Marine Mammal Breathing

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A year ago, I had the great good fortune to spend a week in Monterey, California with a dear friend who had fallen in love with the place. And while I believe that there is beauty everywhere on God’s green earth, I admit that S/He must have spent some extra time putting together the Monterey Peninsula. It is emphatically incredibly beautiful. If I had a dime for every time I said, “Oh wow, look at that!” during my trip, well, boy howdy, I would have a big huge pile of dimes.

One of the highlights of the visit was seeing all the marine mammals who hang out in Monterey. First, there are otters. I mean, honestly, what more do I need to say? Otters are so extraordinarily fun to watch that it’s practically impossible to stop. (WARNING: If you’re going to the area for the first time, especially if you are just a teeny bit jet lagged, be aware that there are these big heads of seaweed that bob up and down in coves and look an awful lot like otter heads. Please know that those are NOT otter heads but seaweed and everyone will roll their eyes a little bit if you shout, “Oh wow, look! There are like TEN otters right there!”)

Anyway.

Then there are dolphins and whales. On a cool, overcast day my friend and I went on a whale watching boat with dozens of other hopeful tourists with fancy cameras and hats and scarves even though it was only October. (Actually, I had to be dragged off the dock since an otter — a real one, not a seaweed one — was puttering around the harbor munching on crabs and just being ridiculously cute.)

Out on the water, gripping the iron railing with the cold wind in my face and feeling just a little touristy dorky, there were suddenly dolphins all around us. A hundred of them zooming and playing around in our wake and dashing about as if swimming with our boat was the most incredibly fun thing ever. I pretended that it was the wind that was making my eyes tear up but it wasn’t. Watching them swim along with us was like being in the presence of pure joy.

Then, there was a shout and the boat turned and there were whales – a pod of humpbacks. I know that it’s silly to say they are big. They are whales, after all. But their sheer size is what struck me. I couldn’t see their whole bodies, but even the long serrated arch of their backs and the broad flip of their tails were breath-takingly huge.

As was their breath. When these creatures broke the surface, a plume of spray and sound shot across the water. It’s that plume for which whaling ships of old and touristy whale watchers of now both scan the horizon. After gulping a huge breath at the surface, the whales silently slid below and disappeared.

While we were waiting for them to resurface, I went back to my playful companions the dolphins who were all still gallivanting around in the wake of the boat. As they darted and flew beside us, they, too, would surface and take sharp quick breaths to sustain their agile play.

Breath is powerful that way. Breath can be steady and sustaining and keep us stable and balanced. Breath can also be energizing and powers us when we need or want to move with speed and agility. Breath is both automatic and voluntary. Our bodies will breathe without us having to do anything (thank goodness) but we can also give it our awareness and make choices about how we use it. New Nia students often comment that at the end of a class, they feel both energized and relaxed. That largely has to do with the breath and how we weave it into physical movement: mindfully allowing our breath effect movement and our movement effect breath. And we all can do the same any place and any time.

As our whale watch ended and we came back into the harbor, we saw a pile of my other favorite marine mammals: seals and sea lions. During the trip, we saw them swimming sometimes but mostly, they were resting in the sun on beaches and rocky outcrops and docks and decks of sailboats and even on buoys. There was something peaceful about seeing them like that, relaxed and piled up together and if we carefully got close enough, often we could hear a long heavy sigh.

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