Taking a Virtual Breath

Taking a Virtual Breath

This week, Network Weaver is excited to share a 3-part series by Root. Rise. Pollinate! on fostering connection in virtual space. The series was originally published earlier this year at The Reverb.

How shared practices can create depth and connection despite physical separation

As we settle into our second year of physical separation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, our sense and practice of community and connection is stretched. We continue to maintain physical separation as an act of safety and care for each other for the foreseeable future.

The experience of physical separation is not only an experience between each other, but also within ourselves, as individuals.

If you stop and pay attention for a moment, and look away from your screen, can you locate where your breath currently sits? Is it in your throat, your chest, your belly, somewhere else?

When was the last time you intentionally noticed how your body moves: perhaps danced, stretched luxuriantly, or massaged yourself? When was the last time you listened for birdsong or paid attention to the ground holding you up? Or perhaps the physicality of all this is too much to bear?

In this time, many of us have the opportunity to deepen our practices of care, connection and community, bridging distance across time and space. We still get to support, celebrate, and be with each other albeit in virtual space. We get to be even more aware of why and how we do this.

Practices of connection with self and community are essential for us to harness and nurture the kind of energy needed not only to get us through hardship but also to imagine and bring forth futures of thriving, interdependence, and wholeness.

Over the past year Root. Rise. Pollinate! experimented with how to cultivate care, connection and community with feminist change makers around the world. We are going to share the virtual connection practices we developed in a series of three posts over the next few weeks. These practices were especially meaningful because they helped create a real sense of intimacy, care and depth even though we were separated physically by time, space and the pandemic. This was possible because the practices hinged on building authentic relationships, exchange, and building on each other’s wisdom.

The first post in our series focuses on how to open and set the space through breath practice and ritual. Subsequent posts will focus on embodied practice and intergenerational practice. We hope these offerings support you in this time of continued physical separation.

Setting the Scene: Preparing to be in Virtual Space

Even though we are limited to virtual rooms, it is still possible for us to “set the space” and create conditions for your group to experience authentic connection.

The most important thing is our attention and awareness. Before each session, invite community members to be in — and to the extent possible — protect a comfortable space with few distractions or disruptions for the duration of your time together. As participants arrive, play music whose energy captures how you want the community to feel during and after each session. Also invite community members to be and stay on camera if possible and to let go of any (assumed) judgement of their physical space or appearance. This preparation is particularly important as it creates the opportunity to arrive and stay in space with more ease.

Virtual gatherings make it so we miss out on some of the cues that we’d typically rely on in-person. How do we set and read energy in the ‘room’? What new cues do we need to tune into where body language subtleties are lost? How might we arrive together sans hugs, handshakes, and kisses? We propose setting and entering space with and through breath practice and ritual.

The Power of Breathing Together

Some research findings suggest that choir members, through synchronizing their breath and voices when singing, also synchronize their heartbeats.

This kind of connection, heart to heart, is important when setting energy that fosters connection for community building in virtual space.

Guided breath practice, which lasts for 10–15 minutes allows community members to:

  • get out of their heads and release — at least for a little while — from whatever they have been doing or thinking prior to the session, and
  • be with their individual breath as part of a collective, breathing organism

This practice may take the form of the group participating in five rounds of a five-breath sequence together, with accompanying physical movement. This works best when one person leads and provides cues for the group.

Breath (and physical movement) Practice

Coupling the breathing with physical movement ensures that community members arrive within themselves, their own bodies, as they arrive with the community as well.

Palms facing up, interlace your fingers just below your belly button.

Inhaling

  • As you inhale slowly, move your arms up
  • As you get to chest level, rotate your palms (face down then quickly face up again) to allow you to bring your interlaced palms above your head with ease. Pay attention to the sensations in your shoulders. If you have any tightness, lower your arms to the level at which the tightness releases.

Exhaling:

  • Turn your upturned interlaced palms to face down
  • Slowly exhale as you bring your arms back to just below your belly button. Aim for your exhale to be longer than your inhale

This completes a round of breath.

  • Round one: inhale in silence, exhale in silence (five times)
  • Round two: inhale in silence, exhale with a hum (five times)
  • Round three: inhale in silence, exhaling with one vowel — a (ah), e (eh), i (ee), o (oh), u (oo) — on each breath
  • Round four: inhaling in silence, exhaling with a hum (five times)
  • Round five: inhaling in silence, exhaling in silence (five times)

Arrival breath-work is about opening and holding space for community members’ hearts to connect and beat as one in preparation for whatever conversations or work that lies ahead.

Once the community is breathing as one, then you can move into shared ritual in order to continue to deepen connection.

Ritual: Setting Space and Coming to Center Together

Rituals have long been part of human existence across different cultures bringing community together in times of joy and celebration, in times of grief and mourning, to commune with the spirit realm, to assuage anxiety or prepare us for big undertakings — to get us through life. In an ever-busy world, where many peoples have lost touch with ritual, particularly communal rituals, the slowing down, the great pause brought on by COVID-19 created an opportunity to practice and reëngage with, or perhaps create new rituals.

We rooted in rituals and conscious practices to bring the group together in a focused, energized way. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, rituals for self-care and healing are essential as are rituals and practices that deepen our sense of spirit-rootedness and collective thriving. Rituals may be rooted in a tradition or culture, or be co-created in groups. Below we share two rituals around water and fire.

Creating a Community Water Font

Tewa elder, Kathy Sanchez from San Ildefonso Pueblo in New Mexico modified an in-person water ritual for virtual space, inviting the community to acknowledge, honor, and commune with water as a life-giving and life sustaining source.

Invite community members to bring water into space in a ceramic, earthenware, or similar vessel forged from living material.

Participants name the source of their water — river, stream, watershed, etc. and share reflections on water in their lives including how it heals and lives in and through each community member. Community members then imagine pouring, and therefore mixing their water, into a vessel where many waters flow as one.

Building a Communal Fire

Invite community members to bring a candle and matches or lighter into space. At a designated time, those leading the space invite community members to each light their candles and share their internal wisdom about how this element — and indeed all elements — show up in our external and internal lives as life-giving and sometimes destructive forces as we build towards thriving communities and futures.

Rituals such as these enable community members to thoughtfully bring their individual experience into the community as part of building a collective ritual, which they can carry beyond virtual space.

An Invitation

As we close out this post, we invite you to practice some of what we’ve shared — perhaps first with yourself, and then with a friend or colleague. You can begin by just taking one breath, consciously inhaling and then exhaling. Consider, what difference might it make to our collective futures if we regularly synchronized our heartbeats? Stay tuned for the next offering on embodied practice.

Originally published March 4, 2021 at The Reverb.

Root, Rise, Pollinate! is an experiment that aims to catalyze and nurture a transnational community of feminist human rights advancers, organizers and movement builders using embodied practice for social transformation.

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