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The First Step in Healthy Breathing

October 1, 2011
Dennis at Esalen

Dennis at Esalen in 2009

The first step in healthy breathing is to become conscious of how we actually breathe. From the perspective of the world’s great spiritual traditions, our breath not only brings needed oxygen and other gases to the physical body, but it can also bring, when we are conscious of it, the finer energies (prana, chi, and so on) needed to help nourish our higher bodies–the subtle body, causal body, and so on. Whatever we may believe about our soul and spirit, our breath, and how we breathe, is intimately connected with all aspects of our being.

In today’s noisy, high-stress world, many of us sit, stand, sleep, speak, act, and move in ways that undermine our breathing and our physical, emotional, and spiritual health. When we look at ourselves in action, when we actually sense and observe ourselves honestly for a moment, we see that we carry enormous amounts of unnecessary tension throughout our bodies. We may sense it in our hands, face, eyes, jaw, tongue, throat, belly, back, chest, and so on (even tension in our feet can undermine our breathing). These tensions can and often do impede the natural, harmonious movement of the diaphragm and its coordination with the secondary breathing muscles. They also impede the harmonious flow of the breath of life through our body/mind.

We can do all the breathing exercises in the world, but if we don’t begin to see and free ourselves from the unnecessary tensions that we carry day in and day out–if we are unable to find a state of dynamic relaxation in the midst of daily living–these exercises won’t do much good. In fact, without such relaxation and without real self-knowledge and self-awareness, breathing exercises can often exacerbate the tensions already present and create dangerous biochemical and physiological imbalances in our body/mind.

In beginning to study these unnecessary tensions in ourselves, which are generated in large part by our mostly unconscious attitudes toward ourselves and others, one of the most useful situations with which to begin is when we find ourselves in a hurry, which, for many of us, is almost all the time. Next time you catch yourself rushing through your life on the way some place other than where you are right now (and this can be a mental or emotional “rushing” as well as a physical one), sense your entire body and pay particular attention to your breathing. What does your breath feel like? Does it feel open and spacious? Most likely it feels small and cramped. Ask yourself if this is really how you want to live your life, always tensing toward something to be done or enjoyed (or something you believe will be better) in the future. Yes, the future is important and we all have plenty to do on its behalf, but what’s the point of all this “doing” if we don’t actually feel and appreciate the pure miracle of our aliveness, our being, right here and now? What’s the point of all of this activity if we are not open enough to receive and appreciate the life force flowing through us and others and the rich scale of impressions and perceptions that come with it?

It is only through a constant deep-felt appreciation of the value and miracle of being itself that our lives will take on real meaning, that our relationships with others will become imbued with intelligence and compassion, and that we will find effective solutions to the ever-growing problems we face. If we are constantly filled with unnecessary tension based on judgments about the past and expectations about the future, our breath will remain cramped and disharmonious, we will never discover what it means to be truly human, and our lives on this planet will only get worse no matter what brilliant strategies we devise or how much force and aggression we use to put them into action.

To see and release the unnecessary tensions that fill our lives, and to allow the breath of life to manifest fully through us and others, begins with sensing and observing ourselves at this very moment, paying special attention to the tensions that propel us through time, as well as the inner attitudes that fuel them. It begins with being present to “what is,” without any self-deception. This is the beginning of real transformation, both for ourselves personally and for the world. And it all begins with awareness of the breath.

A Safe, Powerful Breathing Exercise

One of the safest and most powerful breathing practices or exercises you can undertake is to consciously follow your breathing in the many changing circumstances of your life. As you inhale, simply be aware that you are inhaling. As you exhale, simply be aware that you are exhaling. Try this exercise for 10 minutes or so at a time at least three times a day. It will help free you from your automatic thoughts and emotional reactions and thus enable you to live with more receptivity and clarity in the present moment. You may find this exercise especially useful at moments when you are anxious or angry. With roots in Buddhism and the other great spiritual traditions, this is a wonderful practice for both beginners and advanced practitioners.

Copyright 2009-11 by Dennis Lewis

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