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You are hierarchical. That’s the older and more entrenched characteristic. We saw it in your closest animal relatives and in your more distant ones. It’s a terrestrial characteristic. When human intelligence served it instead of guiding it, when human intelligence did not even acknowledge it as a problem, but took pride it it or did not notice it at all… That was like ignoring cancer. I think your people did not realize what a dangerous thing they were doing.” — Octavia Butler, Dawn: Book One of the Xenogenesis Series

A fair amount has been written lately concerning overt racism in “folkish” Heathenry. I won’t repeat the details of the controversy, as they are available ad nauseum in many other different forums. And I think that many of us know racism in action and word when we see it; if you do not, chances are that you’re the racist. You can substitute any other category for race in this formula; it works with transphobia, sexism and xenophobia as well.

What it comes down to is rendering another group of human beings the Other — a category that is inherently debased due to the hierarchical dualism that structures Western thought. (If I sound extremely nerdy, it’s because I did my doctoral dissertation on this topic. And because I am an extreme nerd.) What do I mean by “hierarchical dualism”? Let’s play a game of opposites. When I say A., chances are that you’ll say B.:

  • Man/Woman
  • Parent/Child
  • Father/Mother
  • Fire/Water
  • Sun/Moon
  • Good/Evil
  • White/Black
  • Mind/Body
  • God/Devil
  • Rich/Poor
  • Reason/Emotion
  • Up/Down

If you continue to play the game on a headier level:

  • Culture/Nature
  • Sky/Earth
  • Human/Animal
  • Master/Slave
  • Pure/Dirty
  • Order/Chaos
  • Law/Criminality
  • Holy/Damned

The first half of the dyad is one of privilege. This is the “in group,” the one created in the image of G/god, according to religious doctrine; it is in the higher position, the head of the cosmic purusha (to borrow an image from Vedic mythology) compared to the feet. In a simplified version of the medieval chain of being, the first half of the dyad is up and the second down.

The second half of the dyad is the Other, which is rightfully subjugated by the holy members of the first order. They are the controlled. All “isms” come from the subjugation of this Other, considered impure and further from the ideal form of G/god.

Now, there are other ways of viewing dualism, such as the complementary principle of Yin-Yang you find in some Asian cultures. The concept of “purity” encapsulated by the Yin-Yang is subtly different from the black/white divide above: All yin contains a dot of yang and vice versa, and each is in motion around the other; you can’t have existence without either principle. The Western vision of hierarchical dualism is different in that it imagines a world without the Other: an all-yang vision, as it were, of a paradise of light, purity and disembodiment. We might parrot language of “complementarity,” but the underpinning principles of hierarchy are extremely difficult to eradicate.

Some forms of thought — and I am thinking of Wicca and Tantra here — seek to subvert hierarchical dualism by placing value on the second half of the dyad. The results can be empowering — but they ultimately do not subvert the underlying structural problem. Women, the poor, people of cultures deemed “Other” are more than just body and emotion and nature; to believe otherwise is to fall into the related myths of “the noble savage” and “women’s intuition.” A black man can be an astrophysicist. A woman can head up a university — and not be drawing on her inner white male (“animus” in Jungian terms) to do so. A transgender person (considered “mixed” and therefore impure) can be a dedicated and inspiring parent and/or colleague.

The Other is not just the Moon and Earth and Nature. And even “Nature” speaks and thinks. Animal species, we are discovering, have their own languages, customs and cultures — different from our own, yes, but of value to them.

Meaning and value are not determined by the dominant portion of the dyad. 

That’s the underpinnings of a philosophy known as “ecofeminism.” Now, I understand that’s a hinky, decades-old name that just doesn’t seem to fit the current milieu. Anti-hierarchical-dualism just doesn’t have the same panache as a term, and it has too many hyphens besides.

Insert the “Not all men/white people!” argument here. My answer: While ecofeminism does emphasize the situation of the Other, eliminating hierarchical dualism also can benefit the privileged members, who no longer have to maintain the rigid image of hypermasculinity and hyperrationality. They can be loving fathers, supportive and nurturing friends, head-boop kittens and cry at weddings — without accessing their “inner feminine.” They can be those things because they’re people and that’s what people are.

Now, it would be tempting to blame the desert Abrahamic religions for this dyad, and such blame wouldn’t be without cause. It has to be pointed out, though, that the underpinnings of hierarchical dualism also have origins in Greek philosophy, namely that of Platonism, which then filtered down into what we call “Western culture” today. Non-Western cultures, too, found their own way into dualistic fucked-up-edness: the Indian caste system and treatment of women, for example.

So what does this have to do with Druidry, Paganism and related controversies? For one, it’s this: It’s not just enough to flip the dyad. If you’re always aligning women with Mother, Goddess, Moon, Earth and related concepts of nurturing, vulnerability, emotion and dependence, you’re perpetuating the hierarchical dualism. If you’re viewing people with different skin tones as Other and therefore unfit to be part of your religious group or unworthy to worship the gods who have called to them, you’re perpetuating the hierarchical dualism. If you say nasty things about poor people and insinuate that they are incapable of reason (thus aligning them with “dumb nature”), you’re perpetuating the hierarchical dualism. If you think that someone needs to be all one or the Other (whether it comes to sex, gender, race or pretty much anything), then you’re perpetuating the hierarchical dualism.

