Bird Pranayama – Breathing Lessons

“Out of the clouds I hear a faint bark, as of a faraway dog. It is strange how the world cocks its ear to that sound, wondering.   Soon it is louder: the honk of geese, invisible, but coming on.

The flock emerges from the low clouds, a tattered banner of birds, dipping and rising, blown up and blown down, blown together and blown apart, but advancing, the wind wrestling lovingly with each winnowing wing. When the flock is a blur in the far sky I hear the last honk, sounding taps for summer.

It is warm behind the driftwood now, for the wind has gone with the geese.

So would I — if I were the wind.”
― Aldo Leopold, The Sand County Almanac

We don’t have any trees in our backyard.  If the neighbors’ trees didn’t love extending their branches over the twelve foot wall to touch our house, the morning sun would beam straight into our bedroom room.  Just as we appreciate the trees’ shelter, the birds love congregating among the leaves.

This morning just as the dawn crept around the blackout curtains, a bird began his morning singing.  Despite the air conditioner’s roar, his effort pierced my sleep.

Tired, I felt like cursing him but held my thoughts and listened, waiting for him to go away.

His song was full of effort.  In my mind’s eye, I could see him deeply inhaling as if lifting his wings up into the sky then vigorously closing them, forcing the air through his entire body.  The force produced his loud chirp.  He continued at least five minutes.  It reminded me of the pranayama or breathing exercise I did just the previous evening in my yoga class.

As we lifted our arms above our heads, we inhaled.  Then quickly and with strength we pulled our arms down to our sides, releasing the breath.  It was a very vigorous exercise.

The bird slowed down and I listened, wondering whether he was finished.

But he was not.

His breathing evened out and became quieter as he inhaled deeply then let his exhale gently carry the song.  The pace reminded me of nadi shodana breathing.

After a few minutes of nadi shodana, he started his third round, the vigorous bhastrika.  For the bhastrika  or bellows breath, the inhale is rather quiet as the effort goes towards strongly contracting the abdomen, forcing the air out the nostrils.  It is considered to be an advanced breathing technique.  Unlike me, the bird was quite an expert and did several rounds without passing out.

I knew the ancient yogis used to look to nature – the plants, birds and animals – for answers to their deepest questions.  In the morning sun, the bird gathered his prana for the day.  And I wondered – was it the study of birds the led the yogis to create pranayama, a breathing exercise said to revitalize the body?

Like the Taoists, shamans and yogis of millennium past, after years of carefully observing nature’s patterns and comparing conventional wisdom against what the land showed him, Aldo Leopold too came upon an answer to his deepest question – the idea of a land ethic.

In The Sand County Almanac, he described the lessons he learned observing nature and considered how man might learn to live as a steward rather than a thief.  And although he said poets did a better job describing nature’s beauty, in the end, all the hours he spent watching geese and storks while taking copious notes turned him into a poet.

For Earth Day April 22, 2012, Green Fire the documentary about Aldo Leopold makes its television debut.  It will be shown six times on Wisconsin Public Television between April 20 – 27.

The Aldo Leopold Foundation has many outreach programs for educators and interested people.  By watching Green Fire or looking at the foundation’s website, you can learn how to teach children that eggs come from a chicken and not a grocery store.

One Breath Long – the Haiku

Thirteen Roosters by Ito Jaskuchu at the National Gallery of Art

A map of chicken land

noisy with red capitals,

black lakes, white highways

– by Emily from New York

While ruminating on the poet Mahmoud Darwish, the National Gallery of Art sent me an invitation to write a Japanese-inspired haiku.  As my artist-sister and her Japanese family were visiting us the timing was serendipitous.

Haikus are expressions of moments in time.  Through simple language, they invite the reader to experience nature as the writer attempts to capture it.

One breath long, haikus traditionally are three lines of 5, 7 and 5 syllable words.  In English this translates into 10 – 14 syllables or 6 – 10 words.

Near Lake Okoboji, Iowa

Old pond –

Frog jumps in

Sound of the water

–          Matsuo Basho, 1644-1694, Japanese poet

April is poetry month at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.

On exhibit is the work of the Japanese treasure Ito Jakuchu (1760-1800).  This is the first time his Colorful Realm of Living Beings has been displayed outside of Japan.  The 30-piece bird and flower painting collection is normally kept at the Shukokuji monastery in Kyoto.  Displayed in one room, the paintings signify all living beings gathered around Buddha.

An American national treasure, the National Gallery of Art is free and open to anyone visiting Washington DC.

In fact, the haiku invitation is for everyone.  It’s an opportunity to sit outside and experience a tree, spring flower or bird.  Breathe.  Then try to take that moment and express it in words.

You can read more about the exhibit, the 1,000 year-old art of haiku writing and submitting your haiku at nga.gov/jakuchu.

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