Breathing As A Practice

Thank you Joel!! Awesome to share the path of life and the planting of a selfseed! Great contribution to the village who will help grow the Selfseeds Garden.

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The basic premise of breathing practices the world over is the relationship between the activity of the breath and the activity of the mind. The idea is that if the breath is agitated, the mind is agitated. This is a common experience. If we are late for something important, quite apart from the extra running, the worry or fear we feel shortens the breath. And our minds then also race. So natural is this to us that when we finally arrive, people will often say “Relax! Take a deep breath.” Even the expression “take a breather” implies this relationship. If we are given time and space to simply breathe, we become more calm. Or, slow the breath, slow the mind. 

In his work, Spiritual Instruction, Ramana Maharishi defines yoga as synonymous with breath control. He says that: 

“The source of the breath is the same as that of the mind; therefore the subsidence of either leads effortlessly to that of the other. The practice of stilling the mind through breath control is called yoga.”

Awareness of this parallel may or may not be explicit in a given practice, and even the end goal of breath control may vary per tradition. Often, goals vary from a merely linguistic standpoint. The calm that is the goal of one practice may be labeled in religious terms in another, and purification in yet another, though the internal experience being indicated is the same. Overall, the end is controlling or calming the breath and feeling more peaceful because of it. 

What one should attempt in any breath control practice is to get into the feeling behind the breath. Not necessarily the physical feeling, but the quality of it, the feel of its full smoothness. Put more plainly, the calmness we feel after or during a breathing practice is the most critical portion. The foundation of any breath practice is to identify this feeling and keep returning to it, even if a specific practice may have another goal. As an example, lengthening the amount of time it takes to complete a breath cycle may be the concrete goal, but the peace or calm that comes from the lengthening is where the benefit comes, not the expansion itself.

The two main categories of breath practices are watching the breath and measuring the breath. Watching the breath is most often simply that: fixing the attention on the breath. As the mind wanders, return to watching the natural rhythm of inhale and exhale. There are slight variants on this- like consciously slowing the rate the breath cycles. Another variant is attaching a physical anchor for the mind to latch onto- like being aware of the point where the breath enters the body. Observation is a very safe practice, as we are really only dealing with where the mind is pointed, as opposed to working on the physiological mechanisms.

Measured breathing is practiced in much wider variety of ways, but I see two main sub-categories: breathing attached to counting, and breathing attached to movement. Measured breathing not attached to physical movement, is achieved by dividing the breath into parts and timing each part in some way. At minimum, the breath is divided into inhale and exhale portions. It is often further divided into retaining in and holding out, making a total of 4 parts. Counting the duration of each segment is the most straightforward method of controlling them. 

Many religious traditions control the breath in this way, but with a twist. Rather than counting, repetitions of a chant are used to measure each part. By way of example, some Jewish practitioners use the Shema. The aspirant chants the Shema (rather quickly) on the inhale, chants the Shema on the exhale. One could “square” this by chanting the Shema with the breath held in and after the exhale with the breath held out. Any chant from any spiritual tradition could be used, and one could even choose non-religious phrases to hook to the breath. The chant should fit comfortably within your ability to pace your breathing and should not feel forced.

You will find special practices (alternate nostril, fluttered, etc.) that varies the speed or depth of the breath, but these should mostly be taught directly to you by someone who’s learned to do them safely. Most often, these special practices are designed to clear some portion of the body or inner world specifically which is part of the reason why they should be practiced supervised. Additionally, they tend to be used in conjunction with other healing modalities (exercise, diet, etc.) as a complete self-care regimen. 

In hatha yoga (think yoga class), qigong, or similar practices, we find ways of matching the breath to movement. In yoga classes, most often a posture is held for a certain number of breaths. In qigong, there are some practices where the duration of a movement and duration of a segment of breath are the same. Raise the arms and inhale, lower the arms and exhale. Many of the gym-style workouts lend themselves to the latter type of of movement-breath pairing, with each inhale and exhale being matched to a number of strides or repetitions. For those with a solid fitness routine already, this is a very lovely and powerful way to make it intentionally meditative without adding yet another thing to do every day. 

Even if we are not looking to start meditating for “enlightenment”, we can get great benefit from a gentle and mindful breathing practice. Modern trauma recovery techniques like EMDR utilize somatic regulation to “re-set” mental patterns associated with the natural human response to terrible events, and can bear a striking resemblance to some traditional breathing techniques. For me, this means that from a scientific perspective there is measurable value in these techniques. 

It is important to keep in mind that breathing exercises are often part of a larger system that must be taught as a whole by a master of that system though things we find online or in books can sometimes be safely practiced solo if we don’t force it. But just as in the saying that a tree grows best in its own country, breathing practices are the most effective when implemented within the context of the tradition in which they are developed. As mentioned above, this often is a comprehensive regimen of physical, spiritual, and mental/emotional practices depending on the system. In the absence of the availability of a traditional master, we can cobble together our own system that works for us personally if we are gentle with the practice and use the whole health model as our template.

Stillness in Nature

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