Singing Bowls and the Breath

Our breath is the ultimate act of generosity life gives us.  Without it, no other of life’s abundant gifts are possible. Our breath is a chorus, accompanying us as the ambient sound track of our lives, from the moment of birth until we leave our bodies.  As we endeavor to learn about meditation or Yoga, and our teachers point to the breath as the starting point on the path to enlightenment.  Take a deep breath.  Delicious, isn’t it?  An instantaneous mood changer!  For all its importance, we often take our breath for granted; even overlook it altogether.  Why should we focus on it?  It is always there – until for whatever reason, we find it difficult to breathe.  Then nothing is more important!

Our breath is the fuel of our life force, as been referred to as Chi (Chinese) or Prana (Vedantan), depending on spiritual discipline and culture.  This energy fuels not just our own life force, but the life force of every living thing on the planet.  The air we breathe, in one way or another, has nourished and sustained every life form that has ever lived, as it cycles from gas to vapor to rain to water, and back to vapor and air; for as long as there has been oxygen on this Planet.  So the air in our lungs connects us to all life.

As singing bowls are bio-feedback instruments, they can be used to help us connect to our breath, and harness it for the deepening our meditation. As we play a singing bowl around the rim, the quality of its voice is a great indicator of our state.  The more nervous we are, the more scratchy and shrill the voice of the bowl becomes. The more focused and relaxed we are, the bowl’s pure, sweet tone mirrors our serenity.  Although technique certainly is a factor, the breath has a huge part to play in our ability to transition to this state.

I’ve had the great blessing to watch literally thousands of people’s first encounters with a singing bowl. They nearly all remind me of the first time I tried to ride a bike.  I remember it vividly!  I was scared, initially, and insisted that my brother push my bike, while I pedaled furiously, demanding that he stay with my bike until I could slow down and stop safely (even at the age of five or six, I needed an exit strategy).  And this manipulation worked for me a couple of times, until he let the bike go and I freaked out and crashed into a tree.

But trust and forgiveness is not the subject of this blog!  What is pertinent is my crystal clear memory of the moment when I realized that he had let go of the bike: every muscle in my body went into overload and froze up.  And although I’m sure I must have screamed, what I really remember was that I was holding my breath, as if that control would somehow save me from impending disaster.

Likewise, when I endeavor to do something for the first time and I am totally focused on the task at hand, often I find that it’s just natural to tense any muscles involved in the activity, as well as many that are not – and hold my breath in the process!   And then I wonder why I’m feeling so uncomfortable, and the task seems so difficult, if not impossible.  It is because I am not breathing and I’m tensing almost every muscle in my body!  So, as every single one of my meditation and Yoga teachers has reminded me, I turn my awareness back to my breath.  I’ve seen countless people laboring furiously away at rimming a bowl with no sound resulting at all.  When reminded of their breath, their bowl’s volume takes off right at the moment of inhale!  Similarly, at first you may find the voice of your bowl quiet, or strained.  Breathe in – and see what happens.

You can also use your breath to even out your tone.  If you’re rimming your bowl and you observe that your mallet is rattling at a certain point in the revolution every time, draw in a breath right before you get to that point.  The breath slows you down and evens out your energy; and you will notice your mallet has glided effortlessly over that problem spot where, a moment before, you got rattling and noise.  This is one of the many, simple lessons that bowls give us: if you find a place of resistance, in a yoga posture, or a healing crisis, or any kind of life situation; try using the breath.  Even if some force is inevitably required, your body will be utilizing the power of your breath in its service.

Singing Bowls and the Breath – Simple Exercises

Sit in a comfortable position; either cross legged, or in an armless chair.  Basics for meditating with a singing bowl are similar to any other form of meditation:  check your posture, and make sure your spine is straight but relaxed; your arms are hanging free, your shoulders are relaxed and even, and your shoulder blades are at rest on the back.

Observe the singing bowl sitting on your hand.  Make sure that your hand is only coming into contact with the base of the bowl, so that your palm and finger pads are completely underneath the curvature at the base of the bowl.  Visualize your energy shining out your fingertips like rays of white light. This way, your fingers don’t involuntarily grasp the bowl while playing.

Breathe into your lower abdomen, feeling your rib cage slightly expanding as air inflates your lungs and gently pushes them against the diaphragm.  You can even experiment with the sensation of your lungs pushing gently against the small of your back as you inhale.  Exhale naturally.  There!  Now you’re using all your lung capacity: but don’t force the breath at any time.  Try a few more rounds of conscious breathing before you begin to play your bowl, so that you can get into a natural flow of breath to support your playing. Yogis might want to use Ujay breaths for this, a pranic exercise of supported breath in which you slightly close your soft palate, creating a rushing sound as the breath enters and exits. This breath is done through the nose with the mouth closed.

Begin by striking your bowl with the padded end of the mallet.  Notice your bowl’s beautiful balance of harmonies, as the dance of its beat frequencies play in your energy field.  Breathe its vibration into your lungs, and feel the warmth as it fills your chest cavity.  This vibration is tuning your cells within you, bathing your body in harmonious wave forms!  Breathe out, mingling your breath into the sound waves as they expand outward into the room. On your exhale, pause just a second or two before you inhale again, and observe your state.  You should feel palpably more relaxed with every exhale.  You can try counting at first: inhaling for the count of six, and exhaling for the count of six, to find a rhythm that is even and comfortable.  If you wish to deepen your relaxation, increase your count to eight. Or, you can simply use the bowl’s beat frequency as your metronome.  Repeat striking the bowl, tuning your body with every inhale, and tuning your environment with every exhale.  As the bowl’s vibration subsides, notice the change in the energy of the space around you; as well as the space within.

To rim the bowl, rotate the mallet against the outside lip, firmly and fluidly; listening to – and feeling – your bowl.  You’ll hear the abrasion of the stick against the metal at first, but almost immediately, you should feel some vibration coming through the base of the bowl into your hand.  Breathe into that vibration, and listen to what happens to the volume.  Be conscious that the energy of your breath will fuel the sound like air fuels fire!  As you rotate your stick and build the volume of the bowl, you’ll hear the bowl’s voice coming up loud and sweet and clear.  Be careful not to push the bowl beyond the threshold of volume at which it’s comfortable. If you do, the bowl will let you know, and you’ll start to hear an edge in its voice, or it may even kick you mallet off the side.  So just breathe, and slow down, perhaps increasing your pressure a little.  Continue to rim the bowl with the awareness that the consistency of your tone is a mirror of the ease of your breath.  As you remove your stick from the rim, send your exhale out as the tones dissipate into the air.  By now, you should now observe that the entire time you’ve been rimming the bowl, you have been in a thought-free state.  Enjoy this state of quiet mind.  Use your bowl to return to it as needed!