And, well, you’re just an asshole besides.

Your challenge: Think beyond One and Two. Celtic iconography and myth deals a lot with threes and nines, for example. Fours and eights are valued in some Native American and Asian cultures. The ancient Middle East really liked sevens. Even Greece, the origin of some of our concepts of hierarchical dualism, had the Olympian Twelve.

Embrace the poly in polytheism. We are not one, but many. While we talk a good line about the One containing the Many, it’s a conceptual struggle due to the reductionism of hierarchical dualism. The Many, on the other hand, can safely contain the One — the individual in his/her/their dazzling multicolored glory (and yes, that includes monotheists. If we determine that monotheists are “Other” we are — what? — perpetuating the hierarchical dualism.)

Fearn – The Alder

Another one of my ogham poems.

With the circling of palms, I guard it —
blade-sides together, a beating heart
the war dance of a band of brothers.
My back your shield, oh! My back your shield.

Can you run featherlight over grass
without stirring the blades? Can you pluck
the thorn from your foot without missing
a stride, each hair of your braid in place?

Can you dodge the speartip while buried
in dirt up to the waist? Can your tongue
sling fire and honey? Do omens call
you, brother? Do you shrug off their webs

for that greater binding? Do you run
with the pack? Do you have the soul of
a poet? A killer? Do you know
them to be one and the same, brother?

O Finn, I am lying on the grass.
My shield splintered, the tusk of the boar
the goad that drove the ox of my fate.
With the circling of palms, I guard it —

But each vow is its own undoing.
A drink from your hands will make it whole,
re-forge the ring of the oath. Fair words
and fair deeds, is that all we aspire?

My back your field, oh! My back your shield.
The hands curved into one heart, holding
the water, our unspoken love, grief.
You part your fingers, freeing the drops

to the foot of the alder. Each one
caught by the light in the act of falling,
dearer than diamonds, scattering wide
to feed the green, and my mouth still dry.

With the circling of palms, I guard it:
the vow of my own undoing.
A drink from your hands will make it whole.
Do you have the soul of a poet?

Grove Street

Grove Street. Heat haze sparkles the mica.
Snot and tears river down my planed cheeks
as I seek the sanctuary of trees

and shadows, silence — maybe transgression,
a quick hop over the boundary fence
and onto Third Street. Harsh words toll out

in time with my sobs. I am 10 years old,
too old for childhood, too young for escape.
Does that sound pretentious? I palm my tears

and even now, I am on that dead end
street with its quiet trees and tempting fence.
I’ll give you something to cry about.

And I am never enough — not soft,
not loving, that glass-eyed doll with her smile
sculpted, a coquette with ringlets.

Don’t talk about it. Nobody cares.
The heat haze steals the shadows.
Past the white house with its pickets like teeth —

One house to the fence, and to Third Street
and something undefinable. My bangs
sticking to my salty eyes, foot up, now —

and I am caught by that Italian man
whose green shred of lawn I trespass, those steps
that turn a dead end into a life.

Does that sound pretentious? He’s holding
the garden hose, calling my name,noosing
me with it, calling the spirit home.

He’s asking me why I am crying.
I open my mouth and only a sob
chokes out. I turn, under that glaring sun

with its puzzling eyes piercing my back —
and I run and I run, sucking the air
through the drowning, and I run down Grove Street —

the silvered turrets of the yard fence,
the yellow house gleaming like a castle,
the moat of my distance walling me in.

Even now, I am on that dead end street.
I’ll give you something to cry about.
Don’t talk about it. Nobody cares.

Rubbernecker

On your worst day, I see you
slumped on the shaded seat. Your paling face
soaking slowly with red through the white.
Blond hair in a bob, falling like
a plumb line across your cheek. Perhaps
you are sleeping, or stunned by the blow
Or—

It is your worst day and I don’t know
your name. I am driving by. The lights
oscillate in red and blue behind me –
finally. A man in an untucked shirt
wanders dazed. Crazed metal shines under
that unforgiving July sun.
And –

A moment ago I climbed sweaty
into my seat, leaving the park. You
were headed into work, maybe,
or home, an appointment, the bagel shop.
Maybe you held a cup of coffee.
Maybe someone was waiting for you.
Maybe –

We passed on the trail under another
hot sun, you walking and even smiling
at your friends. Maybe I nodded as
I lumbered past. Maybe I took your
parking spot in front of the Weis once.
Maybe we stood together in line.
Now –

In this one shared moment, that shining road
and that unforgiving sun, I see you.
I batten the tears with sweaty palms
because this is your worst day, and I
never knew your name or what kind of
coffee you liked and now I never will

379px-Barbebleue

Rags of night scatter in the green grass
green as that palace on the high hill.
Beaded eyes glitter as I count them
nine by nine. That was the summer
I learned all the fairytales were true.
The sun bleached it into a story:
One for sorrow
Two for mirth
Three for a death
Four for a birth
Five for silver
Six for gold
Seven for a secret that’s never been told.

We wore our cherry-red shoes to church
and the red man with his too-bright smile
tapped them with his stick. Dance on, dance on!
See the yews by the cemetery
the red berries by the gate. Dance on!
Here’s the chopper come for your head.
One for sorrow
Two for mirth
Three for a death
Four for a birth
Five for silver
Six for gold
Seven for a secret that’s never been told.

