The Breath That Binds Us

I’ve been meaning to write a reflection of my gratitude upon meeting Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen last month, but only now am I completing the task.  She generously offered a workshop in support of an inspiring community project a little north of where I live in El Cerrito.  I should have known that a  luminary such as Bonnie would be associated with The Fountain Project but it wasn’t until I arrived at the Wen Wu School that it dawned on me that after thirteen years I was once again in the arena of Chinese martial arts and movement training.  The most enduring reason for my moving to California upon graduating from College was to study with a woman who I found entirely inspiring.  I loved my nearly two years of t’ai chi chuan study with her.  It was my version of church.  But my professional aspirations led me in other directions and I’ve always promised myself that I’d return to the movement study of the I ching.  (I’ve reasoned that it’s the sort of physical practice that lends itself to the aging body and so it seems okay to let that study rest for now while I occupy myself with back-bends and headstands.)  For all that and more, I was immediately contented to have arrived at the threshold of Body Mind Centering.

In what I hope to be the first of many workshops that I took with Bonnie, she gave us the story of our breath which stayed with me and deepened with time.  Bonnie strikes me as someone who has an extensive knowledge of the scientific understanding of our bodies.  She applies that knowledge to her experience.  She has a gentleness with which she seems to approach all endeavors.  She manages to humanize science for the very practical purpose of enhancing our physical experience.  Her work ends up being a beautiful and perfect blend of knowledge and experience, body and mind.  Working with her solidified an idea for me:  where body and mind line up, spirit is present.

What Bonnie said about the breath had to do with how it enters our body and is dispersed throughout our cells, and then how it exits our body.  She was making a point, if I remember correctly, about the flow that defines life.  How trees produce oxygen which flows in to our bodies, how we distribute it and make use of it internally, and how carbon dioxide flows out of our bodies to serve the trees.  The cycle is completed, not derailed, by us.  We are part of the cycle.  She made the point that while we think of the trees as providing something useful to us, we don’t think of us as providing something useful to the trees.  This seemed important to me because our minds, and our social nature tend to hold us separate from the natural world.  Given our inextricable participation in the natural world, this illusion of separateness is problematic.

But it was during a bought of insomnia that it occurred to me that this important connection is in every breath that we take.  It just proves how fundamental our connection to our world is, so much that we take it for granted.  Every breath that we take, links us to our very natural place in this very natural world.  It is nothing more than our minds that hold us separate from this reality.

While I often entertain ideas of spending more time in nature, following the pastoral dream, or any number of earthy fantasies, I have always led an urban existence.  And while we may someday retreat to a more rural setting, I must confess that I really am a city mouse at heart.  That’s why my nocturnal revelation was so important to me.  Like Bonnie’s class it wiped away so much of my self-criticism.  Where ever I am, I am part of nature, I cannot change that.  I can ignore it, or deny it, but those are purely mental exercises.  The reality remains the same, I am part of the natural world, within and without.  Even if I live in a concrete jungle.

We spent the majority of our three hours together exploring our lungs.  This was an initiation into my nocturnal revelation that followed a week or so later, because just sensing my lungs in action was tremendously healing for me.  Completely unintentionally and in spite of so much effort to the contrary, I’ve managed to implant a lot of negative ideas about my body in my habitual thought patterns.  It probably has to do with the persistent pain and discomfort that I’ve experienced for nearly twenty three years.  Or maybe it has to do with being a Pilates instructor.  As much as I love Pilates, and as much as I endeavor to act from a place apart from right and wrong;  Pilates has a definite form.   And that form is the key to unlocking so much of what the system has to offer.  Or maybe it just has to do with being human.  We can be a rather negative lot.  Somehow, feeling my body move just as it does felt so good and reassuring to me.

This new sense of awareness of my lungs and my heart has opened up a new avenue of exploration.  In the coming months I’m eager to look into the deeper layers of my body.  I have the idea that Pilates provides an excellent platform for such investigations and I’m looking forward to seeing how my Pilates practice permeates through all the layers of my body.  For now though, I’m so grateful to have met Bonnie and to have experienced a little bit of her work.  It was at once a salve and an initiation.

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