Avraham ben Yaakov
Jewish Pathways of Spiritual Growth
Crumbs and Bones
Body, Mind and Soul * Eating * What You Eat: Kashrut * What You Eat: Diet for a Clear Head * When and How Much to Eat * How You Eat: Please and Thank You * Fasting * Changing Food Habits * Breathing * The Breath and the Soul * Controlling States of Mind Through Breathing * Breathing in Kabbalah and Chassidut * Breathing Practice * The Exhalation * The Pause * The Inhalation * The Complete Breath * Hyperventilation * Breathing in Daily Life * Breathing in Meditation and Prayer * Renewal: A Kavanah for Breathing * Exercise * What Kind of Exercise? * The Soul and the Body
The Wise Man also pulled at crumbs and bones...
“Bodily health and well-being is one of the pathways to God, since it is virtually impossible to understand or know anything of the Creator if one is sick. Therefore one must avoid anything that may harm the body, and follow practices that are conducive to health and healing.”
Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot De'ot 4:1
So far, even the subtle delights of quiet, contemplative sitting had little attraction for the Prince compared to the excitement of pulling at crumbs and bones. In order to bring him back, step by step, to being himself, the first thing the Wise Man did was to go right down to where the Prince was. The Wise Man also pulled at crumbs and bones – and he no doubt did this in his own wise way. For showing the Prince how to be a
Body, Mind and Soul
Only when we sit down to try to clear our minds do we begin to realize how far we are from real clarity. People who experiment with the practice of quiet sitting frequently find themselves struggling with waves of drowsiness, restlessness, nervous tension and the like. Most of us suffer from similar problems in the course of other activities as well, but we may be so used to them that we just discount them. Not until we sit down and try to attain a state of heightened awareness do we become aware of their draining effect, not only on our efforts to be calm and think clearly, but on our lives in general. We may then wonder if there is anything we can do about them.
Among the many physiological and psychological factors that may contribute to such problems, our patterns of eating, breathing and exercise (or the lack of it) are among the most significant. The relationship between actual physical disorders and states of mind does not come within the scope of this work. However many people who are apparently in fairly good health find that problems such as lack of stamina, mental cloudiness, inability to concentrate, high tension, moodiness, negativity and depression, etc. tend to interfere with their efforts to lead a more spiritual life.
Sometimes these problems may be bound up with bad eating and breathing habits, or inadequate exercise. Even minor adjustments in these patterns can have a marked effect on physical stamina, mental clarity, efficiency and productivity, spirituality and general enjoyment of life.
“A righteous person eats for the satisfaction of his soul.”
As soon as those luscious tid-bits would start raining down from the table, it was all go for the Turkey-Prince... darting here, racing there, snatching, grabbing, stuffing, gobbling... Gastronomic bliss is the acme of
The Prince's picking at crumbs and bones was more than just a symptom of his madness. It was one of the main factors keeping him locked into it. His compulsive feeding habits were just like a
In depicting how the crazy Prince spent his time pulling at crumbs and bones, Rebbe Nachman was emphasizing the relationship between bad eating habits and the lack of spirituality. “Eating properly subdues the tendency towards folly, enhancing one's intellectual and spiritual faculties... But when one over-indulges and eats like a glutton, folly will get the upper hand and overcome one's intellectual and spiritual faculties” (Likutey Moharan I:17,3).
Our culture is interested in the effect of diet on bodily health almost to the point of obsession. Far less attention, however, is paid to the effect of diet on the health of the mind and soul. Correct nutrition is crucial to the health of the body, and bodily health is a vital factor in mental and spiritual health. Moreover, the food we eat is not merely a physical substance. Everything in the creation contains “Divine sparks”– spiritual energy. When we eat and digest our food, not only does the body extract the substances it needs to build and fuel itself. At the same time subtle energies in the food rise to the brain and soul, influencing our states of mind, our thoughts, feelings, words and actions.
“Our states of mind,” says Rebbe Nachman, “directly correspond to the food we eat. When the body is pure, the mind is clear and one is able to think properly and know what to do in life. But impurities in the body cause putrid gases to rise up to the brain, throwing the mind into such confusion that it becomes impossible to think straight” (Likutey Moharan I:61,1). So direct is the effect of what we eat on how we think and feel that Rebbe Nachman, speaking about the relationship of food and dreams, tells us that “if a person were to eat his second spoonful before his first, he would have a different dream” (ibid. I:19, end).
The kinds of food we eat, in what quantities, when and how we eat them, can all have a decisive influence on our energy levels, moods, attitudes, ability to think, feel and so on. Eating the wrong foods, or even the right foods in the wrong ways, can be responsible for excessive fatigue, drowsiness, general sluggishness, depression, mental cloudiness, nervousness, tension, anxiety, impulsiveness, excitability, etc.
