and even physical paralysis.  Thank you for giving this world the gift of singing.  Growing closer to you, breathing with meaning, has only improved my relationship with my voice: you’ve helped me speak and sing with more confidence and generosity.  When I lose my presence or gratitude, I remain confident that singing or speaking to myself will always bring me back home.  These vibrations of the voice must be an incarnation of life-force itself.  


Even when we sit in silence, you illuminate and honor my every emotion.  Usually, you key into the frequency of my feelings before my brain-consciousness does, dilating the length and depth of my breaths in your own language of communication.  Please forgive me for all the times I ignored your signals.  I recall several instances from my childhood when my anxiety rendered your rhythm rapid and your amplitude shallow.  I lost connection with you completely during suffocating panic attacks; you tried everything to reach me, and I still couldn’t receive your instructions to focus on my breath.  Yet, you’ve always patiently been there, waiting for me to see you as you are.  Now, I treat your slightest jolts and spasms like the bark of a dog or the wail of an infant, empathetically inducing what you’re trying to tell me across our language barrier.  I’d say our communication has improved: I haven’t had an anxiety attack since high school!  Every time I discern an uptick in your tempo, I find a seat and close my eyes, devoting all my awareness to navigating the currents of my emotions with you.  I don’t stir from this state until we’re back in sync.  The stillness offers an opportunity to wholly experience these sensations rather than casting them aside.  Once my breath is back under control, I emerge stronger, unafraid and unfettered by my emotions.  This sanctuary of placidity you’ve shown me has transformed my character: I no longer react impulsively during these fiery moments, instead turning inward until I am ready to act prudently.  My feelings are stronger than ever, but they no longer control me. 


Realizing that you’re powerful enough to tame the complex landscape of my emotions led a burning curiosity to fester within me.  I stalked and scoured your internet presence, wondering what other secrets you held.  A plethora of your supporters and advocates revealed themselves to me, magnanimously sharing their methods for honoring you.  This research shattered my erroneous belief that there’s only one way to breathe: I discovered dozens of unique exercises: each illuminating a different aspect of your magic.  Implementing this wisdom, I crafted our daily routine.  I perpetually look forward to our quiet mornings together practicing Kapalbhati, Nadi Shodhana, and Bhramari breath; I’m in infinite debt to the lineage of Yogis that developed this method of breathwork known as Pranayama.  Grateful as I am to have found this information, I lament having to search the fringes of the internet for it.  So much illness and mental strife would surely be avoided if breathwork resources were more accessible.  The cynic within me remarks that our capitalist society of pharmaceutical healthcare has no interest in promoting you, for you cannot be monetized.  Nevertheless, I find solace in your online footprint: amazingly, anyone with an ounce of determination to find you — and an internet connection — can.  


My favorite activity we share, however, happens after our morning ritual is complete: keeping you in mind has forever changed the way I walk.  As a drummer, I’ve always revered the inherent rhythm of footsteps.  That reverence only compounded once I began synchronizing your cycles with this walking beat that literally moves me.  I invite you in with a long inhale that lasts eight paces, release you with a steady exhale for eight more paces, and repeat this symmetrical breath, overcome by the serenity and clarity of walking meditation.   This slows down my steps, protecting me against the disease of haste and rushing which plagues so many New Yorkers around me.  Overcome with leisure, I fall into harmony with my surroundings, marveling at the natural rhythms of the city.  I march to the beat of church bells, jackhammers, and car alarms.  I visualize the globe spinning, seeing the steps I take compound the eternal movement my body traipses as the Earth turns.  The original source of tempo, after all, is the precise astrological clock of gravitational orbit.  Appreciation for my circadian rhythm, and the distant sun, overtakes me as I place one foot in front of the other.  Why should your rhythm within me be any less perfect?  I strive to make it so.  I find comfort in the circular reliability of a steady beat, breathing deeply every sixteen steps to embody the rhythm of our cosmos. 


