How Breath Awareness Will Change Your Life

April 28, 2015    BY Donna Farhi

When we are still in the womb—an expanding, condensing rhythm, threaded together by moments of pause. It is the pulse of the universe, and from the moment of conception we are that. While we are in our mother’s body, the breath is an interior movement, a process of shimmering cellular respiration. At the moment of birth, when we first breathe into the lungs, we are initiated into the family of things. Suddenly the world is in us and we are in the world. We draw the breath inside the body, for a moment it becomes us, and we exhale a part of what has become us back into the world. While we are young we tend to breathe with the kind of complete freedom and ease that is an expression of our innocence and fearlessness. As we age and lose some of that innocence, rubbing up against life’s challenges, we unconsciously shut down, and we do this first and foremost by constricting our breath.

For the most part the process of breathing is an unconscious one, which is just as well. None of us would like to stay up all night reminding ourselves to breathe in and out, nor would we have much room for creative thought during the day if we did. But when our breath becomes unconsciously restricted and held, then it can be useful to make this involuntary process conscious. In yoga practice we do this so we can become aware of our most basic level of aliveness, and as our practice progresses we use a heightened awareness of the breath to train the mind to remain steady with our immediate experience.

Unconsciously restricting the breath indicates that we are out of kilter with life itself. When we hold the breath it is an unconscious attempt to refuse or control our experience. We may get into such a habit of doing this that our breath becomes shallow and we go through the day alternately suffocating and sighing deeply to recover. Or we may be so conscious of our figure that we chronically contract our belly, causing the breath to move high and tight into the chest. Our breath may become uneven, moving in fits and starts as we alternately open and close to our experience.

When we hold the breath it is an unconscious attempt to refuse or control our experience.

I often ask my beginning students to make a note for a week of how often they discover themselves holding their breath. Some return a week later flabbergasted. “I hold my breath when I talk, eat, cook, and make the bed.” Unless our breathing pattern is caused by a health problem, almost always this holding of the breath represents an unconscious desire for certainty. We hold onto life, and in a sense we hold out on life. And then, of course, life holds out on us.

So just notice how often you close to your most basic connection to life. This will be an invaluable aid in helping you to move back into the stream of life once again. Our next challenge is to allow this ebb and flow to move through us—to gently retrain the breath to become smooth and even once again, and to adapt our breath moment-to-moment to support our activities. We amplify this process by creating a steady even breath while we are practicing asanas. As we come up against the discomfort of tight muscles or challenging positions, we learn to soften and breathe into our tightness or breathe through our difficulty. When an upsetting emotion arises during meditation, we learn to give this feeling room by allowing our breath to rise and fall. This teaches us that while we cannot control what is going to happen to us, we can control our response. We can choose to open up or to shut down, to soften or to harden.

We can then transpose what we learn on the mat into our everyday activities. When we get furious and we’re about to say something damaging, we pause and steady our breathing. When we’re excited, depressed, annoyed, or impatient, we also pause and steady our breathing. When we’re in a state of shock or panic, we instinctively know to steady our breathing. This doesn’t mean that we necessarily stop feeling shocked or impatient, but that through the breath we become aware that there is a neutral background to our feelings and emotions. Consciously making our breath steady at such a time isn’t about suppressing our feelings; it is about understanding that every high and every low arises out of and returns back to a potent neutral place. The point is not to control the breath or to control the situation but to use the regular, metronome-like availability of our breath to remind us of the place inside us that is always steady. The breath then becomes like a companion that is always reminding us of who we are.

Some years ago I was called to a local hospital by a student whose partner had sustained a severe back injury. She explained as she drove me to the hospital that the doctors had tried four different painkillers, but after almost three hours her husband was still on all fours and unable to move. When we arrived I could see that Len was in a state of panic and that while being on all fours was excruciating, any attempt to lie down caused even more pain. He felt helpless. I gently put my hands on his lower back and asked him to breathe slowly into my hands. The practice of focusing on his breath took his attention away from his growing panic and gradually eased the pain. Soon his back was rising ever so slightly with each inhalation and dropping with each exhalation. I encouraged him to give himself over to the gentle movement of his breath. To his surprise, within minutes he was able to lie on his side and then on his back. Within an hour we had him safely home. Sadly, it had not occurred to any of the doctors or nurses to help Len in this way. But more important, it had not occurred to Len.

If we use our time on the mat to practice staying with our experience, breathing and opening to each new sensation, whether pleasant or unpleasant, this skill will automatically be there for us when we encounter difficulties in our everyday life. If we haven’t developed this skillfulness in the hothouse conditions of practice, then when push comes to shove, like Len, we’ll freeze and leave ourselves incapacitated to act skillfully. A friend once related how his piano teacher had entered him in a performance without his permission. He showed up for the concert dressed in a flannel shirt and jeans to discover that she had arranged for the two of them to play a duet. The other performers were dressed in formal attire, and he did not believe himself accomplished enough to share the stage with them. Embarrassment turned to anger, which turned to panic. Then he remembered the practice of calming his breath. Gradually the stage fright subsided, and once he calmed down he could see that his teacher was trying to help him. He was not thrilled, but he went ahead and did the best he could in a tight situation.