Crown you with flowers from the green grass,
bride with your veil. The rich duke gives you
a tiny key, a door you must not
crack. You spy the bones through the keyhole.
They write the word that is your name and
you run in your white robe. The crows count.
One for sorrow
Two for mirth
Three for a death
Four for a birth
Five for silver
Six for gold
Seven for a secret that’s never been told.

Remember when the stars fell from
the sky and landed on their jackets?
Don’t you want that to happen again?
We’re on Bluebeard’s side now. Beware
the wife with the needling eyes. Just dance
in your red shoes and count the crows.
One for sorrow
Two for mirth
Three for a death
Four for a birth
Five for silver
Six for gold
Seven for a secret that’s never been told.

I whisper the end of the rhyme
under breath. Careful! Old Scratch has got
ears underground and hands that reach up
at the sound of his name. That summer
I learned all the fairytales were true.
The sun bleached it into a story.

Eight for heaven
Nine for hell
Ten for the Devil Himself.

 

Pause and be still. Take a moment simply to listen to the play of sounds around you, and then within you.

There is one sound always present: Your breath, swelling then ebbing like ocean waves, or the whisper of the wind through leaves. This gentle sound has been with you from your first emergence into the world; when its music finally ebbs into silence, you will die. Every inspiration is an echo of this first breath, this first emergence, the creation of yourself and the creation of the world. Every expiration is an echo of this last breath, your passage over the Sunless Sea into the Otherworld, the dissolution of the physical world, self and name.

When you breathe in, you write your name and your message on the sands of time. When you breathe out, the waves wash the words away.

Practicing pranayama in yoga. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Practicing pranayama in yoga. Image via Wikimedia Commons

In our day to day lives, we don’t often notice our breath unless something disrupts it – whether a shocking moment that takes our breath away, fear that compresses our chest and makes it difficult to draw air in, or a medical issue such as an asthma attack. Breath control, however, has a long history in the mystical traditions of the world, and provide us with a Druidic tool for transformation and healing.

Of course, there are practical uses for breathwork as well. The Lamaze technique for childbirth famously uses breath as a way of dealing with and dissipating the pain of labor, and patients with pulmonary diseases such as COPD are often given tips on how to regulate their breath to maximize their airflow – and minimize the panic that comes from not being able to breathe freely. Breathing is also used to lower blood pressure, and there are handy apps as well as medical devices that teach you to do that.

Classically trained singers also learn to how to most efficiently draw in breath, modulate it so as to perform all manner of vocal techniques, and place each in-breath in the appropriate spot in the song so that it flows smoothly and without interruption. There is evidence that Celtic bards worked in much the same way. “(F)ive words are adjudged to be a breath of the poet,” the grammarian Longarad writes in the Auraicept na n-Éces, or scholar’s primer, which reputedly dates back to seventh century Ireland (Jones). A professional fili, or poet, would have paced her breaths when reciting so as to preserve the rhythms of the work, augment its art and power, and draw attention to the intricate play of language.

Indian sadhu in meditation. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Indian sadhu in meditation. Image via Wikimedia Commons

There are hints, however, that the Druids may have used breath for more occult reasons, much as the Indian sadhus. One method that survived in the poet-training schools of Scotland and Ireland involved spending all day inside a shuttered room with eyes covered and a heavy stone on the belly while composing verses (Laurie 182, Colman 151). On the surface, the stone on the belly could be seen as a tool to force proper bardic breathing techniques for composition: the five words of the poet, as the traditional texts point out. But combined with the darkness and the shrouded eyes, this breath-control technique may also have led to a trance state that wouldn’t be unfamiliar to the modern practitioners of yoga.

Breath and the Subtle Body

Unlike most asana, or modern postural yoga, breathwork has ancient roots in India. The Upanishads mention the use of breathing to control the mind with the earliest mention perhaps dating back to the third century BCE (Singleton 26). Breathwork, or pranayama, is a mainstay of hatha yoga, which is “concerned with the transmutation of the human body into a vessel immune from mortal decay” (Singleton 28). So, all those postures and breathing techniques you do in a yoga class aren’t intended to just give you great abs or a sense of calm after a tough day at work; they’re supposed to make you immortal! (Author’s note: I have practiced yoga since graduate school and, sadly, I am not immortal – yet.)

How does breathwork make you immortal, so to speak? To answer that, we need to explore some of the “subtle body,” as it’s often called. Prana, or breath, is the same as chi or ki in other parts of Asia. The Latin word for breath is spiritus, which has the same meaning and implications as the ancient Greek pneuma. Breath is connected with spirit itself – the animating force that keeps us alive when we are embodied, constitutes our substance after physical death, and allows us to perform physical, intellectual and spiritual feats. It’s no coincidence that inspiration and expiration mean so much more than just breathing in English! Modern Paganism usually calls this force magick. As Druids, we may wish to call it awen (in Welsh) or imbas (in Gaelic).

Different cultures provide different anatomies of the subtle body and how prana, chi or spirit runs through it. Because the techniques I will explore below are yogic in origin, I will focus on how the subtle body is viewed in India.