Knowing that every breath you give me cultivates this tempo, the act of breathing changes from obligatory and mundane to indulgent and inspiring.  I’m compelled towards deeper, fuller, longer breaths, drinking every last drop of this formless elixir you’ve given me. 


But please do not mistake my satiation for gluttony.  I recognize that, as pleasing as your gifts can be, you also represent an altruistic act of service to our earth.  On that afternoon I spent meditating in the community garden, I considered my symbiotic relationship with the cherry trees blossoming around me: every exhale you grant me releases carbon dioxide, which plants must ingest in order to photosynthesize.  These plants then return my favor in perfect reciprocation by emitting the oxygen that fuels me.  Neither a plant nor I could survive without our counterpart in respiration.  Thus, you are the ultimate metaphor for the balance between consumption and creation: my inhales empower me, and my exhales power my world.  One direction of breath inevitably begets its inverse, creating an eternal loop of ingestion equaling erection.  Similarly, I’m only able to write this because I previously read these words in different formations, and each reader of these sentences will go on to write sentences of their own.  In this way, you have made me an agent of transformation.  When I align my breath with the intention of metamorphosis, I see the life I give to the plants around me.  I make your transmutation my foundation atop which I incite change of a more material kind: seeing my body as a filter of energy motivates me to pick up litter off the street and consciously cheer up my friends.  You’ve taught me to leave my environment better than I found it.  


That is, if I ever leave at all.  Looking deeply into the cherry tree before me, I noticed that the Prana pouring through it is equal and homogenous with the Prana cascading through me.  The very same Prana, uniform across the universe, pulses through the mycelium in the soil beneath me and the wings of the birds above me.  As I inhale thoroughly, I feel all plants, animals, fungi, prokaryotes, rocks, and minerals enter my body.  Exhaling, I realize that they’ve always lived inside of me, and I’ve always been within them.  You are the adhesion that protects the harmony and interdependence among all these living beings.


As I meditated in the community garden, you illuminated this interdependence.  The brown leaves peppering the earth around me sank deeper into the soil, composting to nourish the obstructed roots of the cherry trees below my seat.  Feeling more immortal than morbid, I imagined my cadaver decaying into soil beside the leaves.  Where will you go once my body releases you through one final exhale?  Is there anyplace to go where you haven’t already been?  Grappling with these questions led me to one satisfying answer: in this very moment, you touch every corner of the universe, revealing yourself in the soft inhale of a sleeping baby and the gargantuan exhale of a supernova explosion alike.  Breathing in the springtime pollen, I thought, It’s a privilege for me to know such a worldly soul as yourself.  But, before I could even finish the thought, I suddenly found it impossible to distinguish myself from you.  Without you, this body of mine would certainly cease to live, but would I?  Is my being even mine, or will I live on in equal vibrance through other hosts, long after this body passes?  My life is but a mirage of life itself.  Together, we will always be here.  


As life roared through the community garden, we became the ants, the weeds, the mushroom caps, and the cherry blossoms.  


There is nobody to mail this note to, no sedentary address sheltering Breath.  Yet, as I finish this love letter, I grow confident that you received these words before I even conceived of writing them.  May they continue to multiply, shatter, and scatter until they dissipate into every molecule of our world, reaching every being breathing in perfect unison.  


Love, 

Etai


 

Thank you so much for taking the time to read this letter.

Please consider getting a copy of my favorite book of all time, Breath by James Nestor. It’s the text that made me fall in love with breathing, and it contains immeasurable wisdom on the topic. You can find the book here:

If you’re curious about the specific pranayama (breathwork) techniques I mentioned in the letter, you can find video tutorials for each method here:

I hope you enjoy these resources! May breathwork stay with you.

Thank you so much for taking the time to read this story. If you’d like to receive more of my writing in your inbox, you can subscribe to my free email list here.

Peace and love!

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