What You Eat: Kashrut
Even the simplest foods have to go through many processes to remove substances that are unfit for human consumption. For example, in order to make bread, the grains of wheat have to be separated from the stalks, dirt and stones must be removed, the grains ground and the coarser bran sifted out. Only then can the flour be kneaded with water and baked.
There are parallel processes of purification on the spiritual level. The diverse and elaborate laws of Kashrut guide us as to how we may avoid taking into our bodies substances that are damaging to the soul, such as forbidden species of animals, fish and insects, the blood and forbidden fat of animals, mixtures of meat cooked with milk, and so on.
Anyone striving for mental clarity and spiritual purity would be well advised to pay careful attention to Kashrut. For example, a single small bug ingested with fruit or vegetables not properly inspected might give rise to damaging trains of negative thoughts, while closing off avenues of spirituality without one's even being aware of it. The same applies to other foods prohibited by the Torah or through Rabbinic enactment.
Take time to study the different aspects of the Laws of Kashrut, and consider how you can restructure your eating habits if necessary.
What You Eat: Diet for a Clear Head
Ensuring that our food is technically kosher is only the first step in eating for the good of our minds and souls. Traditional Torah sources make various references to foods which are generally healthy, others which are less healthy, and those which are extremely unhealthy. However, owing to the revolution in agriculture and in techniques of food production, preservation and transportation in modern times, most people now have access to a vastly wider range of foods than was available to their grandparents and great-grandparents. These include exotic foods, foods out of season, pre-cooked, ready and fast foods, as well as foods containing all kinds of preservatives and other additives. We therefore cannot expect direct guidance from the classic Torah sources concerning our food shopping today.
People's physical constitutions vary enormously. Different people have their own food needs, and may react to specific foods in very different ways. “Every individual should consult with medical experts to choose the foods best suited to his or her particular constitution, place and time” (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 32:7). Those unable to turn to a competent nutritionist would be advised to consult texts offering sensible nutritional guidance. Aim to develop a diet that provides you with all your nutritional needs in a balanced way and gives you genuine and lasting satisfaction. To find out how you react to the different foods you eat, you could keep a notebook in which you enter what you eat and when, and then note down how you feel afterwards.
Coffee, tea and other stimulants are obviously inadvisable for those seeking to reduce tension and experience greater calm. Over-consumption of highly refined and processed foods can lead to nutritional imbalance, giving rise to a wide variety of problems. Consumption of refined sugar in large quantities causes rapid fluctuations in blood sugar levels and may often be responsible for fatigue, depression, lack of clarity, etc. An increase in the proportion of complex carbohydrates in your daily diet (derived from grains like millet, buckwheat, brown rice and rolled oats, vegetables, seeds, nuts, and fruit in moderate quantities) can help to stabilize blood sugar levels, leading to optimum functioning and eliminating cravings for sweet, rich and unhealthy foods. In general, it is advisable to eat foods in their natural, unprocessed form as far as possible. Not only what you eat, but also the way you combine various kinds of foods in your diet can have a significant effect on your energy levels throughout the day, and the way you think and feel.
Vegetarianism as such is not an integral part of the Jewish spiritual path, although some notable Rabbis of recent times have been practicing vegetarians. The Kabbalah teaches that the flesh of animals and fish contains powerful Divine sparks and should be eaten in great holiness in order to elevate them. We find that Rebbe Nachman advised some of his followers to abstain from eating animal products for twenty-four hours once a week (Rabbi Nachman's Wisdom #185).
When and How Much to Eat
1. Eat only when you are genuinely hungry.
2. Drink only when you are thirsty.
3. Do not eat to the point where your stomach is completely full – eat a quarter less than the amount that would make you feel completely full.
4. Drink a minimum with your meal. Only when the food has begun to be digested should you drink, and even then only just as much as you need.
5. Always try to eat sitting down in one place.
6. Do not engage in any form of strenuous physical activity until the food in the stomach is digested. Do not go to sleep directly after eating but wait three or four hours.
(Rambam, Hilchot De'ot 4:1-3, 5)
“Over-eating,”says the Rambam, “is like poison to the body... The majority of illnesses are caused either because of eating harmful foods or through stuffing the stomach with excessive food, even good foods” (ibid. 4:15). “This is on the physical plane,” says Rebbe Nachman. “On the spiritual level, a person who eats like an animal falls from spiritual understanding” (Rabbi Nachman's Wisdom #143).
Most people are aware that excessive over-eating may make them heavy, sleepy, depressed and unable to concentrate, but often do not realize that even moderate over-eating can also have a negative effect on physical and mental functioning and impair their spiritual sensitivity.
If you suspect that your present eating patterns may be having a negative influence on your energy levels, moods, alertness and clarity throughout the day, and especially when you want to concentrate, think clearly, study, pray, meditate and so on, try experimenting with your mealtimes and the kinds, quantities and combinations of foods you eat at different times of the day. Avoid scheduling study, prayer and meditation sessions soon after eating.
