Breath Awareness: A Guide to This Simple Yet Profound Practice

February 20, 2016    BY Rolf Sovik
Yoga Breathing

"Breathing in progress here.” I saw this notice attached to a friend’s computer recently. Susan had decided to take daily relaxation breaks by focusing on breathing, and the little sign served as a reminder. Breath awareness—observing the flow of breathing—had become an important part of her life.

Susan is not alone. For centuries, individuals from every culture have been drawn to the practice of breath awareness. Why? In a lecture given to students of the Zen tradition, the master Yasutani-Roshi (1885-1973) gave this explanation: “There are many good methods of concentration bequeathed to us by our predecessors in Zen. The easiest for beginners is counting incoming and outgoing breaths. The value of this particular exercise lies in the fact that all reasoning is excluded and the discriminative mind put at rest. Thus the waves of thought are stilled and a gradual one-pointedness of mind achieved.”

Yasutani-Roshi guided students in a variety of techniques for practicing breath awareness, beginning with counting the breaths and culminating in the instruction to stop counting and begin “trying to experience each breath clearly.”

The practice of watching the breath was widely advocated by early Christian teachers as well. For example, the orthodox abbot Saint Hesychios (eighth century) described the practice of watchfulness (the equivalent of awareness), and then linked it to breathing: “Every monk will be uncertain about his spiritual work until he has achieved watchfulness.... Watchfulness is the heart’s stillness and, when free from mental images, it is the guarding of the intellect.... With your breathing combine watchfulness.”

Breath awareness is also thoroughly integrated into the yoga tradition. It plays a role in every aspect of practice, from the performance of asanas to meditation. In fact, breath awareness is so important that it is not unusual for instructors to claim that without it, yoga is not yoga.

With such impressive credentials, you might imagine that breath awareness training centers would have sprung up everywhere. But the reality is that training in breath awareness is often disorganized, and rarely brought to the lofty outcomes described by traditional masters. So let’s take a look at breath awareness systematically, and create a map for the journey.

First Steps of Yogic Breathing

Try this experiment. Bring your breathing into your awareness and follow it much like you might follow a long volley in a tennis game. As the breath flows out and in, learn to sense the experience of breathing and the small variations that take place in breath flow. Notice whether your breathing is comfortable or uncomfortable. Change your posture. Feel the sensation of breath in your new position. Notice any sighing or unusual breaths. Don’t be alarmed by them—just notice them. The next time you are walking, watch your breath again. Out and in; out and in. You will soon find that you can observe your breathing in any situation you choose.

In yoga two reclining postures are used to simplify the early stages of breath training: savasana (the corpse pose), done in a supine posture, and makarasana (the crocodile), done lying on the stomach. Use the supine pose to observe relaxed abdominal breathing. To observe deep, diaphragmatic breathing, use the crocodile pose.

Be sure to be aware of your breathing under less than perfect conditions. Climb a long flight of stairs—then watch. Swim underwater; watch your breath in the shower when water is flowing over your face; drive on a gravel road—behind a truck—with the windows open. Your goal is to observe your breathing with a certain detachment. You are becoming the student of your own breath, and you will learn how resilient and accommodating your breathing really is.

Your goal is to observe your breathing with a certain detachment.

Yoga Breath Training

Few of us have been trained to breathe correctly, but an understanding of the mechanisms underlying relaxed breathing will help you mold the breath and reduce unnecessary tension. Here’s a list of the basic characteristics. 

Optimal yoga breathing is:

  • diaphragmatic
  • nasal
  • deep
  • smooth
  • even
  • without sound
  • without pause

Periods of breath awareness in the reclining poses will allow you to examine each of these key habits and to make healthy adjustments in your breathing. You will need to implement your new skills in sitting and standing postures as well. But it’s not necessary to labor over the task. Changes in breathing result from discoveries made over time rather than during a single session. A regular practice is the key.

Breathing and the Working Point

The point of equilibrium between the body’s need for air and the supply is itself in a constant state of adjustment. For that reason it has been called the “working point”—the body’s dynamic effort to balance metabolic needs with breathing. The working point shifts from moment to moment, and ranges from quiescent to highly aroused—when muscle cells are active they require more air, and therefore the breath “works” at a more aroused level. Exercise places the most obvious demands on breathing and has the most noticeable effect on the working point. But this point is also altered by simple, everyday events. Changes in posture, shifts of attention from one task (for example, reading) to another (answering the phone), or simply talking, alter the working point.

Stress and emotional tensions affect the breath as well. During periods of anxiety, for example, the working point becomes aroused in response to danger. Pressures to get work done, to manage difficult relationships, or to resolve personal problems also affect breathing and the working point. What is more, even after mental conflicts have been resolved, breathing tensions often remain. As daily stresses accumulate in the body and mind, the breath becomes increasingly strained, and the working point remains unnecessarily aroused.

For my friend Susan, practicing breath awareness at her desk began with her recognition of the need to relax her breath. And she knew that by spending a few moments observing it, she could consciously alter her working point and calm her breath, thus restoring its smooth, deep flow. By so doing she could prevent tension from accumulating, and reduce emotional and physical fatigue.

