Insects to Birds and Kumbhaka

the time before dawn

There was a particular time right before dawn that I experienced fully awake a few weeks ago. It was a haunting experience that has me desiring to spend more time awake at this time of day.

I am just now remembering that moment.  And, although it’s something familiar to me — this fading out and fading in — there was something all-together fresh about that moment.  The sounds and the experience became magnified.  It went something like this:

As night fell, the insects in Southern Appalachia began their calls, chirps, and sounds…it was a very rhythmic hum that sounded as if the ground had organized its own complex orchestra of instruments.
An hour or so before dawn…they slowly faded away…
Then, there was complete silence…a stillness that held me like I was inside the belly of a boulder.
And then, the first bird call pierced the heavy air…and slowly the rhythm and pace picked up…more bird calls…and then, more bird calls…
The insects of the night gave way to the morning calls of the birds.
The space in between was like the cosmos held their breath for a moment before beginning a new day.

This experience reminded me of the yogic breath, kumbhaka or breath retention.  The ancients say that asana (yogic postures) are not complete without kumbhaka.   As expressed on p 12 of this well-articulated explanation of some foundations of yoga, kumbhaka comes to us naturally, like the pause between the insect calls and the bird calls.  Likewise, with our breath, there naturally is a small, barely detectable pause between the inhale and exhale.  Of course, there is a pranayama practice that accentuates this pause at the top of the inhale or the bottom of the exhale to pronounce the inhale or exhale.

To be honest, I discovered the ability to tap into the breath before I discovered yoga (or it discovered me?).  I was in a stressful time in my life and my breathing was very shallow and superficial.  I had suffered through a panic attack and was in fear of going through one again (they are very frightening because they feel like a heart-attack).  I learned that if I held my breath at the bottom of the exhale, that this technique would calm me down and deepen my breath.  When my breath deepened, my mind would calm and the thoughts would stop circling.  It was a powerful realization for me at the time and at a deep, core level I shifted how I regarded the breath.  I discovered it was not only a tool to restore a state of peace, it also became a close friend that I could rely on.

Therefore, when I learned about kumbhaka in a yoga workshop years ago, it simply made sense.  Of course, I do not think that the ancient yogis were trying to keep from having a panic attack.  However, they did realize that the mind would follow the quality of the breath.

Kumbhaka occurs in every breath we take whether we are conscious of it or not because there is a moment at the top of the inhale and the bottom of the exhale when the breath stops.  This is a moment when the apparent duality between inhalation and exhalation is suspended and, when practiced consciously, creates a profound slowing or stilling of the movement of the mind where the deep witnessing capacity of our minds shines forth. It is moment of meditation.  ~ Scott Blossom

Next time you have the opportunity to be cradled in this great pause — as the insect sounds still to give way to bird calls — think of this amazing being, the cosmos, taking a moment between inhale and exhale…as a new day begins.

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