How You Eat: Please and Thank You
The table is compared to the
To spiritualize the act of eating requires concentration. One should prepare the table before beginning the meal and sit down to eat and drink in a composed state of mind. Where mandatory, as before eating bread, one should perform the ritual of washing the hands – the instruments of material action – raising them upwards toward the head to show that we wish to use them to feed our bodies for the sake of the soul.
The most important moments of the meal are when we recite the blessings before and after the food. Through these blessings we elevate the Divine sparks in the food. As you are about to say the blessing before food, pause and prepare yourself. Reflect on how this specific item came into being through the wonders of the Creator and how it contains energy that you will use to serve God through Torah, prayer and fulfillment of the mitzvot. As you say the blessing, think about God and your gratitude to Him for the food.
“Be careful not to gulp your food down hurriedly. Eat at a moderate pace, calmly and with the same table manners you would show if an important guest were present. You should always eat in this manner, even when you eat alone” (Tzaddik #515). Chew your food carefully, as this is the beginning of the process of digestion (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 32:13), and it will also give you greater satisfaction. While you chew and taste the food, keep in mind how the spiritual energy in the food is being refined and elevated.
Many people forget about what they have eaten as soon as they have swallowed it (unless they get indigestion). Yet even after swallowing, the body continues to work dutifully to dissolve the food and distribute the nutrients as needed. On the spiritual plane, the processes of refinement and elevation also continue as the spiritual energy in the food is turned into our holy thoughts, words and actions.
Accordingly, we follow the act of eating with the appropriate blessings after food. We thank God for the food and the physical and spiritual energies it contains, reminding ourselves that God takes care of us and provides for all our needs. We pray for the spiritual restoration of the Jewish People and the holy
If it often happens that you have to eat when rushed or under pressure, don't abandon your hopes of eating properly. Work out which snack foods will satisfy you and meet your working needs, giving you the best balance of nutrients. Try to prepare them in advance so that you don't have to make do with the wrong foods because that is all that is available at the snack bar. Even when you are in a hurry, it is always possible to take the few extra moments needed to say the blessings with appropriate concentration.
On the six weekdays our primary purpose in eating may be to nourish our bodies in order to function properly as we go about our working activities. However on Shabbat, the purpose of eating is entirely different: it is to delight the soul. Put particular care and effort into the beautification of the Shabbat table, and use the three meals of Shabbat as times to give special focus to the spiritual dimensions of eating.
In earlier times, fasting was a prominent part of the Jewish spiritual pathway, but one of the innovations of the Chassidic movement was to take account of the greater physical weakness of later generations and use other routes to spiritual purity and devotion. Thus Rebbe Nachman explicitly told his followers not to fast – except, of course, on the set fast-days of the religious calendar Tzaddik #491).
This does not mean that Chassidism gave a license to eat without any discipline whatsoever. In some ways, the harder discipline is to eat moderately and with proper decency at all times. While complete abstinence from food and drink is no longer recommended, there are times when partial fasting for limited periods (e.g. only juices, or a carefully restricted diet) can be of great value for cleansing the body and clearing the mind. This should only be undertaken with expert guidance.
Look upon the set fast-days of the religious calendar as an opportunity to cleanse your body and soul. If you are careful about how you eat before the fast – not over-eating and not under-eating – it can help to make the fast itself easier and leave you with more strength and clarity of mind. One of the most important aspects of any fast is the way you break it: it is destructive and demoralizing to follow a good fast with a crazy binge.
Changing Food Habits
The link between eating habits, energy levels and states of mind is so subtle that it can take years of trial and error before one discovers the foods and eating patterns best suited to one's own unique constitution and life-style, and develops sufficient discipline to eat properly.
Never try to introduce drastic changes suddenly. You run the risk of doing more harm than good, and you may counter-react and regress even further into your old habits. If you are conscious that bad foods play too big a role in your present diet, it is not necessarily wise to try to cut them all out at once. The more sensible course is to find better foods that you can substitute for them. The easiest way to eliminate a bad habit is by developing a healthier one in its place. Do what you can, step by step, to improve your eating habits, but remember that you need God's help. Pray regularly for help in eating to satisfy your soul.
“Man's vitality is the breath. If the breath is lacking, life is lacking.”
Likutey Moharan I:8
In between pulling at crumbs and bones, the Prince would presumably sit down to rest. Before the arrival of his strange new companion, the Prince had perhaps spent these periods listlessly staring into the middle distance. But now there was something unusual to observe. The Wise Man, playing
The Breath and the Soul
As long as we are alive, we all breathe, but how we breathe affects our bodily health and strength, our energy levels and states of mind and soul. Every one of the activities of life is bound up with this fundamental process, through which the oxygen vital to our body cells enters the blood, and carbon dioxide waste is eliminated.
