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Conscious Breathing: An Experiment in Breath Awareness

June 21, 2010
Free Your Breath, Free your Life

Free Your Breath, Free your Life

Conscious breathing, also known as breath awareness, provides an intimate pathway into ourselves. Breath awareness is practiced in the world’s great spiritual traditions—including, among others, Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity—as part of an overall work of spiritual development and awakening. It is also practiced in many meditative, somatic, and therapeutic disciplines for health, self-discovery, and self-transformation. The effort to experience now and here that we are breathing beings in the face of the great mystery of existence is one of the most important efforts that we can undertake on behalf of our own physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being.

Since most of us are almost totally unaware of our breathing, conscious breathing should be the first step in any self-directed program of breathing work. By learning to be aware of our breath, by learning to follow the movements of our out-breath and in-breath consciously in ourselves without any kind of interference or manipulation, we can gain many new insights into the relationship of breathing to our own inner and outer lives.

As breath pioneer Ilse Middendorf writes, “The awareness of breath movement encompasses the physical experience as well as the true nature of the self as we unfold our vital force into the outer world. It is this breath that we allow to come and go on its own which sustains the basic rhythms of our life processes.”

Conscious breathing not only provides a solid foundation for all the other kinds of breathing work, but it is also, in itself, transformational. Conscious breathing helps us cultivate inner stillness and presence. It also helps us be present to ourselves without judgment or analysis. Through becoming aware of how we actually breathe from moment to moment, through sensing and feeling how our breath shapes and is shaped by our emotions, our attitudes, and our inner and outer tensions, we liberate the wisdom of our body and brain to bring about subtle beneficial changes without any ego manipulation on our part.

When you experiment with the following breath awareness practice, especially at the very beginning, be sure to work no more than fifteen to twenty minutes or so at a time in quiet conditions. As you gain more experience with simply following your breath for short periods of time in quiet conditions, you will find yourself becoming aware of your breath spontaneously at other moments throughout the day when it may really be important to do so—for example, in the midst of stressful circumstances. The very awareness of your breath in these circumstances, the ability to follow your breath and observe how it is related to your thoughts, emotions, movements, and postures will, by itself, gradually transform the way you face stress and other difficulties in your life.

Sit quietly now on a chair or cross-legged on a cushion, close your eyes, put your hands together on your lap or put the palms of your hands on your knees, and simply sense yourself sitting and breathing. Allow the actual sensation of your entire body to come to life. Using your sensory awareness, your ability to listen from the inside, take note of your weight on the cushion or chair, the tingling of your skin, the shape and configuration of your body, any muscular tensions, and so on—all at the same time.

Within this perceptual backdrop of a kind of global sensation of yourself, just note what moves in your body as you inhale and exhale. Include the sensation of the air moving into and out of your nose, or any other sensations associated with breathing. If thoughts or feelings or judgments arise about how you could be breathing better, simply include them in your awareness and let them go—instantaneously. Don’t dwell on them or act on them in any way. Don’t try to improve your breathing. Just follow and sense whatever you can of your breath through all the internal sensations, movements, and pulsations of your body.

When you’re ready, stop all your efforts, and simply enjoy yourself sitting there and breathing. Can you begin to sense yourself now as a breathing being?

When you’re finished, just get up and do whatever needs to be done next. During the rest of the day, check in with yourself every couple of hours and note how you are breathing. Just sense and observe. Don’t try to change your breathing in any way.

As you become more aware of how you breathe in the various conditions of your life, of how, for instance, your breath speeds up in stressful circumstances and of how and where it tightens, or how you often unconsciously hold your breath in various emotional states, the light of awareness will by itself begin to alter your breathing in a safe, healthy, and natural way.

Copyright 2004-2010 by Dennis Lewis. These passages from Free Your Breath, Free Your Life (Shambhala Publications, Chapter One, “Ways of Working with Your Breath”) may not be reproduced in any form without the written consent of the author or publisher.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. nadya holland permalink
    June 22, 2010 2:53 am

    Magnificent! I reached a point when my whole ‘being’ was absolutely nothingness in the frame of the universe! i am definitely going to keep on with this practice. Thank you, Dennis.

  2. October 18, 2010 11:35 am

    Excellent article. Proper breathing is so important for overall health, I’m going to link this post and your blog to mine,

  3. November 13, 2010 5:16 am

    Love this, Dennis. It’s akin to the idea of being open to gut reaction; that the energies, the peace, the life force for any endeavour, are already there. All we have to do is acknowledge them, give them a place in Life, and allow them become that part of us.
    If they’re right it works. And we feel as it is.
    Equally , if they aren’t right, we’re readily advised by feeling, and can act accordingly.

    Stay well and stay on it.

    With every good wish,


  4. R.ADI NARAYANA REDDY. permalink
    March 15, 2011 10:49 am

    i want to know more about breathing awareness.i am interested To do sadhana On breathing awareness.

  5. Richard Friedel permalink
    June 11, 2011 8:47 am

    Different cultural perceptions of nose and/throat resistance are also of paramount importance. A karate yell or ujjayi sound for example can be understood physiologically as an invigorating maneuver (in the East) or purely psychologically. If yoga techniques producing sounds on inhaling are understood physiologically as means for increasing lung volume, tuning the respiratory system etc. they then make sense but to a western doctor they do not. Richard Friedel

    • June 11, 2011 2:49 pm

      Richard, that may all be true, but this piece is about breathing awareness, following and experiencing the miracle of your breath no matter what is being seen. Not clear to me why you needed to bring up these other issues, including doctors not understanding.

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