There are two main channels of energy in the body: Ida, on the left, associated with the moon; Pingala, on the right, associated with the sun. In between, along the column of the spine, is a hollow tube called Sushumna. The seven chakras – you may have heard of those! – lie along the path of Sushumna, and are the nexus where Ida and Pingala flows meet. Of course, there are a lot of smaller channels that course through the body, similar to veins and arteries; these are called nadis, and they traditionally number anywhere from 72,000 to 300,000 (Singleton 29).

The seven chakra in the body. Nepalese painting, 18th century. Image via Wikimedia Commons

The seven chakra in the body. Nepalese painting, 18th century. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Once it’s absorbed from the larger universe, prana flows in the body in five great winds, which are in some ways similar to the “organ systems” of Chinese medicine. Prana-vayu, the forward wind, is seated in the heart and deals with inhalation, and the “rising energy of reaching out and taking in,” as Richard Rosen puts it (24). Apana-vayu, the downward wind, is seated in the pelvis and deals with exhalation, elimination, and energy that falls, gives out or gives away. Samana-vayu, the middle wind, is situated in the belly behind the navel and deals with processes of digestion, assimilation and incorporation, whether of food or experience. Vyana-vayu, the circulating wind, circulates energy throughout the body and, in Rosen’s words, “is the glue that holds us together.” Upana-vayu, the upward wind, is seated in the throat and represents the energy of expression, speech and the mind.

Some traditions of yoga speak of kundalini, or the serpent-like cosmic energy, that sits at the seat of the nadis, usually at the first or second chakra. Spiritual disciplines such as meditation and pranayama cause the kundalini energy to rise to the crown chakra, leading to a state known as samadhi, when you are completely merged with all-that-is and the mind becomes completely still. The raising of kundalini energy also heightens magical and “psychic” abilities, which can be profoundly destabilizing and leads to all manners of warnings in yogic texts. Here is an example from B.K.S. Iyengar in his seminal text, Light on Yoga:

Pneumatic tools can cut through the hardest rock. In Prāņāyāmā the yogi uses his lungs as pneumatic tools. If they are not used properly, they destroy both the tool and the person using it. The same is true of prāņāyāmā (431).

If the warnings seem over the top, it’s because they are not based in physical reality. For most healthy people – without, say, asthma or COPD – it’s difficult to injure yourself with breathwork. If you hold your breath too long or hyperventilate, you may pass out – and then, the body will begin breathing again normally on its own. However, if you channel kundalini energy improperly, you can wreak all sorts of magical havoc on yourself and others; at least, that’s how the thinking seems to go. You don’t want to screw up the process of becoming immortal, if that is your aim.

Iyengar yoga in particular takes an especially cautionary approach to pranayama, encouraging students to learn it only from a teacher, practice at certain points of the day and only at least 15 minutes after physical exercise, etc. Other traditions of yoga – such as the type I practice – have a much less timid approach, and encourage practitioners to try it out. In fact, the rules that are hard and fast in one tradition – no yoga before postural practice in Iyengar yoga, for example – are often completely different in another. (In Sivananda Yoga, you do breathwork before the physical practice, not after.) So, go with whatever works for you, or is part of a tradition you follow.

The practice: Breathing techniques

There are many, many different types of breath in yoga, and the names vary depending on tradition. I’ll go into some of the more common kinds based on my own experiences. My very first teacher was trained in Sivananda Yoga, so those are the basis of the techniques I have learned; they are also common to most traditions of hatha, or physical, yoga. Iyengar Yoga has its own extremely detailed take on pranayama, which you can consider the Ph.D. progam of breathwork; like actual Ph.D. programs, a lot of people just don’t have the patience for it. Kundalini Yoga offers similar techniques when it comes to pranayama, but they’re used in different ways.

Sometimes, breathing techniques are performed in accord with three muscular locks, located in the perineum, the abdominals and the neck/throat. These locks are called bandhas. Other techniques involve the use of specific nostrils, which control the energy flow through the Ida or Pingala channels. That’s beyond the current scope of this article, but you’re more than welcome to read up on them.

Unless otherwise specified, breathing is done using the nose. Sometimes, you may breath in or out of your mouth to regulate temperature, but that is usually specified in the technique. If you’re prone to congestion, blow your nose or use a neti pot to clear your nasal passages before practice.

Preliminary cautions: If you have respiratory problems, be cautious with breathwork for obvious reasons. Even if you’re otherwise healthy, stop if you feel lightheaded, dizzy or otherwise unwell, and begin breathing normally again. You don’t need to worry about destroying yourself with pneumatic tools, but respect your body and your limits.

The four-part breath

Let’s start with the basic four-part breath. Breathe in slowly, filling first your lower abdomen, middle abdomen, your sides and back, and upper chest and clavicle area. Then, just as slowly, breathe out, starting with your upper chest and shoulders, your middle chest and back, and lower abdomen.

When you’re ready, you can add the pauses. Breath in fully, from the lower to the middle to the upper abdomen. Pause, when you’re full of air, the height of the flow of life-energy. Breathe out, from the top of your lungs, your middle chest, your lower abdomen. Then pause again, once you are empty. Repeat, with the pauses both after full inhalation and after full exhalation.

The four-part breath, usually called the yogic breath, is a good way to get in tune with the basic flow of energy. Do you feel the energetic difference between full inhalation and full exhalation?