The definition of living creatures is “all who have the soul of the breath of life in their nostrils” (Genesis 7:22). The life of man began when God “blew into his nostrils the breath of life” (ibid. 2:7). The intimate relationship between our mental and spiritual states and our breathing is reflected in the way the Children of Israel are depicted in exile in
“The soul of man is a lamp of God” (Proverbs 20:27). Chassidut explains the relationship between the heart and the body, the breath, the mind and the soul, through the image of an oil lamp. The light of the flame is the mind and soul. The wick of the lamp corresponds to the physical brain. The oil rising to the wick, fuelling the flame, symbolizes the vital oils and fluids of the body, which rise up to the brain and “burn” to fuel the activities of the mind and the soul.
Chassidut teaches that the steady burning of the lamp – the mind or soul – depends on the breath. The heart, with its driving passions, would burn up the entire body if it were not for the wings of the lungs fanning and blowing over it. The cooling effect of the lungs, drawing in cold air from the outside, prevents the heart from burning up all the body fluids, thus enabling the oils to rise up to the lamp – the brain – keeping it burning steadily in clear contemplation and understanding.
“The soul – the neshamah – of man is a lamp of God.” The word neshamah is related to the Hebrew word neshimah, which means the breath. We can read the verse as if it says “The breathing of man is God's lamp,” teaching us that when we breathe fully, the lamp burns brightly and the Godly soul shines in us. (See Likutey Moharan I:60,3.)
Controlling States of Mind through Breathing
Our breathing is thus one of the most important ways through which we can affect not only our physical functioning but also our calm and clarity, and the state of our mind and spirit. Everyone knows that physical exertion causes rapid breathing and panting, and most people are also aware of the way nervousness, tension and the like are often accompanied by restricted breathing. States of rest and tranquility, on the other hand, are associated with smoother, deeper breathing.
Not only does our breathing respond to temporary changes. In many people, complexes of behavior that have become part of their personality create distinctive patterns of distorted breathing which in turn affect their entire functioning and states of consciousness. Our frenetic, materialistic culture as a whole could be called the culture of the short breath.
In spite of the fact that air is one of the few things in life that is free, the overwhelming majority of the population has little or no awareness of the significance of the way we breathe. There is, of course, awareness of the damage caused by air pollution, especially in urban areas. Almost eight hundred years ago the Rambam, discussing air quality in the medieval city, wrote that “even the slightest change in the quality of the air will cause a far greater proportionate change in the quality of mental activity, and this is why you will find that many people function poorly in proportion to the poor quality of the air, i.e. they show signs of mental confusion, poor comprehension and reasoning abilities, and poor memory” (Hanhagat Ha-Bri'ut 4:2).
If this is the effect of poor air on our mental functioning, it is easy to infer the disastrous effect on consciousness of the poor breathing patterns exhibited by so many people – patterns that restrict the flow of available air to the lungs, sometimes drastically. The stressful conditions of contemporary living in general and our various private problems as individuals often tend to cause a stiffening and distortion in our posture. The exhalation of stale air becomes inhibited and the inhalation of fresh air inadequate.
Breathing is a self-regulatory function and has the capacity to recover from strain and malfunctioning automatically as soon as the situation that caused the disturbance is over. Unfortunately, what usually happens is that instead of allowing our breathing to return to normal in due course, we tend to interfere. Unconsciously and unintentionally, we often cling to the altered ways of breathing even after the events that brought on the disturbance have passed. Eventually they become habitual and our breathing does not regain its original undisturbed flow.
Although breathing is a self-regulatory organic process that is controlled by the involuntary nervous system, unlike other involuntary functions breathing is also partially under the influence of the voluntary nervous system. In other words, we have the ability to take conscious control of our breathing.
Breathing is therefore one of our most important physical means of influencing our spiritual and psychological states. Improved breathing can lead to a new world of well-being, bringing increased stamina, freedom from fatigue, inner calm, heightened sensitivity and greater clarity of mind.
Breathing in Kabbalah and Chassidut
Among the Kabbalistic meditation techniques practiced from the times of the Prophets until the Middle Ages, and, in a few closed circles, even today, are highly complex meditations in which contemplation on the letters of the holy Hebrew Names of God is associated with special breathing patterns. (See Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, Meditation and the Bible and his Meditation and the Kabbalah esp. pp. 87-106.) A deep knowledge of Kabbalah is required even to begin to understand these methods, let alone practice them.
Chassidic teachings open up pathways of devotion that are accessible even without Kabbalistic knowledge, and in the writings of Rebbe Nachman, where breathing is a recurrent theme, the emphasis is on the long, smooth breath (see especially Likutey Moharan I:8, 60, 109, and II, 5 etc. and Tzaddik #163). The main focus here will therefore be on long, full breathing as a way to maximize our physical, mental and spiritual functioning.
In order to develop good breathing habits it is very helpful to have an understanding of the physiological process of breathing. It will be well worth your while to invest some time in a few sessions of exploration and practice in order to become sensitive to the different parts of the body involved, to become aware of any ingrained habits that may be inhibiting your breathing, and to learn and master better habits with which to replace them. (Those who are sick should not work with their breathing except under the supervision of a medical expert.)
