Breath is central to who we are. Whether it relates to our ability to work, think, sleep, or interact with others, we might claim that the breath is the core pattern that drives all other patterns. After all, what other activity do we perform six to eight million times per year? Adapting the breath helps people change along with life. Learning to consciously engage with the breath enables people to tap into a central part of themselves.
History is full of examples of cultures connecting breath, soul, and spirit in one way or another. The Bible states that God breathed life into Adam. The Hindus spoke about atman. The Greeks spoke about pneuma. The Romans spoke about spiritus. The Hebrews spoke about ruach. The Chinese spoke about chi or qi. In Hawaii, outsiders were called haoles, translating to no breath or breathless.
In yoga we have the concept of prana, which is often translated as life force, energy, or vitality and is connected with the fourth step on the eightfold path, pranayama. Pranayama is often translated as breath control or breath mastery. We like to think of pranayama more in terms of breathing skills in general, primarily being able to use the breath as a resource for self-awareness and working from that awareness, the ability to adapt the breath to the situation. To explore that self-awareness through the breath, you have to identify, differentiate, and integrate your breath just like you do with any other movement.
How you breathe at any given time can enhance or detract from what you are trying to accomplish. Although most of the time breathing is an involuntary act, we can be mindful and skillful enough to make it a voluntary act. Chances are if you have never done breathing practices before, you will be shocked by how they effect immediate changes in your life experience. At first, it might be challenging to cultivate the attention needed to notice these changes; be patient as you explore. To become a skillful breather, you may first have to uncover and remove the obstacles between yourself and a free, adaptable breath. To do this, you need to go through a familiar process with your current breathing patterns.
To become a skillful breather, follow this process:
- Cultivate the discipline to observe your existing breathing habits (identification).
- Introduce new options (differentiation).
- Adapt your breath to support and enhance all of your activities (integration).
As you start the breathing exercises, remember that having options implies that you don’t do things in the same way over and over. Your nervous system will not become adaptable if you replicate a breath exploration or any other exploration without variety. The term exploration implies variation. Once you start to explore more options for breathing, it will become challenging at times to identify whether you are, in fact, doing what you think you are doing. As you explore, try to stay curious and playful. If you notice that you are creating unnecessary strain or tension in your body, stop the exercise, pause for a few moments to notice, and then start again with an attitude of curiosity and playfulness.
The positional breath exploration offers you the chance to adapt your breath to various positions. In this breath exploration, depending on your orientation and how well you are able to perceive your breath, you may be able to notice differences in how you breathe. Observe, play, and have fun!
The positional breath exploration also offers you the opportunity to understand how you engage with your breath and starts the process of making your breathing a more conscious act. The awareness that you gather from this exercise gives you a baseline understanding from which to begin to differentiate your breath and develop new breathing options.
1. Start in a reclined position on the floor, on a yoga mat, or on any firm surface that will provide tactile feedback about how your body is resting on the floor. Observe your breath without changing it. Be curious and don’t judge yourself.
- Where does your breath originate from? In the abdomen? Chest? Collarbones?
- Does your abdomen move up and out toward the ceiling as well as back and down into the floor?
- Does the rib cage move up and out toward the ceiling as well as back and down into the floor?
- Put your hands on the side of your body at your lower ribs (a). Can you feel expansion into your hands?
2. Roll over facedown, crossing your arms and allowing your forehead to rest on them (b). Now repeat the same observations that you made in the reclined position. How does the feedback change? Can you feel the expansion in the back of the torso a little more? Can you use the floor to give you more feedback about what is happening in the front of the body in the abdomen and rib cage?
3. Come up to standing (c), paying attention to how you use your breath in the transition from facedown to upright. Did you use your breath or did you hold it? Now repeat the same observations that you did in the other two positions. Where do you feel expansion when you breathe in? Where do you feel contraction when you breathe out? How did your perception of your breath change when you were standing? Was it more difficult for you to feel your breath without the floor to give you feedback?
4. Are you able to perceive that each change of position changes your potential experience of your breath? Acknowledge the breathing habits present in each of the positions.