The way of experience begins with a breath
such as the breath you are breathing now.
Awakening into the luminous reality
may dawn in the momentary throb
between any two breaths.
The Breath as Lifeforce
You may wonder why I chose to use this particular image to talk about a breathing exercise. If we stop breathing, what happens? Simply speaking: breath is life.
It is no wonder that the word breath and spirit or lifeforce are the same in many languages: pneuma, spiritus, prana, and ruah to name a few. Whether you view breath in the spiritual metaphor of art, as in the image above, scripture, as in the quotes above, or in the spiritual metaphor of science – ultimately it is all the same. It is just a matter of which perspective you revere more. Maybe one day people will see that each of these perspectives is as valid as the other, but until then let’s work with the physiology of our breath.
Breath and Awareness
In staying with the perspective that breath and life are inextricably linked, it is not too far-off to say that breath and awareness are also linked. One of the best ways to to begin fine-tuning your awareness is through breathwork. By simply becoming more aware of ourselves, we can change our entire outlook on life. This is not new age or cliché – it is a fact. I have already talked about how diaphragmatic breathing engages our rest and digest response, but what exactly does this mean?
First of all, it means that our entire system slows itself down – the benefits of which are lost to our harried, fast-paced culture. We have fallen under the deadly spell of faster is better, meanwhile suffering all of the consequences of that lifestyle: digestive problems (heartburn, stomach ulcers, ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel, etc), increase in heart attacks in people under 40, anxiety, insomnia, migraines, anger issues, attention deficit disorder – need I go on, much less bring up how we treat each other in public? I mean, seriously, driving to work or shopping should not be an act of war. Last of all, the rest and digest response strengthens our immune system, relaxes our muscles, and releases endorphins (our endogenous opiates – who needs drugs?).
I am here to say, based on personal experience, that a little deep breathing goes a very long way. I challenge you to honestly try this exercise twice a day for one week and not change something about yourself.
- Take a deep breath in through the nose, filling your belly first and keep inhaling until you run out of room. Hold for 5 seconds and release with an open mouth like you are going to clean your sunglasses. Push it all the way out, drawing your belly toward the spine until you run out of space. Do this a few times.
- Take the next breath in more slowly and more controlled, listening to yourself as you inhale. Hold it again – longer if you can. Exhale slowly, but this time with your mouth closed and again with control. Do this a few times.
- On this next breath, I want you to inhale slowly and deeply and continue the inhale, drinking in last few sips of air until the breath turns on its own to exhale. Follow it down slowly, pushing it out and deep into the lower abdomen and again, wait until it turns on its own to rise and inhale again. Keep doing that for a few more breaths.
- Now, let’s turn the phrase around. You are not going to take a breath in. Realize your breath is a gift that should not be taken for granted. Allow the breath to take you in. Follow it as deeply into the turns as you can, paying attention to space between each breath.
If you want to know more about how meditation can actually change the structure of your brain, then read my other article on how meditation can change the world.