Most of us find ourselves in tight situations on a regular basis. We’ve had a fight with our partner and we’re getting the cold and silent treatment. We get cut off in traffic, or the toilet overflows right before a dinner party, or we’re ready to scream because we have three sick kids and one of them has just thrown up on our lap. These are times when we can use our breath to open up and ventilate the situation. We can make a little more room around our experience and in doing so gain some perspective.

We can gain this perspective by using an awareness of our breath to divide our experience into manageable increments. This is how we begin to discipline reality. Or more accurately, we discipline ourselves to choose reality instead of something else that appears more appealing or less painful. While we cannot for one moment stop the world to let us off, we can practice deliberately simplifying our experience by just breathing in and out, letting our breath move low and slow. Imagine how difficult it would be to understand a film played at high speed, and you have some sense of the hurricane-like speed with which the mind functions. While it is impossible to stop this movement, through daily training we can slow the film down so we are seeing reality frame by frame and thus beginning to distinguish one moment, thought, or feeling from another. More important, we discover that like a reel of film, with its tiny blank spaces between each image, a seamless and neutral continuity lies behind our changing thoughts. Over time we can consciously shift our attention from the entertainment of passing images to the calm of the neutral background.

We can gain this perspective by using an awareness of our breath to divide our experience into manageable increments.

Whether we’re sitting in formal meditation, practicing a yoga asana, or stuck in traffic, we can remind ourselves where and how we actually are. As we breathe in and out, we learn to attend to that which arises in one breath cycle and no more. Because the breath is one of the rare constants of life, we can use it as a metronome to delineate our experience. This is a profound practice—simple but not easy. The mind can drift with astonishing rapidity to past events, and before we know it we’re thinking about what we should have said to so-and-so (if only we’d had the presence of mind at the time) and what they would have said back and how we would have countered it. Before we know it, we’ve spent thirty minutes living out a full-scale soap opera in our heads with all the attendant feelings of rage and self-righteousness, not to mention the body tension that accompanies those feelings. Or we start fantasizing about the man sitting next to us at the meditation retreat, and by the end of the week we’ve gone through a courtship, romance, marriage, and divorce without even knowing his name. At times like this we can catch ourselves and say, “Well, the truth is, I’m just sitting here on this cushion breathing in and out.” Or, “The truth is, I’m stuck in traffic, there’s nothing I can do about it, and I’m breathing in and out.” We can do this without beating ourselves up or being critics. We can have a sense of humor about our phantasmagoric ramblings as we remind ourselves for the thousandth time that there’s something more basic to attend to. Over time we catch ourselves sooner, we come back to the moment more easily, and we become less invested in entertaining ourselves with fantasy.

As we look deeper into this practice of dividing our experience into increments, we may discover the subtle ways in which we veer away from our immediate reality. While my students are holding a difficult yoga posture, I often ask them what they are thinking. If we could script this inner monologue, it might sound something like this:

I wonder when we’re going to come out of this pose. I don’t think I can hold my arms out to the side until the thirteenth breath. Everyone else seems to be doing better than me. I wish I hadn’t signed up for this class. I like the forward bends better. Boy, my arms are going to be sore tomorrow! I’ll take a hot bath when I get home. I wonder if there’s still any ice cream left in the freezer. If my roommate has eaten it all I’m going to...

Our experience becomes more and more difficult and increasingly dramatic as we try to steer around it. Meanwhile, if we could place ourselves more securely in the moment, we might find it quite pleasant and easily manageable. We might discover that while our arms feel tired, attention to our body might offer a better way to hold our arms up. When we learn to catch ourselves anticipating disasters or feeling righteous over past hurts, we can bring ourselves back to this moment and make our lives a whole lot simpler.

Our experience becomes more and more difficult and increasingly dramatic as we try to steer around it.

As we become more accustomed to this practice, we may start to notice that the breath is coming from somewhere. At the end of our exhalation there is a brief pause before the next breath arises. Curiously, this pause, of itself, is devoid of movement, thought, and sensation. The breath arises out of this pause and dissolves back into it. Gradually, as we train the mind to follow this progression, we develop a heightened appreciation for the value of this pause. It is the window into a field of silence that lies beneath the breath and is always present as a backdrop to the breath. Not only is this field of silence a backdrop to the breath, it is the backdrop to all our thoughts, feelings, and sensations. By training our awareness to appreciate that there is something that does not move, we begin to practice the fifth limb of Ashtanga Yoga, pratyahara. Although often translated as “withdrawal of the senses,” pratyahara is more accurately understood as “the movement of the mind toward silence rather than toward things.” The practice of pratyahara prepares us to focus the mind on one thing at a time and, with training, to sustain this one-pointed focus under all conditions.