Make the time to sit down and become aware of the way you are breathing. Concentrate on the breathing process. It is a good idea to close your eyes, as this will help you to focus on your feelings and sensations. Although in their healthy state it is impossible to feel the diaphragm and lungs themselves, it is possible to feel the effect of the breathing process on other parts of the body – especially the abdomen, which swells as the diaphragm contracts, and the chest-cage, which widens as it accommodates the air coming into the lungs.
Good respiration begins with a slow and complete exhalation. This exhalation is the absolute prerequisite of correct and complete inhalation, because unless a vessel is emptied, it cannot be filled. Unless we first breathe out fully, it is impossible to breathe in correctly. Normal respiration therefore begins with a slow, calm exhalation accomplished by relaxation of the inspiratory muscles. The chest is depressed by its own weight, expelling the air. At the end of the expiration, the abdominal muscles help the lungs to empty as fully as possible by means of a contraction that expels the last traces of used air.
There is always a residue of impure air in the lungs owing to their spongy make-up, but we must attempt to minimize this residue because, together with the fresh air provided by inhalation, it makes up the actual air we are breathing. The more complete the exhalation, the greater the quantity of fresh air to enter the lungs, and so the purer the air in contact with the alveolar surfaces.
Observe the way you exhale. Are you aware of inhibiting your exhalation in any way, preventing the complete exhalation of stale, waste air? Giving a few sighs can help you to breathe out completely. Another simple way of overcoming incomplete exhalation is to practice counting slowly to three at the end of the exhalation before you breathe in again. Repeat this over a cycle of five to six breaths.
Most people assume that our breathing function is a two-part rhythm of exhalation and inhalation, but this is not the case. The breathing rhythm has three components: the exhalation, a pause, and the inhalation. The pause gives us a rest from the effort of the exhalation, and enables us to rally the energy needed for the next inhalation. The pause is not an idle period when nothing happens, but a vital phase in the breathing process.
If we interfere with the length of the breathing pause, shortening it even slightly, we find ourselves feeling rushed and pressured. A full-length pause in your breathing rhythm will have a calming effect and engender a feeling of relief, eradicating the sensation of being under pressure. However you should not try to make the pause willfully, as its duration must vary with your different breathing needs at different times. What you should do is to try to become aware of any ways in which you might be inhibiting the pause, thereby generating feelings of stress.
Inhalation is made up of three partial phases, which you should learn to distinguish when you first practice breathing. Note the muscular sensations associated with each phase.
Diaphragmatic breathing: this is abdominal breathing induced by contraction of the muscular fibers of the dome-shaped diaphragm, which flattens and lowers. This increases the volume of the lungs, drawing air into them through the trachea, nose and mouth. As the diaphragm contracts and the base of the lungs fills with air, the abdominal region swells. Abdominal breathing is the least faulty method of breathing. It may be easier to learn to recognize it at first by practicing lying down, since it is then easier to relax the muscles of the abdominal wall which serve to hold us upright when we are sitting or walking. Later on, you will be able to learn how to breathe from the diaphragm whenever required – even when walking or running.
Intercostal breathing: this is achieved by raising the ribs through dilating the thoracic cage or chest wall like a pair of bellows. The middle section of the lungs expands, causing air to flow in, but less than in abdominal respiration. Intercostal breathing also takes more effort. When combined with abdominal breathing it ventilates the lungs satisfactorily.
Clavicular breathing: this is breathing from the top of the lungs, produced by expanding the top part of the lungs through raising the upper part of the thorax – this we do by raising the collar-bones and shoulders. Shallow, high, upper-chest breathing is an inadequate method associated with slumped or rigid postures and with states of anxiety and tension.
Observe the way you breathe without trying to affect it at this stage. Do you tend to use one of the three methods of breathing more than the others? Are you in some way unconsciously inhibiting your body's natural instinct to use all three methods, restricting the free flow there should be from one to the next?
The Complete Breath
Good breathing incorporates all three methods of respiration integrated into a single, full and rhythmic movement. Unless you are congested, it is important to breathe in and out through the nose. Exhalation and inspiration should be silent, slow, continuous and easy. Don't blow yourself up like a balloon. Breathe easily without straining.
Allow your lungs to empty entirely. At the end of the exhalation there are a few moments of respite when we hold our breath with the lungs empty. Having completely emptied the lungs and paused for a few seconds, you will soon realize that your breathing is starting up on its own. Relax your stomach and allow the air to flow in.
Your abdominal muscles should be relaxed. Some people mistakenly believe they are breathing from the stomach because they are flexing their abdominal muscles, but in fact the air enters the lungs because of the flattening of the dome of the diaphragm. The sensation should be one of the natural swelling and rising of the abdomen... Next, expand the ribs without straining them... finally, allow the lungs to fill completely. Let the collar-bones rise by themselves without deliberately lifting up your shoulders. Avoid any tensing of the muscles of the hands, face and neck, particularly in this last stage of breathing.