This breath is calming, and helps your lungs function at full capacity. If you want to explore, you can adjust the length of the inspiration, the expiration and the pauses. Generally speaking, inspiration enlivens and exhalation calms and relaxes. The retentions allow the prana to circulate through your body. Feel free to explore different ratios of breath, always keeping your health and safety in mind.

The victory breath

You’ll commonly encounter Ujjayi breathing in yoga classes; some teachers ask you to do this throughout your postural practice. Ujjayi means “victorious,” and this breath is used to relieve tension and slow the heart rate, as well as address insomnia (Redmond). If you have heart disease, don’t combine Ujjayi or other breath techniques with breath retention or the use of the bandhas as this can create issues with internal pressure.

In Ujjayi, you will contract the muscles in the back of your throat – the glottis – slightly, creating a sound like ocean waves. You’ll do this both during the inhale and the exhale. Breathe long and evenly, just as you did with the four-part breath.

‘Skull-shining’ and the Bellows Breath

Now let’s explore two less-calming forms of breathwork. Kapalabhati and Bhastrika are both heating and energizing. They raise energy in the body, warm you up and sharpen your mind. They can also lead to hyperventilation in excess, so be mindful.

Kapalabhati means “skull shining” and it’s also used as a purification process in Sivananda Yoga. One of my former teachers called it Kapala-snotty because it’s really good at clearing gunked-up nostrils, so practice with a box of tissues handy! In Kundalini Yoga, it’s usually called the Breath of Fire, which can give you some indication of its more occult uses.

To perform Kapalabhati, take a full breath in, and then breath in and out in tiny inhales and exhales. Pump your abdominals on the exhales; you’ll sound a bit like an oncoming train. Start with practicing three rounds of 20 Kapalabhati-breaths, and you can eventually work up to 60 (Sivananda 72). After each round, take a few deep, full breaths to re-balance yourself.

Bhastrika, the Bellows Breath, is similar but even more focused on the forceful nature of the exhale. It’s performed in a variety of ways, but I like the version that uses the arms.

Here’s how to do my version: Take a deep breath in and put your arms at your sides, bent in right angles. Then, do a short, forceful exhale, bringing your elbows down into your ribs to get even more air out. Inhales are short and silent; exhales, assisted by your arms, are short and hard. Unlike Kapalabhati, the breath pattern is a hair longer; keep a steady rhythm and don’t speed up. Start with three rounds of 10 Bhastrika breaths, and work your way up to longer sessions.

Alternate Nostril Breathing

A_style_of_nadi_suddhi

If you have a pranayama practice, it’s good to follow Kapalabhati with alternate-nostril breathing, as the former clears out those clogged nasal passages. Alternate nostril breathing is usually called Nadi Shodhana or Anuloma Viloma, and sometimes involves breath retention or the use of a mudra on the hand that’s pinching your nose.

Here’s the simplified version: Pinch your left nostril shut. Breathe in slowly through your right nostril, a full deep breath. Pinch both nostrils shut, and then open your left, breathing out slowly. Once you have fully exhaled, breath in your left nostril slowly and fully, pinch both nostrils shut, and then open your right nostril, breathing out fully. That’s one round. Sivananda Yoga recommends starting with three rounds and building up to 20.

Remember Ida and Pingala, the two main channels of energy? Anuloma Viloma balances these channels.

The cooling breath

While Kapalabhati and Bhastrika heat us up, Sitkari and Sithali cool us down. In these techniques, you will inhale through the mouth and exhale out the nose.

To prepare for Sitkari, touch the tip of your tongue to your palate. Take a full breath in through your mouth, keeping your tongue planted. Close your mouth and hold your breath as long as you can, and exhale slowly through the nose. Repeat five to 10 times.

Not everyone can do the next breath, Sithali, for genetic reasons. Instead of touching your tongue to the roof of your mouth, you will instead roll your tongue and breathe in slowly through the “straw,” close your mouth and hold, and exhale slowly out your nose. If you’re not one of the genetically blessed, you can simply stick your tongue out and breathe over your tongue instead, or just practice Sitkari. As in Sitkari, repeat five to 10 times.

Interestingly, Sitkari is supposed to give you a beautiful face. These techniques are also used to relieve hunger and thirst and cool the body (Sivananda 74).

Bee Breath

Bhramari, the bee breath, is one of my personal favorites; the name actually means “she who roams” (Budilovsky and Adamson 189). It’s soothing and calming, and can induce trance states and psychic sensitivities; Layne Redmond recommends it early in the morning or just before bed.

It’s done in a number of different ways, but I prefer Redmond’s method. As a preparation, make a gutteral, clicking aaaahhhh or groan in the back of your throat; you’ve likely done this as a kid. Breathe in, close your mouth and begin the back-of-the-throat groan, then send air and sound through that groan. This creates a clear, humming buzz that sounds a lot like a Theramin; it’s essentially throat-singing. Start with five to 10 rounds of this, taking a full, deep breath and doing the buzz on the exhale.

When you’re done, I guarantee that you’ll feel the buzz!

Uses of breath of Druidic work

Add the above techniques to your Druidic toolbox; they have a variety of uses. Ujjayi, alternate-nostril breathing and the four-part breath can be done prior to ritual to calm the chatter of the mind and get you in a meditative state. They and Brahmari can also be done just prior to trance-work. Kapalabhati and Bhastrika are good tools to raise energy, while Sitkari and Sithali can follow energy-raising as cooling and grounding techniques.

