Hello, and welcome to the first entry of a 5-part series that focuses on mindfulness; drawing inspiration from life, art, and pop-culture media. For this series, we will be using the popular television show Avatar: The Last Airbender. This series will follow the Avatar cycle in its release and use aspects of the different bending styles to develop our own mindful habits.
Today, we are taking a deep-dive into mindful breathing exercises drawing inspiration from the mighty Fire Nation and the arts of Fire-Bending from the absolutely amazing series: Avatar: The Last Airbender. Even if you are unfamiliar with the show, the skills and tools from this blog series will offer a fresh and fun perspective on mindfulness and help you to harness the power of your breath.
In the show, fire-bending is a powerful martial art that enables the users to harness and manipulate the power of fire. For our purposes, we are going to use Fire as a metaphor for our emotions. They too can flare up. They can burn fiercely and quickly or slowly and low.
In Avatar, Fire represents both life and destruction, similarly to our own emotional experience at times. And much like our emotions, fire can provide warmth and light or it can burn and consume. Furthermore, fire itself is neither good nor bad; it is how it is used or controlled that makes the difference. And similarly to our feelings, they are neither good nor bad. It is how we use them and the lack of control over them that often leads to our distress. When we can regulate our own inner fire, we can illuminate our path towards inner peace and control. Jeong Jeong warns Aang ``Fire is alive. It breathes, it grows. Without the Bender, a rock will not throw itself! But Fire will spread and destroy everything in it's path if one does not have the will to control it!”
Some of the best fire-benders know that control of this power comes from their breath. As Uncle Iroh says as he is training his nephew Zuko: “No! Power in Fire-Bending comes from the breath. Not the muscles. The breath becomes energy in the body.” We cannot muscle through our emotions. It requires mental practice and work.
Kindling the Flame
Just as in fire-bending, breath is the key. Oxygen is what gives fire life and can be used to control the flames. So in our practice, it is control of the breath that brings on control of the emotions. In the show, Aang had to practice hours upon hours of breathing as it was the breath that kept the fire from becoming unmanageable. This is where we will also start. The breath will serve as the bridge between body and mind and serve as the means for harnessing the fire within.
We will begin by sitting or lying down comfortably. We will place one hand on our chest and one on our stomach. Close your eyes, or softly gaze ahead, and pay attention to the inhale and exhale of your breath. Feel the warmth it generates within you. This is your very own inner fire. Once you are done, spend a few moments reflecting on the experience. How do you feel? What thoughts or insights arose? If you like, you can jot down your reflections in a journal.
Mastering the Flame
In the show, the masters of Fire-Bending exhibit extreme discipline and cultivate their power through precision and intent. As we move forward, we will aim to do the same. And if we want to go a step further, we can practice these exercises outside in the sun (don’t forget the sunscreen!) because as Jeong Jeong says: “Feel the heat of the sun. It is the greatest source of fire, yet it is in complete balance with nature”
Breath like the Dragon of the West: This exercise utilizes deep and purposeful inhalation and controlled exhalation. Breathe in long and deeply through your nose as you imagine drawing in the energy. We open our mouths wide and breathe out making a “haaa” sound like a dragon breathing out fire. As you exhale, Imagine breathing out tension and negativity.
Phoenix breath: This exercise has us grow our breath, like a phoenix rising from the flames. We start with simple box breathing. We inhale for a count of 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, exhale 4 seconds, and hold for four seconds. We repeat this for a few cycles of breath. Then, we slowly begin to lengthen the time of our inhale and exhale, slowing the breath down as far as we comfortably can. This helps us regulate the breath and find our calm, pacify the fire, and promote stability.
Burn the leaf: In the show, Jeong Jeong has Aang practice holding a smoldering ember in the center of the leaf, using his breath and willpower to keep the flame from going out, while also keeping it from burning up the entire leaf. In this practice, we will attempt the same, but with an imaginary leaf (please do not go out starting fires and trying to control it with your mind). Find a natural breath rate and focus on the sensation of breath. We want to exhale enough to keep the flame burning without putting it out. We want a nice smoldering fire. Focus on the sensation of breath. The warmth of the air as we exhale and the coolness as we inhale. If your mind wanders, kindly and gently redirect it to focusing on controlling the embers on the leaf. Harness the inner fire’s glow without letting it consume you.
Fueling the Flame
In Avatar, Fire-Bending is a way of life and a part of everything the fire-bender does, not just used when it is time to fight. Similarly, we want to turn our mindfulness work into a practice integrated into everyday life and not just used when our emotions are running rampant. Pay attention to your breath in everyday activities – while walking, eating, driving, etc. Visualize your inner flame, harness your energy, and use it to regulate that burning fire within.
Just like mastering Fire-Bending, mastering our breath is an exercise in patience and practice. But with perseverance, you will find your breath has become a very powerful tool to help you control your inner fire. A tool to help provide you with an inner warmth and to light your way forwards.
Remember that our goal with these exercises are not to put out the flame, but instead to work and breathe with it. We want to become attuned to it and its rhythm so that it becomes a part of you and a point of strength rather than uncontrolled chaos. Through this you may find a mindful experience that is rich, fulfilling, and balanced.
So readers, harness your fire, learn restraint, master your breath, and let that inner fire guide your path. Until next time, breathe easy!
Zachary Dehler Egan (Zac, He/Him) is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with a focus for helping people foster emotional and social growth and healing. He is passionate about utilizing geek/pop culture based therapy for individuals 14 and older. This includes tapping into people's fandoms, utilizing board and tabletop games, and even video games to help people achieve their mental health and social skills goals. Zac has received training in using Solutions Focused Brief Therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, EMDR, and Mindfulness therapy which he incorporates into his sessions and interventions. He also loves playing Tabletop Role Playing Games, Tabletop Wargames; reading Fantasy and Science Fiction books; watching movies and video gaming. Some of his fandoms include Star Wars, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, DC Comics, Disney/Pixar and animation in general, and The Wheel of Time series.