Throughout this procedure the air should enter in a continuous flow without gasping. If your nose, throat, neck and shoulder muscles are relaxed, there should be no noise. When the breathing is slow, deep and complete, the interchange of gases in the lungs is at its optimum, with maximum absorption of life-giving oxygen and extrusion of waste carbon dioxide.
When the lungs are completely filled, breathe out by successively lowering the collar-bones and ribs and allowing the diaphragm to expand and drive the used air out of the lungs.
If in your practice you breathe more fully than you are normally accustomed to, it is quite possible that you will experience hyperventilation. This results from having breathed so deeply that you have more oxygen in your blood than you can handle just yet. You can recognize it by a slight sensation of dizziness or sometimes a sudden feeling of tiredness or slight malaise.
The remedy is to use up the excess oxygen with a few vigorous movements, such as getting up and walking around briskly or thrusting your arms out, fists clenched, a few times. As soon as your head feels clear, continue practicing. If you become dizzy again almost immediately, stop practicing for the time being. You may need to wait an hour or more, or even until the next day, before you continue.
As your breathing becomes more efficient and your vital capacity increases, you will develop a greater tolerance for oxygen and in time you will rarely, if ever, hyperventilate.
Breathing in Daily Life
You can practice breathing any time, whenever you think of it – at home, at work, while relaxing, waiting for buses or appointments, walking, travelling, etc. Be conscious of how you are breathing, and breathe as fully as possible. Gradually you will acquire the habit of complete respiration and your method of breathing will improve as you go on.
There is no single correct way to breathe valid for all people at all times. We have different breathing requirements at different times. Obviously, we need to breathe more rapidly during periods of physical activity, exercise, and so on, than when sitting concentrating, resting, meditating, etc. Even comparatively simple movements such as getting up from a chair necessitate an increase in the rate of breathing.
It is best to allow our breathing to adjust freely according to our specific needs at each moment. The goal should be to remove breathing malfunctions by eliminating tension and correcting the bad habits which cause us to inhibit the long, full, rhythmic breathing our bodies are instinctively geared for. Pay special attention to relaxing the muscles of the stomach and rib-cage.
Ten slow, deep breaths immediately after waking up in the morning will help banish drowsiness and heaviness and set you up for the day's activities. From time to time throughout the day, stop to re-energize with a few slow, long breaths. Breathe deeply and fully if you find yourself dozing just when you need to be awake. Include breathing in your pausing practice (see above pp. 70-1) as you go about your various activities.
Try to be conscious of your breathing as you work, study, pray and meditate. If you breathe long and full it will keep you fresh, alert and balanced and aid your concentration. Don't forget to breathe while interacting with others: use breaks in the conversation or times when the other person is doing the talking to breathe in and out fully a few times. Deep breathing before going to bed at night will relax you and prepare you for a restful, refreshing night's sleep.
Breathing in Meditation and Prayer
One way to develop the sitting relaxation practice (above pp. 66-70) is to sit for a period of breathing. Concentrating on your breathing is a way of entering a state of profound calm and contemplative clarity. During a session of sitting practice, after you have released all bodily tension and are fully relaxed, focus your awareness on your breathing. Watch each phase of the breathing process: the slow, long exhalation, the pause, the way the abdomen begins to swell and rise... Feel the cool air drawn into your nostrils and down into the lungs.
Hand over your breathing to God, letting your body breathe naturally, fully and deeply without any interference whatsoever. Think of the way the cool air entering the lungs is gently being fanned over the heart, allowing the rich, life-giving blood to rise up to and fuel the brain, causing the lamp of your mind, soul and consciousness to radiate.
When you are about to pray and you pause to focus before you begin, take a few deep breaths and think of how God is sending your life into you through your breath. Prayer is made up of talk and song – and we talk and sing with our breath. Think how your breathing is part of the universal song in which “the breath of all life will bless Your name, HaShem our God, and the spirit of all flesh will glorify and exalt Your memory at all times...” (from Nishmat in the Shabbat morning liturgy).
Be conscious of your breathing as you recite the prayers. With time you can teach yourself how to breathe rhythmically with the prayers, using the time of the inhale to pause and focus on the meaning of the words you are about to say, so that as you actually say them on the exhale they will be full of added significance.
At climactic moments during the prayer service, such as when reciting the Sh'ma and the Amidah, especially the first paragraph, take extra time to breathe fully and focus carefully on the meaning of the words. At times when you want to pray with special intensity, you may wish to take a whole breath for every sentence or phrase of the prayers, breathing in deeply and focusing before reciting it, then saying the words with fervor with the exhale.
Renewal: A Kavanah for Breathing
The root meaning of the Hebrew word kavanah is aiming or directing, as when an archer aims an arrow. In Jewish spiritual literature, a kavanah is a thought one has in mind while saying a prayer or performing a holy action, a mitzvah or good deed. One directs the mind by focusing on a particular thought.
