Whenever I think about making pots, it inevitably follows that my thoughts turn to breath, just as an inhalation follows an exhalation. As I sit at the pottery wheel and my hands approach the clay, a moment of choice follows – I could wrap my hands around the lump of clay and wrestle it into centre, fighting the clay and being thrown around like I’m riding a rodeo bull, or I could simply use my exhalation and guide the clay into centre, barely using my hands.
When I am raising the walls of a pot, it’s the same thing; I can pull them up with force, my hands (and face) rigid, or I can breathe myself into a ‘flow state’ in which the pot walls seem to raise themselves. Likewise, when I am removing the gleaming and fragile wet pot from the wheel head after sliding a cutting wire underneath it – can I slide the pot to the edge, catch it and allow it to land safely on a board? Well, that depends on my breath.
It is the same moment of choice for every task I perform, all day, every day.
Do I consciously use my breath and do this effortlessly, or do I fight it all the way? Two decades after learning breathing techniques from robed yogis on a mountainside in Nepal, I still sometimes opt for the latter, slipping back into a reactionary state of wilfulness, determined to ‘get something done’. That’s ok, it can be nice to mix things up a bit because when I come back to the conscious breath, I get that wonderful feeling of ease, and of coming back to something dear and familiar.
Breathing, for many cultures, is a way to achieve both health and mastery. A large part of the Chinese Tao (400 BCE) focussed on breathing, how it could kill or heal us, depending on how we used it. Even earlier, Hindus considered breath and spirit the same thing. Then there were the Buddhists, who used breathing not only to lengthen their lives, but to reach higher states of consciousness. In his book Breath (2020), James Nestor takes the practices of these ancient cultures and tests them scientifically, concluding that “No matter what we eat, how much we exercise, how resilient our genes are, how skinny or young or wise we are – none of it will matter unless we’re breathing correctly. The missing pillar in health is breath.”
How can something we do automatically, unconsciously, have such an impact on our lives, a life-saving and enhancing impact if we’re doing it effectively, or a debilitating effect if we have developed bad breathing habits? I like to think of it in the same way that most of us have limbs that can perform basic tasks, and can also be trained to perform feats of strength and mastery. The key word is training – we can believe that to breathe automatically and unconsciously is enough, or we can take that process into a mindful, conscious state in order to use it for specific purposes.
In my practice in the Blue Mountains, I take students through a breath workshop and then into the pottery studio where they use their breathing techniques to centre clay on the wheel and make a pot. It’s a delight to watch first-time potters calm the clay into centre by using their breath as opposed to the battle many of us new to the wheel experience. It supports, again and again, what I have come to learn about the breath: that conscious breath and movement, when paired, can change our state of emotions, change our bodies, and change our lives for the better.