The rhythm of breathing is our constant companion. From the moment of our birth till our final farewell and departure, it is always with us. And yet few of us give this companion much thought at all.
The act of breathing
For one reason or another, we might choose to forgo any number of things in our lives and still survive to tell the tale. But breathing will never be one of them. We can never give it up, not on a whim nor with any amount of planning. Breathing remains the telling sign of life, for in its absence we no longer are.
Yet the act of breathing embraces so much more than the mere exchange of life-sustaining gases. Two often overlooked but empowering aspects are:
- Breathing constantly reflects, in real-time, our ever changing emotional state.
- Conscious control of breathing can enable us to change even the most exhausting emotional state.
If you choose to embrace deep, relaxed, natural breathing as part of your daily life, you open yourself up to a multitude of benefits and gifts:
- Less stress and tension
- More easily accessed states of relaxation
- Less body inflammation
- Better digestion
- Increased awareness
- Greater perceptual clarity
- Increased circulation of lymphatic fluids
- Stronger immune system
- Increased detoxification
- Increased quality of blood
- Better pain management
- Healthier organs through strong abdominal massage
- Stronger lungs
- Increased stamina
- Deeper meditation
A healthy baby breathes as we all should, from the belly. A baby exerts no conscious control over her breath, she just does what comes naturally. And natural breathing is the most efficient way to bring fresh air into the lungs and expel carbon dioxide.
But as babies grow and eventually enter adulthood, somewhere along the path almost all lose their talent for belly breathing. By middle age (and often much earlier), most rely on upper chest or even shoulder movement to power their breath. And then breathing becomes no more than panting.
In addition, when breathing remains chronically centered in the upper chest and shoulders, the breather becomes disconnected from their true emotional states. They become far less emotionally resilient. Upper body breathing also radically lowers the oxygen exchanged with each breath, lowering the overall energy state of the body.
Checking in on your emotional state
Excitement and agitation makes breathing more rapid. And when fear strikes, your breathing accelerates beyond control and splinters into shallow gasps. On the other hand, when you experience a relaxed and peaceful state, your breath slows, lengthens, and deepens.
And of course there are many shades between. The more time you spend being aware of your breathing, the greater your awareness of the subtleties.
Changing your emotional state
Just as anxiousness will produce rapid and uneven breathing patterns, you can go a long way to changing that emotional state by consciously deepening and slowing your breathing rhythm.
To the uninitiated, the success of a breathing expert in changing emotional states can seem to border on the miraculous. Once that deep-breather becomes aware of an unwanted or debilitating emotional state, she can consciously change her breathing pattern and quickly transit into a far more resourceful state.
Testing your breathing
So how do you breathe? Just fine, you say. Fainting isn’t a problem so you assume you must be getting all the oxygen you need, right? And so think the majority.
Let’s put it to the test then. For this exercise you’ll need some earplugs. You know the type, squishy, spongy ones you insert in your outer ear canal. After squashing them down for easy insertion, they’ll expand again to close off the ear canal and dampen your awareness of outer sounds.
And the result is an increased awareness of the sound of your own breathing. It will seem amplified inside your head and prove difficult to ignore.
Now go about your normal daily activities for an hour, all the time keeping watch on your breathing. Be aware of such things as your breath’s rhythm, evenness or choppiness, speed, and from where the breath originates; shoulders, chest, or tummy.
An hour of this can be both an enlightening and sobering experience.
Learning to breathe all over again
Often people associate learning to breath with techniques that require one to hold the breath. Not so, although some traditional breathing techniques do employ breath retention.
The arts of Indian Yoga and Chinese Qigong embrace a multitude of breathing methods, both rudimentary and complex. And while you might learn some of these from books with impunity, many, if employed incorrectly, can prove dangerous to your health.
If you wish to learn these traditional teachings, I strongly encourage you to seek out the guidence of a qualified teacher. A good teacher will notice when or if your practice is deviating from the safe track and intervene to set things right.
What I outline below is safe for all, provided one never, ever strains or holds the breath. Remember, we are encouraging (not forcing) the body to return to a natural way of breathing.
The art of breathing
The simplicity of this breathing approach belies its power and effectiveness in changing lives. If practiced diligently, in time it will transform how you breath, how you feel, and how you operate in the world.
Trust that you are embarking on a journey that will return you to your natural, all-powerful state. Persevere with the daily practice in a focused yet gentle manner. Each breath taken with full awareness is another step away from darkness and into a life filled with light.
The relaxed, full-breath method
In all formal breathing and meditation practices, it is best to find a place and time where you can practice without outside disturbances.
Practice session length
- Start with ten minute sessions.
- Once a day is enough, but if you’re adventurous, try twice a day.