Rebbe Nachman has given us a very simple kavanah for breathing – a thought we can have in mind as we breathe, a thought we can return to any time, as we go through our normal activities each day and in special periods of meditation.
The idea is to focus on breathing as renewal. We never stop breathing – we are constantly letting out stale air and drawing in fresh air. Rebbe Nachman tells us that the physical air we breathe in and out has a spiritual cognate. There is the good, fresh, holy air from which the Tzaddik draws energy, and the bad, stale, impure air that gives rise to sin.
In order to renew yourself and draw closer to God, you must separate yourself from the bad air and breathe in the good air. When a person dies, he gives a long sigh and the life goes out of him. In a sense, every exhale is a death: the death of the moment that has passed, as we breathe out the stale air. This death is a preparation for rebirth: the birth of the new moment.
When you breathe out, sigh and exhale all the stale air from within you, bearing in mind that you are releasing yourself from the bad air of impurity. Then, as you breathe in again, focus on how you are drawing in fresh, pure, good air and binding yourself to holiness and life. Sigh over the things you have done wrong in your life, and breathe out the stale, impure air that is inside you and affecting your mind. Breathe out your tensions and bad feelings. Breathe in the good, fresh air of holiness. Breathe in new life. This is a way to return from impurity to holiness (Tzaddik #163).
You can use this kavanah any time you focus on your breathing at various junctures in the course of your day, as discussed above. If you use it regularly, you will have a constant sense of revitalization as you become more and more alive with every breath and each new moment.
When you are in a session of sitting meditation, you could use this kavanah to release yourself from tension, negative feelings and deep-seated patterns of negative behavior. Bring your bad feelings into conscious awareness and as you exhale, put them all into the air you are breathing out. Sigh deeply and flush all the negativity out of your system. Then, when you breathe in, focus on positive thoughts and feelings, so that you bring goodness, holiness and purity into yourself with the fresh air you inhale.
“Even if you eat good foods and take proper care of your health in other respects, if you sit back comfortably and do no exercise you will suffer from constant aches and pains and your strength will decrease.”
Mishneh Torah, Hilchot De'ot 4:15
Yes, even turkeys seem to appreciate the importance of physical exercise. Seasoned observers know that turkeys have their own set times to fan out their tails, droop their wings, retract their heads, shake their quills and go strutting around till their heads turn blue and white.
The Wise Man probably followed a keep-fit routine of his own, because “exercise is the most important fundamental in maintaining good health and keeping up our resistance to the majority of illnesses” (Rambam, Hanhagat Ha-Bri'ut I:3), and the Torah commands us to “take the utmost care of your vital soul” (Deuteronomy 4:9).
Exercise improves blood circulation, brings more oxygen into every cell of the body, speeds up a sluggish metabolism, enhances the functioning of internal glands and organs, improves digestion, facilitates the removal of poisonous wastes from the body, reduces the risk of many diseases, keeps muscles fit, trim and flexible, builds coordination and balance, heightens reflexes, reduces stress, improves sleep patterns, increases energy, and helps maintain a relaxed body and a tranquil mind.
In the words of the Rambam, “There is no substitute whatsoever for exercise. Exercise increases the natural heat of the body and facilitates the elimination of waste products, whereas a purely sedentary lifestyle smothers the natural heat of the body so that while waste products are constantly generated, they are not expelled. Waste products are generated even if one eats foods of the highest quality and in exactly the right quantities. Exercise will rid the body of these wastes, and through exercise it is even possible to neutralize the damage caused by many bad habits” (Hanhagat Ha-Bri'ut I:3).
The Gemara states that “on Shabbat we do not exercise” (Shabbat 147a), thus implicitly recognizing the health benefits of exercise on the six working days. Cultivation of the physique for purely materialistic motives has been viewed negatively in Jewish circles ever since the third century B.C.E., when gymnasia were one of the main instruments used by the Greeks in their attempt to subvert Torah culture. This, together with the fact that hundreds of years of exile and persecution gave Jews little opportunity to take proper care of their bodies, may partly explain the widespread lack of attention to exercise in observant Jewish communities today.
Nevertheless, outstanding Torah teachers of recent generations, including Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagen, the “Chofetz Chaim,” have been highly conscious of the great importance of exercise for spiritual well-being, and encouraged their students to get out and take walks, etc. R. Yisrael Salanter, founder of the Mussar Movement, is known to have had a regular exercise routine, and followed the instructions of an exercise manual recommended by his doctor in scrupulous detail (T'nuat Ha-Mussar Vol I, p.342).
An exercise routine of some kind is virtually indispensible for sound physical health, and should therefore be a part of the Torah life-style. Practice of the mitzvot at every juncture in life takes energy and stamina, while study, prayer and meditation are activities requiring a clarity and concentration that can only properly be sustained when the body is fit and functioning optimally. Exercise releases body tensions, facilitating deep relaxation – often a valuable preliminary to meditation – as well as promoting a general sense of calm and well-being that should accompany all spiritual work.
