Jewish Soul Food

August 27, 2013


By Tinamarie Bernard

I was taught that we could not pronounce God’s holy and sacred name, YHVH. This combination of Hebrew letters was a mystery and that is why Jewish convention teaches us to use substitutes such as Adonai or Hashem.

Then I took ulpan in Israel. Bit by bit I learned my alephs and bets and even my yuds and heys. Hebrew sounds began to pour forth from my mouth. Reading was particularly hard, especially without points to tell me the vowel sounds. To make it more confusing, some letters in the Hebrew alphabet could have more than one pronunciation. This is nothing new to Hebrew literates; I share it so you know the state I was in when I came across a word I hadn’t yet read aloud during my practice.

Like a child, my lips formed the puckered “uhhh” sound slowly. Next came a “hhhaaa” and a “ohhhaaaahhhh.” YHVH. The sound of breath. I was speechless.

It was a profound metaphor moment. God. The breath of life. Ruach and spirit; in and out, uniting me with the sublime and spiritual, the earthy and raw. My breath and your breath connect us with one another, even if we’ve never met. Your breath and my breath are an invisible tapestry with all the living earth, animals, plants and people.

Since then, my meditation practice has shifted in awareness. Reading YHVH with innocent eyes illuminated the importance of breath more so than any of my mentors or teachers could have. Not that they didn’t do their best to explain the importance of following and observing our breath during contemplative experiences. You see, in that reading lesson I finally got that I must breathe beyond the shallow breath of survival.

This month Jews will celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. You will eat and you may fast. You will pray and you may cry. It’s the season of forgiveness and repentance, and while we celebrate the High Holidays, let me invite you to do one thing differently than you may have in years past.

Take time to breathe deep and nourishing belly-breaths. First, make yourself yawn a few times. Feel how your jaw opens up fully. That allows more life-giving oxygen into your lungs and it helps relax tense muscles in your face. Soften the space between your eyes and let your mouth go slack.

Next, place one hand on your abdomen and the other over your heart. Then inhale slowly at a pace that feels good to you, for about the count of four. Exhale for the same amount of time. Both hands over your heart and belly should lift and fall alike as you inhale and exhale.

Let your awareness settle and be a gentle witness to whatever may come up for you. It’s okay if your mind wanders to an old memory, tomorrow’s shopping list or the old friend you haven’t called in ages. If there are places in your body that feel tense, breathe into them. The stiffness in your back, the ache in your knee, the hurt in your heart. With purposeful love, offer your breath to those parts of you that need some attention and care.

The benefit of filling your lungs to gentle capacity like this is multifold. You raise your consciousness in the moment while nourishing your cells. Breath is an important foundation for vitality, awareness and wellness.

Try this practice for five minutes a few times a day. See what happens after you do this for a week, two weeks, and even a month. You may notice minor shifts at first, or nothing at all so it’s important to note that the subtle benefits may escape notice in the beginning but over time you will likely observe that you are more calm and have a better handle on stress.

Cultivating breath is an eons-old practice. Now is the perfect time to start your own new habit, as you sit in High Holiday services. Breathe during the prayers. Make breathing your prayer. Invite this consciousness into your High Holidays and see what transpires for you. May you have an easy fast and be blessed by the breath of life.


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