- Consistency of practice is far more important than a session’s length. In other words, a ten minute session each day of the week is a far better approach than 2 thirty-five minute sessions in a week.
- After two weeks you can begin extending the length of each session, but only if you have become consistently comfortable with the practice. Move up to 15 minutes a session for the next two weeks.
- After that, either stay at 15 minutes a session, or at your discretion, increase the session length to one that feels right for you.
- If you are limber and have a history of sitting cross-legged, then do so.
- Sitting in a chair is fine, too, provided you don’t slouch.
- Either way, seat yourself comfortably with a straight but relaxed spine.
- Let you head rest comfortably on your neck. Move it around slightly till you find the sweet spot where there is no strain.
- Rest your hands, loosely clasped, in your lap.
- Gently close your eyes.
- If possible (that is if there are no nasal difficulties) breath only through your nose.
- Inside your mouth, rest the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth at the place where your upper two front teeth meet the gums. Again, no strain.
Finding your breath
- To begin, simply become aware of how you are breathing.
- Once you are familiar with your own particular breathing rhythm, gently focus on each breath. As you exhale, consciously relax and let go of the events of today, yesterday, and every day. Do this for two minutes.
- Now allow your breathing to settle into a gentle rhythm while you stay aware of its passage in and out of your body.
- When inhaling, trace your breath’s entire route, from your nostrils to wherever it goes inside your body.
- When exhaling, trace its entire route back out to your nostrils.
- If at first you can’t conjure up an awareness of your breath’s passage, instead imagine its route through your body.
- As you progress in following the breath’s journey back and forth, encourage yourself to feel it more and more while imagining it less and less.
- Persevere with this until you can really feel the breath traveling internally along its entire route.
- It may take a week, it may take much longer, but continue until you feel it all. You are doing your breath and yourself an enormous amount of good just persevering at this stage. Don’t move on until you can feel the passage of your breath without effort.
Deepening the breath
- Once you’ve become adept at feeling the extent of the breath’s entire route, you can proceed with deepening the breath.
- Now, as you trace your breath in and out and feel it at every step of the way, imagine the breath going a little beyond its last, deepest place.
- Don’t push it, and don’t strain. Imagine it first, and then on the next breath feel if it does indeed go deeper. Yes or no doesn’t matter. Alternate between imagining it going deeper, and seeing if you can feel it going deeper. Just stay aware of where the breath goes without any effort or strain.
- While doing this, never sacrifice your gentle breathing rhythm.
- Don’t try. Don’t frown. Don’t grit your teeth. Instead relax and let your breath, awareness, and imagination do it for you.
- Your ultimate destination for the breath is the lower abdomen. Yes, air can only fill the lungs, and the lungs stop far short of the lower abdomen. But what we are encouraging is not only a physical expansion of the breath, but also an energetic expansion as well. By sensing the breath moving down past the extremities of the physical lungs and diaphragm, you are also stimulating your body’s life force to grow and expand.
- Continue, persevere, and most importantly, release all tension.
- And it’s important not to rush any of this. There is no time agenda. The breathing will deepen of its own accord and at its own speed, as will your life force grow. Your job is to encourage it to do so, not try to push it.
The extended breath
- In time this practice will bring you to a point where your belly expands naturally with each inhalation.
- It is as if your inflowing breath first fills your belly, then your mid chest, and finally your upper chest. There is no effort to it and it is an extraordinarily pleasurable and relaxing process.
- And now that you are primarily using your belly to breathe, the chest breathing can begin to seem a little like an afterthought. Think back, though, to when it was all you did. What a distance you’ve come.
- The belly is now your center. It expands first in the front, then simultaneously at the left and right sides, then finally at the back around the kidneys. It is like waves at the seashore, endlessly ebbing and flowing, on and on forever.
- And you’ve arrived at this place not by gritting your teeth, but instead through gently focused intent and relaxation. It was a natural progression. The breath followed your imagination’s lead, your awareness and growing sense of the breath’s passage solidified and confirmed your progress, and the breath in turn responded by deepening naturally.
- As your belly naturally expands and contracts with each breath, you may now begin to feel a growing warmth in you lower abdomen. This is natural and also an excellent sign of progress. In Qigong terms the lower abdomen is a extraordinary energy center that both stores and creates potent life-force. Each belly breath adds to, and further stimulates, this energy center.
Where to now
With consistent practice, your energy, awareness, and sensitivity will continue to grow and strengthen. There is no end to it. And of course your day-to-day breathing will improve beyond recognition, a fact reflected in your growing health and sunny disposition.
Breathe deeply, be at one with yourself, and when given the chance, never hesitate to spread more light in the world. Your magical breath has now given you both the energy and sensitivity to do so.