~ awake in this moment, at home in the world ~

Getting Started with the Breath

May 7, 2020
For thousands of years, spiritual adepts the world over have offered the breath as a powerful resource that can help us cultivate health and happiness in body, mind and spirit.

In traditions ranging from India's yoga to China's qigong, the breath is viewed as an outer manifestation of the inner flow of vital energy - called prana in India and qi (or chi) in China. These traditions use the breath to clear and brighten the flow of life as it pours through the entire universe, including us.

The breath can be used to help calm the body, steady the mind and regulate vital energy as it courses through us. The breath also serves as a bridge between our outer and inner worlds, between conscious and autonomic behaviors, and between the self and the greater world.

Even the English language acknowledges this link between breath and the energy of the greater world. The Latin word for breath - spirare - is the same root for the word spirit. When we breathe in, we are inspired as the world's vital spirit is drawn into us. Isn't that beautiful?

There are many ways to harness the power of the breath to cultivate wellbeing. Strategies range from simply watching the gentle flow of inhalations and exhalations all the way to manipulating the breath into strong and deep patterns that help promote physical, mental and emotional health.

The breath can serve as a faithful friend to help steady a wandering mind. The breath can be shaped in different ways to cultivate wakefulness or to foster relaxation. The breath can be used to help cultivate physical strength and stamina. And the breath can serve as a soothing metronome to help steady our hectic lives.

The simplest breathing practices use the breath as an anchor for our awareness, gently guiding the mind into a steadier and clearer state. Many meditation traditions, for example, use the breath in this way. We are invited to rest our awareness with the natural flow of breath and it pours into and out of us. The dependable rhythm of the breath - always with us and always available - helps steady the mind and calm the nervous system. The practice of resting the awareness with the breath is often offered as a gateway to deeper states of meditation, tranquility and union with all of life.

Movement practices like hatha yoga and qigong also employ the breath to help cultivate steadiness and vitality. The movements are often accompanied by particular breathing patterns that help maximize the benefits of the practices. The movements themselves also reshape the breath into more natural and healthful patterns.

Yoga and other traditions also offer more structured practices where the breath is consciously guided into various patterns that aim to clear and cleanse the body, mind and spirit. In yoga, these breathing exercises are called pranayama, and they range from lengthening and slowing the breath all the way to inhaling and exhaling in a ballistic fashion of up to a hundred breaths per minute. Many of these exercises are considered advanced and should be practiced under the guidance of an experienced teacher.

Even western medicine now acknowledges the link between the breath and wellbeing. Scientists have discovered what wellness traditions have been telling us for centuries: Our breath can be used to help lower blood pressure, improve cardiac functioning, calm the nervous system, and more. 

This site includes some of my favorite explorations that help us dive deeper into the world of conscious breathing. Years ago I wrote a breathing primer for Yoga Journal, and if you'd like to learn more, that article might be a good place to start. I've also created a Mindful Breathing album with four guided audio practices that use the breath to calm and steady the mind.

This site also includes an article about the way different yoga traditions approach the breath, an answer the question "What is the right way to breathe?" and a primer on breathing for relaxation. Or, if you'd like to move a bit while exploring the breath, try this simple movement and breathing sequence. And if all else fails, you can even gain the benefits of breathing by singing out!