Celtic reconstructionist Erynn Rowan Laurie uses breathwork in much of her spiritual work. In one particular exercise, called “Sparking the Cauldrons,” she uses breath – combined with simple hand-gestures similar to mudras – to raise energy in the Cauldron of Warming, the Cauldron of Motion and the Cauldron of Wisdom, which are essentially the Celtic version of chakras (Laurie 183-6). These cauldrons and the energies they represent are described in the Cauldron of Poesy, an Irish text dating back to the medieval era.

Laurie describes using deep, even breathing to spark the cauldrons in a series of nine breaths each. In my own exploration, you can use different types of breathing techniques to imbue the cauldrons with energy. Kapalabhati and Bhastrika, for example, would fill the cauldrons with spiritual fire, while Ujjayi would lead to a calmer, more watery and reflective character.

See where your experimentations take you! This spiritual tool is always available for your use, as long as you are alive and breathing.

Bibliography and suggested resources.

Budilovsky, Joan and Eve Adamson. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Yoga, Third Edition. New York: Alpha, 2003.

Don’t let the title put you off! This is a very accessible and thorough book on all aspects of yoga.

Iyengar, B.K.S. Light on Yoga. New York: Schocken Books, 1966.

The yoga classic. Iyengar also has another book, “Light on Pranayama,” which is specifically about breathing practices.

Laurie, Erynn Rowan. Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom. Stafford, England: Megalithica, 2007.

A must-have book on ogham and Celtic reconstructionism.

McColman, Carl and Kathryn Hinds. Magic of the Celtic Gods and Goddesses. Franklin Lakes, NJ: New Press Books, 2005.

Redmond, Layne. Heart Chakra Meditations. Sounds True, 2005. CD.

A wonderful CD by the late drummer Layne Redmond, who leads you through a variety of meditation and breathing practices.

Rosen, Richard. The Yoga of Breath: A Step-By-Step Guide to Pranayama. Boston: Shambala, 2002.

The “gold standard” of books on pranayama in the Iyengar tradition. Rosen’s practice is very cautious and slow-going, however, and may not appeal to the types who prefer to dive in.

The Sivananda Yoga Center. The Sivananda Companion to Yoga. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983.

My first yoga book. The Cirque du Soleil positions they demonstrate may scare you off from the practice, however. It’s a period piece, as they say.

Singleton, Mark. Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice. New York: Oxford Univesity Press, 2010.

Not a “yoga book” per se, but an actual scholarly history that shows you the origin – sometimes ancient, more often modern – of the yoga practices common today.

Teixeira, Nubia. Pranayama: May Our Breath Be Our Prayer. Sounds True, 2005.

Another great two-CD set with a variety of breathwork practices.

The Scholar’s Primer.” Celtic Literature Collective & Jones’s Celtic Encyclopedia. http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/scholar_primer.html

A translation of the Auraicept na n-Éces.

The king is not whole, and the land is made waste.

He is capable and strong, still. He bears the Sword of Finias that he will always bear, the unerring blade of the sacred treasure that never misses its mark. His silver hand is a shining reminder of what he has sacrificed for his people, for the sake of justice, truth, the protection of the land and its creatures.

But it also reminds him of his failures, and does not move like his hand of flesh. And so, the king is not whole. The land rejects the hand of man, and the Gods themselves grow hungry for offerings that no longer come. Truth and justice are no longer enough to heal wounds.

Whenever we face East – the direction of the sunrise, the freshness of the day and the spring, the province of the wind – we face Nuada Argetlám, the god of the Silver Hand. In Keltrian rites, we designate the boundaries of sacred space by calling upon the past present and future, and then facing the cardinal directions. And mirroring the journey of sun, moon and stars across the heavens, we begin with the East, standing in the light of Finias, remembering Nuada’s famous blade.

Sword and god are bound together in the lore, so much so that the two merge together: the silver sword, the metal-handed deity. While this chieftain of the gods falls in the second battle of Mag Tuired in some versions of the story – understanding, of course, that for the Gods death is never permanent – it is perhaps telling that his famous blade disappears from the lore, never to be borne by another. In other versions of the tale, Nuada – magically restored by Miach – takes the throne of his people again after the war (Rua 17).

But Nuada is more than the killing blade, the tool that gets the job done or even the chieftain. He is also associated closely with healing waters, the mist rising from the river, the well of wisdom. More than just the wounded king, he is the wounded healer – a term made famous by psychologist Carl Jung. To know how the blade cuts, one must be cut by it. To know how to heal, one must first be broken.

Chieftain and law-giver

While the meaning of Nuada’s name is far from clear, some have surmised that it is related to the words for “cloud” or “mist,” (Rua 17), while others have linked it to words for “acquire” or even “go fish.” Whatever its meaning, it appears clearly linked to the Welsh Lludd Llaw Ereint (Lludd of the Silver Hand) and the ancient Celtic deity Nodens or Nodons, associated with healing shrines (Rolleston 146, Chadwick 73). He may also be the same god as Nechtan or Elcmar, the freshwater god who is the cuckolded husband of Boann of the river (McKillop 137).

