Conscious breathing, also known as breath awareness, provides an intimate pathway into ourselves. Breath awareness is practiced in the world’s great spiritual traditions—including, among others, Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity—as part of an overall work of spiritual development and awakening. It is also practiced in many meditative, somatic, and therapeutic disciplines for health, self-discovery, and self-transformation. The effort to experience now and here that we are breathing beings in the face of the great mystery of existence is one of the most important efforts that we can undertake on behalf of our own physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being.
Since most of us are almost totally unaware of our breathing, conscious breathing should be the first step in any self-directed program of breathing work. By learning to be aware of our breath, by learning to follow the movements of our out-breath and in-breath consciously in ourselves without any kind of interference or manipulation, we can gain many new insights into the relationship of breathing to our own inner and outer lives.
As breath pioneer Ilse Middendorf writes, “The awareness of breath movement encompasses the physical experience as well as the true nature of the self as we unfold our vital force into the outer world. It is this breath that we allow to come and go on its own which sustains the basic rhythms of our life processes.”
Conscious breathing not only provides a solid foundation for all the other kinds of breathing work, but it is also, in itself, transformational. Conscious breathing helps us cultivate inner stillness and presence. It also helps us be present to ourselves without judgment or analysis. Through becoming aware of how we actually breathe from moment to moment, through sensing and feeling how our breath shapes and is shaped by our emotions, our attitudes, and our inner and outer tensions, we liberate the wisdom of our body and brain to bring about subtle beneficial changes without any ego manipulation on our part.
When you experiment with the following breath awareness practice, especially at the very beginning, be sure to work no more than fifteen to twenty minutes or so at a time in quiet conditions. As you gain more experience with simply following your breath for short periods of time in quiet conditions, you will find yourself becoming aware of your breath spontaneously at other moments throughout the day when it may really be important to do so—for example, in the midst of stressful circumstances. The very awareness of your breath in these circumstances, the ability to follow your breath and observe how it is related to your thoughts, emotions, movements, and postures will, by itself, gradually transform the way you face stress and other difficulties in your life.
Conscious Breathing Practice
Sit quietly now on a chair or cross-legged on a cushion, close your eyes, put your hands together on your lap or put the palms of your hands on your knees, and simply sense yourself sitting and breathing. Allow the actual sensation of your entire body to come to life. Using your sensory awareness, your ability to listen from the inside, take note of your weight on the cushion or chair, the tingling of your skin, the shape and configuration of your body, any muscular tensions, and so on—all at the same time.
Within this perceptual backdrop of a kind of global sensation of yourself, just note what moves in your body as you inhale and exhale. Include the sensation of the air moving into and out of your nose, or any other sensations associated with breathing. If thoughts or feelings or judgments arise about how you could be breathing better, simply include them in your awareness and let them go—instantaneously. Don’t dwell on them or act on them in any way. Don’t try to improve your breathing. Just follow and sense whatever you can of your breath through all the internal sensations, movements, and pulsations of your body.
When you’re ready, stop all your efforts, and simply enjoy yourself sitting there and breathing. Can you begin to sense yourself now as a breathing being?
When you’re finished, just get up and do whatever needs to be done next. During the rest of the day, check in with yourself every couple of hours and note how you are breathing. Just sense and observe. Don’t try to change your breathing in any way.
As you become more aware of how you breathe in the various conditions of your life, of how, for instance, your breath speeds up in stressful circumstances and of how and where it tightens, or how you often unconsciously hold your breath in various emotional states, the light of awareness will by itself begin to alter your breathing in a safe, healthy, and natural way.
Copyright 2004-2015 by Dennis Lewis. These passages from Free Your Breath, Free Your Life (Shambhala Publications, Chapter One, “Ways of Working with Your Breath”) may not be reproduced in any form for any commercial purpose without the written consent of the author or publisher.