There is nothing wrong with thinking, feeling, planning, or remembering. This is what the mind does. Thinking is not a problem. Many educated people who have spent their entire lives developing their minds balk at the idea of emptying the mind. If we imagine the mind as a neutral ground of awareness, it goes without saying that this ground of awareness will be richly embellished with all we’ve been taught, with our memories, and with our life experience. This is not a problem either. Some of those things may be useful to us, like remembering our times tables, the meaning of words, or, more practically, our home address. The point of training the mind to return to this neutral ground of awareness is to open to each moment from a fresh place. Then whatever we know from our experience that is necessary to the moment will percolate up. This is how we can respond more creatively to life’s challenges. If, however, we are always caught up in our fixed reference points and our contextual theories, we cannot respond from a fresh place. The breath is our most tangible way of gaining access to this effulgent resource. All we need do is follow one exhalation all the way down until the last whisper leaves the body, and there it is—that wonderful pause letting us know there is a neutral place from which to make a new beginning.

The degree to which the mind is preoccupied with memories of the past and fantasies of the future is the degree to which we cannot reside in the present moment. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this stream-of-consciousness mind that bounces back and forth time traveling. However, in truth none of these past or future events exist. As long as our primary participation is with some other moment, our immediate experience will always be eclipsed. We go for a walk in the forest, and we’re too busy thinking about our business problems to notice the freshness in the air and the smell of pine. We sit down to work at our desk, and we start to fantasize about that hike in the woods we have planned. Instead of seeing how things actually are, we continue to see them as they once were or as we imagine they will be.

In questioning one of my students who comes to me with chronic back pain, I ask, “Are there any moments in the day when you do not feel this pain?”

“No, I feel this pain all the time.”

Later as the class progresses, I ask, “How is your back feeling right now?”

“It feels good in this position.”

“So there is a moment when you are not in pain.”

“No, I have back pain all the time!”

Sometimes it can take many rounds of this kind of questioning for a person to realize how his experience has become fixed. As he begins to identify the moments when he is not in pain, he is then able to ask, “What am I doing right now that leads me to this pain-free experience? How exactly am I standing that gives me relief? At what point did I begin to feel ease?” And, “Can I enjoy this pain-free moment, however brief a respite?” As the mind becomes more aerated, it can begin to discern the details of an experience and to see that there is no experience that is permanent and intransigent.

And therein lies the key. For the moment we begin to participate fully with the present moment, we discover that with every breath we are changing. We notice that when we drink a cup of tea it is not the same at the beginning as at the end. The aroma is strongest when the tea is first poured. We can appreciate that moment. The first sip is the hottest. We appreciate that moment. As we get to the bottom of the cup, the tea is cool. We appreciate that moment. Now we’re left with the swirl of tea leaves in the bottom of the cup. We can take in that moment. Working with discrete increments of awareness gives us the ability to separate and define our day-to-day experience as multidimensional rather than the smear of consciousness that is the product of the untrained mind. Rather than all the colors running together in a blob, each and every color stands out distinctly and vividly. This lucid consciousness is characterized by a complete arousal of all the senses, which is at once blissful and satisfying.

For the moment we begin to participate fully with the present moment, we discover that with every breath we are changing.

The habitual untrained mind, however, rarely functions in this way. Rather it perceives things in a largely undifferentiated way, mashing together feelings, thoughts, and sensations into seemingly permanent forms and immutable conclusions. Past, present, and future fuse in a drunken blur so that we cannot separate what was then and what is now. This ownership of a fixed identity prevents us from experiencing how we are changing. To discipline reality does not mean that we manipulate our perceptions to make them better or to control them. Quite the opposite. We discipline ourselves to notice that our reality is changing all the time, instead of forcing our perceptions and experiences to conform to our fixed sense of things.

When we bring ourselves back to the moment by steadying our breath, we ask the mind to sit up. If the mind were a dog, it should have its ears pricked. It doesn’t matter what kind of practice we choose. We can use incremental awareness when we are making dinner, getting the kids ready for school, driving in hectic traffic, or holding a challenging yoga posture.

What does this incremental awareness afford us? First of all, it allows us to reclaim the joy of everyday experiences. We become actualists instead of theorists or fantasists. We stop choosing for or against our experience on the assumption that it should somehow be different than it is. Once we drop these assumptions, we can start choosing to open ourselves to all of our experience, both pleasant and unpleasant. This choice allows us to become intimate with the breadth and depth of our humanity.

There is nothing heroic we need do in our yoga practice to bring about this clear vision. Coming back to our breath increases our threshold for being with ourselves and the moment. Through this awareness we learn how to stay with ourselves and to stay with our practice. This increased capacity for being with ourselves is the only way to gain access to our inner atman, our inner wisdom nature. Until we have developed this capacity we will be unable to establish our own personal yoga practice. It is through such a practice that the design of our lives can reveal itself to us one breath at a time.

From the book Bringing Yoga to Life: The Everyday Practice of Enlightened Living by Donna Farhi. Copyright © 2003. Published by arrangement with HarperSanFrancisco.

Donna Farhi
Donna Farhi is a Yoga teacher who has been practicing for 35 years and teaching since 1982. She is one of the most sought after guest teachers in the world, leading intensives and teacher training programs internationally. Donna is best known for her unique ability to help students and teachers embody their spiritual practice. Her work focuses on the refinement of natural and universal movement principles that underlie all Yoga practice. This concentration on fundamental principles allows... Read more>>

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