Susan’s insights were largely the result of experiences in breath awareness she had been having away from her desk. At home, she was practicing meditation. During these sessions she prolonged the duration of her breath awareness—using an increasingly refined technique which further quieted the working point. And the stiller the working point, the more heightened the awareness. This taught her valuable lessons about herself. Read through the following exercise and give it a try.

Breath Awareness in Meditation

Begin by sitting comfortably erect on a cushion, bench, or chair. Close your eyes, and spend a few minutes resting your body. Soften the sides of the lower rib cage as well as the abdominal wall. This will allow the breath to flow deeply.

Notice a cleansing sensation as you breathe out, and a nourishing sensation as you breathe in. Let your breath flow without pause. Patiently allow the relaxed movement of your breathing to become smooth. It will probably take a number of minutes for you to sense that it is effortless. This is the sign that you are ready to continue.

Next, relax from your head down to your toes, and from your toes back to your head. Move your attention slowly through your body, softening and releasing tensions. When you have returned to the crown of your head, sense your entire body, and breathe as if your whole body breathes. Again, patiently follow the effortless flow of your breath without expectation. As time passes, just continue to observe the breath.

Finally, bring your awareness to the touch of the breath in the nostrils. The transition from breathing as if the whole body breathes to breath awareness in the nostrils is natural and comfortable, but it will take a few minutes to complete. Patiently bring your attention back to the touch of the breath whenever the mind wanders off. Over a number of practice sessions train yourself to maintain your focus, with no break in your awareness or your breathing. Don’t expect your mind to stop thinking—it won’t. Simply maintain breath awareness.

Let the thoughts that arise in your mind come and go. Do not make them the focus of your attention, but do not turn them into your enemy, either. Simply do not give them energy. With quiet determination rest your awareness on the touch of the breath in the nostrils. As you continue, your experience of breath awareness will deepen. Your breath will become deeply relaxing, and you will observe changes in the state of your awareness. These quiet changes are an important accompaniment to your concentration and signal that breath awareness has nearly completed its inner work.

Let the thoughts that arise in your mind come and go. Do not make them the focus of your attention, but do not turn them into your enemy, either.

The Mind and Senses

Yoga philosophers say that a human being has five cognitive senses: smell, taste, sight, touch, and hearing, as well as a sixth sense, the mind. Energy flows outward through these senses, each of which is seeking objects of pleasure. Of the six, the mind is the most subtle and insistent because it gathers pleasures through all the other senses, as well as through its own source of pleasure, imagination.

When the senses have come to rest we have attained pratyahara, or withdrawal of the senses, which is the fifth limb of raja yoga. It is rarely described in books, because it is purely experiential, and it is not uncommon to mistake the extremely relaxing quality of this stage for a highly advanced, meditative state. Even the modest stages of pratyahara to be described here are deeply pacifying.

As you continue to maintain your breath awareness at the nostrils, the process of pratyahara will begin. And just as in the earlier stages of practice, patient attention to the breath over time will bring about the desired result.

When concentration is sustained, the senses of smell, taste, sight, and hearing become increasingly dormant. The touch of the breath, which is now a subtle sensation within the nose, becomes the refined object of attention. Sensations of touch recede from awareness, just as passing sounds in a room seem to disappear when you are listening to the words of someone important to you. Thus the five cognitive senses are almost completely withdrawn.

Because the mind, the sixth sense, is being used as an instrument through which attention is focused, energy is not subverted to other distracting thoughts, and this automatically initiates withdrawal of the mental sense. Because of your will and determination, imagination does not carry you away. The mind’s agitation is quieted and desires are calmed. The working point is still. The depth of this process depends upon the constancy of your breath awareness, of course, but if you gradually increase the time you devote to your practice, pratyahara will unfold.

The Heart’s Stillness

We have followed our map to nearly the end of the journey. Quiet states of breath awareness soon pass beyond words. They have their own logic, and intuition is the best guide to pursuing them once they have been established.

Desires do unfailingly return—reminders of the importance of regular practice—but when they are absent, and the imagination calmed, then Saint Hesychios’ words seem perfectly chosen: “Watchfulness is the heart’s stillness and, when free from mental images, it is the guarding of the intellect.” That’s breath awareness in brief.

The path of breath awareness can lead you a long way. If it appeals to you after all this you might consider, like Susan, posting some sort of sign as a reminder to practice. How about: “With your breathing combine watchfulness.”

Rolf Sovik
President and Spiritual Director of the Himalayan Institute and a clinical psychologist in private practice, Rolf Sovik has studied yoga in the United States, India, and Nepal. He holds degrees in philosophy, music, Eastern studies, and clinical psychology. Former Co-Director of the Himalayan Institute of Buffalo, NY he began his practice of yoga in 1972, and was initiated as a pandit in the Himalayan tradition in 1987. He is the author of Moving Inward, co-author of the award-winning Yoga:... Read more>>

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