His sword comes from Finias – also spelled Findias or Finnias, meaning “bright white fort” (Kondratiev 82). Celticist James MacKillop describes the sword as allowing “no victim to escape,” which appears to be its major magical quality (136). Unlike Keltrians, Alexei Kondratiev places the sword – and perhaps Finias – in the north, connecting it with such functions as “battle-valor and championship.” However, finn may denote the bright and blessed light of the rising sun, giving the city and its treasure the essence of prosperity rather than war – and turning the warrior’s blade into the mythical sword of light (MacLeod 93).

nuada

The Temple of Nodens at Lydney Park. Photo by Jeff Collins, public domain.

And indeed, Nuada himself appears to have a deep connection with prosperity – whether its lack in the time of war, or its restoration when the king, made whole, takes his throne again.

Drawing back the curtain of time, Nuada’s most ancient ancestor may have been the Proto-Indo-European Xáryomen, according to the reconstructed pantheon of Ceisiwr Serith. Xáryomen’s name survives in Irish lore as Éremón, the first Milesian king of Ireland – and perhaps, in a larger mythological sense, the first human king. Éremón and Nuada are kingship, whether its manifestation in a human figure or in a divine concept. In a similar sense, the name Xáryomen denotes community identity itself, connected to the tribe-name arya, which survived in Irish as aire, the word for free people, and a suffix similar in meaning to the English –ness (Serith 52). He is not, it must be emphasized, the God of racism or Nazism, however corrupted the concept of “Aryan” may have become in modern times. Rather, Xáryomen – “the quality of being free people” – is a manifestation of the laws of society: in effect, justice and the right order of things.

Together with the head of the pantheon, the Sky Father or Dyéus Ptér, “he enforces justice and oaths are sworn by him. He enforces contracts. Through him, the wealth of society is circulated among us,” Serith explains (52). He also governs both marriage, a form of social contract that binds not only lovers but their tribes, and healing – the restoration of physical being. In short, Xáryomen represents the right order of things – for the individual, the human society of which they are part, and the cosmos itself.

Interestingly, in Serith’s reconstruction, Xáryomen doesn’t operate alone; he is paired with Dyéus Ptér – just as Eremon is paired with his brother and rival king Éber Finn, the Welsh king Lludd with his wise brother Llefelys, and Nuada with his successor, Lugh.

Beyond the Celtic world, Indo-European scholar Jaan Puhvel finds echoes of Nuada in the Roman Mars and the Germanic Tyr, Tiw, Tiwaz or Saxnote, both deities that warded and protected the land, ensuring prosperity, peace and justice within. With his silver hand, Nuada bears more than a passing resemblance to the sword-god Tyr/Saxnote, who sacrificed an arm as a safeguard for an oath that bound the wolf Fenris. The patron god of the Thing, or law assembly, Tyr witnessed oaths – although, ironically, he broke his own to bind the wolf. It’s this oathbreaking that likely renders Tyr unfit for the kingship, at least of the later Germanic pantheon – an echo of the mutilation and disqualification of Nuada.

Nuada’s children include the mountain goddess Echtga, associated with Slieve Aughty in County Galway, son Tadg Mór of the Hill of Allen, ancestor of Fionn mac Cumhaill (MacLeod 55), and – through another set of sons – the Irish people of themselves, as well as several lines of kings (McLeod 125). In a larger mythological sense, this first king is the ancestor of the tribe – another indication of his identity as Xáryomen.

While the interaction of many of these divine, kingly pairs – Nuada and Lugh, Odin and Tyr, and ultimately Xáryomen and Dyéus Ptér – ensure the harmonious function of right order in society, this is not always the case for their human equivalents. Éber Finn ultimately challenges and is slain by his brother Éremón, just as another mythic king of Ireland – Mug Nuadat, whose name means “servant of Nuada” – is defeated and slain by his brother Conn, or “head,” (Rees and Rees 101). Interestingly, Mug Nuadat is the ancestor of the kings of southern Munster, associated with music and prosperity, in comparison to the warlike realm of northern Conn. Nuada is, yet again, associated with prosperity – and failure at war.

The Fisher King

Like Tyr, Nuada lost his right hand (or sometimes arm) to an enemy – in his case, battling the Fir Bolg champion Sreng,who apparently survived the encounter and retired with his remaining people to the Western province of Connacht. The smith-god Goibhniu crafted Nuada’s famous silver hand, replacing the one he lost in battle. Despite this, his mutilation made him unfit for kingship. His people chose Bres the Beautiful, a half-divine, half-Fomhoire God, to lead them – resulting in penury for both the land and its people.

In later myths, Nuada is made truly whole by the healing-god Miach, who found the severed right hand, connected it to the stump and chanted spells for three days, ultimately resulting in the chieftain’s complete physical restoration (Kondratiev 186). However, this act spurred the jealousy of Dian Cécht, Miach’s healer-god father, who ultimately killed him – and scattered the herbs that grew from his body so that no one could cure all ills. In some senses, that miraculous healing appeared to violate natural laws – mirroring the death of the Greek demigod Asklepios, who was struck down by Zeus for bringing the dead back to life.

Although restored, Nuada steps down in favor of the polymath champion Lugh as the people revolt against the Fomhoire during the second battle of Mag Tuired. In Rolleston’s version of the tale, the valiant Nuada is slain by the magical eye of the Fomhoire king Balor, slain in turn by Lugh, who then achieves the kingship of the Tuatha de Danann (117).