What Kind of Exercise?
“Not every bodily movement is `exercise',” says the Rambam. “Exercise is defined as any form of movement – whether vigorous, gentle, or a combination of both – that involves some effort and causes an increase in one's rate of breathing. Anything more than this is hard exercise, and not everyone can bear hard exercise or needs it either” (Hanhagat Ha-Bri'ut I:3).
Someone whose daily life involves a fair amount of physical activity may not need to devote much time to formal exercise, but anyone who spends much of the day sitting in an office or Yeshivah should definitely endeavor to schedule an exercise routine of some kind at least three or four times a week.
The kind of exercise required depends on your state of health and fitness and other individual factors. No-one should begin any program of exercise without first consulting a doctor, physiotherapist, etc. The body is a most wonderful, subtle, delicate instrument that has to be treated with the utmost care and respect. If you have not exercised for a long time and are out of condition, you must be very patient and gentle as you slowly encourage stiff and lazy joints and muscles to start working again.
People sometimes try to find a short-cut to fitness by straining themselves, but this can be physically dangerous, and there is the risk of causing an injury that could prevent one from exercising altogether. It may be right to push yourself beyond the point where the Turkey says it's time to take a break, but don't ever try to carry on if the Wise Man tells you to stop.
The Rambam's above-quoted definition of exercise seems to correspond to what we would call aerobic exercise – a steady, non-stop movement that leads to an increased pulse rate yet without putting strain on the cardiovascular system. Examples of aerobic exercise are walking – the most natural and oldest form of exercise, which utilizes almost all your muscles; running – preferably on grass or a dirt track to reduce stress on the muscular/skeletal system and internal organs; swimming, and cycling.
The perfect form of aerobic exercise is Chassidic dance, in which all parts of the body are moved with grace and joy in praise of the Creator. Why not put on a recording of your favorite nigunim – holy melodies – and dance free-style as gently or as vigorously as you like, expressing your inner self through the various movements of your body!
Another important component of a fitness program would be a series of stretching and flexing exercises in order to keep your muscles well toned. The more flexible and strong your body, the more protection you have against pain and injury. The fitness section of a good bookstore should include a choice of graded programs that combine aerobic, stretching and loosening exercises, requiring little or no equipment. These can be carried out in even a limited space in the privacy of your home, and need take no more than twelve to fifteen minutes or so per session.
Describing the ideal exercise procedure, the Rambam writes: “One should discipline the body and exercise every day in the morning until the body begins to be warm. One should then relax a little until one is calm, and then eat. Washing in warm water after exercise is good: afterwards, rest a little and eat” (Hilchot De'ot 4:2).
“The best time for exercise,” says the Rambam, “is at the beginning of the day, after one wakes up from one's sleep... One should only exercise on an empty stomach and after relieving oneself... One should not exercise in extreme heat or extreme cold... As good as it is to take exercise before a meal, so it is harmful to exercise after eating” (Hanhagat Ha-Bri'ut I:3).
While people with vision problems should consult an eye specialist, those blessed with good vision can help maintain it with simple, gentle eye exercises.
The Soul and the Body
Cultivating healthy living habits can be the beginning of spiritual self-reclamation.
“When a person does not direct himself to the true goal of life, what is his life for? The Godly soul constantly yearns to do the will of the One who formed her, but when the soul sees that the person is not leading a spiritual life according to the will of God, she yearns to return to her Source and starts drawing herself away from the person's body in order to leave it. This can make the person physically ill, because the power of the soul becomes weakened as a result...
“The reason why a person returns to good health as a result of medical treatment is because the soul sees that this person has the ability to force himself to go against his bodily appetites and habits. He may be accustomed to eating bread and other foods, but now he controls his appetite and submits to treatments and bitter medicines for the sake of his health. The soul sees that he is able to control his excesses for the sake of a higher goal, and she therefore comes back to him in the hope that he will control his appetites in order to pursue his true purpose in life – to do the will of his Maker” (Likutey Moharan I:268).
Especially for those who have tended to neglect themselves, cultivating good eating, breathing and exercise habits can be a pleasurable process of self-discovery. Initially you are very likely to encounter various minor problems as you experiment with new practices and adjust to unfamiliar patterns. But within a short time, you should find yourself experiencing higher energy levels, and a growing feeling of general well-being, relaxation and clarity.
The whole purpose of caring for the body is to make it a fit vessel to receive the soul. Physical health is one of the most important foundations for successful spiritual work, but that does not mean that one can only begin work on the soul after achieving perfect physical fitness. On the contrary, the motivation and personal discipline required to develop a genuinely healthy life-style come only through spiritual work, in particular regular prayer and meditation.
Sensible patterns of eating, breathing and exercise should therefore be an integrated part of a total spiritual pathway in which Torah study, prayer and meditation have pride of place, for these are the key to everything else.
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