Breathing is the first thing we do when we are born and the last thing that stops when we die. Breathing is essential to living, yet we hardly ever talk about it. It happens so naturally that we don’t actually perceive that we are doing it.
A human being can live without food for a long time, without water for a much shorter time, but can hardly survive more than a few minutes without oxygen. We keep ourselves busy with our meals and drinks every day, because we have to take care of that ourselves. However, we do not pay attention to whether or not we breathe enough, because inhaling and exhaling air is so automatic that we do not give it a second thought. Unless … we exercise intensively, have a lung disease or suffer the effects of living in a place where the air is polluted … but those are other subjects.
In any case, breathing is something extraordinary. This is how I experienced it when I began practising yoga on my own in my teens. Encouraged by the founder of yoga in the Netherlands, Dr. Rama Polderman, whose first book on the subject I read with great interest, I began to practice ásanas (= yoga poses).
He also gave instructions for various breathing exercises called pranayama [‘ayama’=extending and ‘prana’=vital energy]. Prana is what (yogic) breathing is all about, prana you breathe in and out. It is life energy: that universal or cosmic energy, which we also know by the Chinese term Chi.
In my early yoga years – I was about 16 or 17 years old – I learned to experience conscious breathing as beneficial. For the first time I was spiritually touched . This was possible partly because I had the time and space to do so. In all honesty, I will tell you that in later years, that skill of conscious breathing slipped away from me again.
But the sweet memory remained. Over the course of my life, I delved into multiple breathing systems. Fascinating books about the breath came out, books that all had something to offer. Sometimes I practiced according to the instructions in such a book. Yet I am still in search of those truly enlightening breath experiences.
I recently decided to tackle this, developing an approach in which I distinguish four phases of breath awareness. Firstly, becoming aware of when your breath is inadequate; secondly, consciously doing certain exercises in response to this awareness; thirdly, noticing the benefits of performing these exercises; fourthly, coming closer to your essence. As you become more aware of your breath, you return to the first phase.
I have illustrated this in a diagram: a circle with a horizontal and vertical axis. If you look closely, you’ll see that there is an interaction between your physical and psychological aspects. In the first and third phase you are focused on experiencing your body, in the second and fourth phase it is mainly your mind that plays a role.
1. When does your breathing fail? Too many distractions, one after the other, or at the same time, make a person hold their breath. This leads to irregular breathing, tension in the muscles of your respiratory system, as well as tension in your diaphragm and abdomen.
2. When you consciously focus – by whatever method – on regular, relaxed breathing, your mind calms down, you are less bothered by ‘mind-chatter’, and distractions have less of a hold on you.
3. This has an effect on your whole body, which will respond to the exercises as a whole. A part of the nervous system takes over and will amplify the effects: you may be touched by an unexpected sense of well-being.
4. At such moments you can better feel and experience who you really are. You may reach what is permanent in you, your essence. This experience encourages you to continue with the exercises in order to perceive your essence again and again.
There is much more to be said about the breath, but I’ll save that for another time.
For now, I would like to draw your attention to a recently (2020) published book titled ‘Breath’, by James Nestor. It is exciting to read, goes into exhaustive detail about numerous aspects of breathing, and provides a whole series of breathing exercises in the appendix.