Portions of Nuada’s story echo the Welsh tale of Lludd and Llefelys, in which the land – under the rulership of Lludd – is beset by three plagues: a devastation wrought by magical all-hearing beings called the Coraniaid, which resemble the Fomhoire; a terrifying scream uttered by warring dragons each May Eve that left the land and its creatures barren; and a giant who stole all the food in the king’s court (Rees and Rees 46). Just as Lugh’s leadership rids the land of the Fomhoire and allows Nuada to retake the throne, so Llefelys’ advice helps restore the land, permitting his brother to rule: The wise brother poisons the eavesdropping Coraniad, entombs the dragons and arrests the giant, who then makes restitution and becomes an ally of the king (Puhvel 179).

Drawing on these myths and the possible meaning of Nuada’s name as “fisherman,” Puhvel identifies Nuada as the template for the Fisher King of Arthurian legend – whose maiming, like that of Nuada, brought barrenness to the land and calamity to its people (180). He is also perhaps emblematic of the aging king, who can no longer lead the war band and must give way to the next generation.

If Nuada is indeed the same as Nechtan/Elcmar, Boann’s spouse, he bears other associations as well. He guards the well of wisdom – the Grail? – but is hoodwinked by his own wife, who lays with the Dagda. The Dagda in turn sends Nechtan on an errand, and then holds the sun still for nine months until Aonghus Og is born, so that it seems only a day has passed. There is a curious echo in the Arthurian tale of the Fisher King, who is wounded in the genitals – his very manhood – for sexual transgressions, according to some versions of the tale.

There is no indication that Nechtan ever discovered the adultery, although he had a vengeance of sorts: When Boann went to the Well of Segais to purify herself, its waters rose up and destroyed her body, creating the river. Nechtan is thus connected to fresh water, courtesy of his link to the Well of Wisdom and the river goddess. So was another God, with what appears to be a related name: Nodens, known in both Britain and Gaul, and who had a famous riverside temple along the Severn.

The Wounded Healer

Built around the year 364, Nodens’ temple included a healing center “where invalids were visited by the god or one of his sacred dogs of healing in their sleep,” according to scholar Nora Chadwick (171). Imagery within connected the deity to the sun, water and dogs (MacLeod 42), reflective of both the temple’s location and its healing practices. (Perhaps coincidentally, Nechtan’s wife Boann has a mythic association with dogs – or at least her lapdog, Dabilla.) In function, the temple on the Severn resembled shrines to the Greek healer-god Asklepios, whose own myth is echoed in that of miraculous healer Miach.

If Nodens and Nuada are one and the same – which seems likely – why is this god associated with healing shrines, rather than Miach or even Dian Cécht?

Several explanations spring to mind. In the ancient world, a common method of magical healing may have involved offering a replica of the afflicted body part to a healing well. Silver hand, anyone? As the guardian of the Well of Wisdom, he is also the guardian of the world’s knowledge – a useful quality in a physician, who must draw on both observation and information in making a diagnosis. And in a world in which the health of the king reflects on the health of the land and its people, who better to ask for healing than the king himself? As the defender of sacred truth and the right order of things, the divine king also ensures that the physical body reflects that right order. He witnesses our oaths, and keeps his oath to us as healer and defender: a gift for a gift.

But the most compelling reason is a modern one, sprung from the wisdom of Carl Jung. Many of those who seek to heal have themselves experienced debility, weakness, injury. Nuada knows the qualities of a good leader because of his failures at leadership; similarly, he becomes a healer through his own wounding. He knows when to step down from a position of authority and ask for help – a form of wisdom hard-won, and familiar to anyone who has suffered a severe injury or illness, whether in mind, body and spirit.

And to come full circle, to the blade of the shining sword of Finias, whirling in the East: It is more than the sharp edge that brings injury and death. It is the surgeon’s knife and the sword of light that fends off disruptions of sacred order. The Fisher King and the wasteland, it must remembered, could only be healed by Percival’s questions, which brought the truth to light. In another story, Manannan’s cup – a version of the Grail – is broken by lies and healed by truth. What, then, is the sword that no victim can escape? “Not hard,” says the poet. “It is truth.”

Works Cited

Chadwick, Nora. The Celts. New York: Penguin Books, 1997.

Kondratiev, Alexei. The Apple Branch: A Path to Celtic Ritual. New York: Kensington Publishing Corp., 2003.

MacKillop, James. Myths and Legends of the Celts. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.

MacLeod, Sharon Paice. Celtic Myth and Religion: A Study of Traditional Belief, with Newly Translated Prayers, Poems and Songs. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2012.

Puhvel, Jaan. Comparative Mythology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.

Rees, Alwyn and Brinley. Celtic Heritage: Ancient tradition in Ireland and Wales. London: Thames and Hudson, 1961.

Rolleston, T.W. Celtic Myths and Legends. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1990.

Rua, Aedh. Celtic Flame: An Insider’s Guide to Irish Pagan Tradition. New York: iUniverse, Inc., 2008.

Serith, Ceisiwr. Deep Ancestors: Practicing the Religion of the Proto-Indo-Europeans. Tucson: ADF Publishing, 2007.