How Do You Know You Are Breathing?

Breathing is by nature an intimate act. Atoms of oxygen and nitrogen that have been breathed by other beings on Earth for millions of years come into our bodies, are absorbed by our bodies, and are borne by blood throughout our bodies to permeate every cell. So we are already intimate with breath, and vice versa. And as with any intimate relationship, issues arise that must be dealt with: fear of intimacy, control issues, dominance, coordination, synchronization, and more.

It helps to be grateful, to cultivate gratitude. If we truly appreciate breath, something wonderful is added. If we spy on ourselves, on how we breathe, and make ourselves
uncomfortable by being critical—which is, unfortunately, easy to do—then something is taken away: the feeling of freedom, of breathing easily. So let’s approach this business of being breath-conscious in a positive way. After all, an intimate relationship should be enjoyable, even if what that means exactly is unique to you.

To start, if we were together I would ask you to tell me about breath. I believe there is little need for teachers to tell people things if they know what questions to ask. If someone came to me and said, “Lorin, tell me about breath,” I would ask, “What makes you think there is such a thing? How do you know, by direct experience, that there is a process called breathing?”
This is not a trick. You have your own way of being intimate with breath, which is different from anyone who has ever lived. It is shaped by your favorite sensations and by your ability to love. It is limited by your fears, which are based on negative experiences in the past. We can safely assume that you are breathing as you read this, but how do you actually know? What informs you?

Become Intimate with Breath

Take a minute to entertain this question: How do I know I am breathing right now?

Just wonder within yourself. You might want to rest your eyes on this page somewhere, or look at the horizon, or close your eyes completely. You can do this standing, sitting, or lying down. Just don’t do it while driving or operating heavy machinery.

After pondering this question for five breaths or so, check how you feel. Do you want to continue? If so, close your eyes and pay attention for 10 to 15 additional breaths.
When you finally open your eyes or focus again, think about what you experienced. If you say to yourself, I could feel myself breathing, exactly what did you feel? What kinds of details did you discern?

  • I could feel the air touching the inside
    • of my nostrils as it flowed in.
    • I sensed the motion of my ribcage
    • as it moved with the breath.
    • As I breathed in, my body expanded,
    • and as I breathed out, I contracted.
    • I was conscious of the air sliding
    • down the back of my throat.
    • The flow of breath is very soothing;
    • I felt waves of calmness spreading through my body.
    • When I breathe out, I feel a great relief—
    • I feel the fatigue washing away.

After considering this list of intimate experiences that others have had with breath, become aware once again of your own breath for another 10 inhalations.
Your experience will be different each time you do this exercise, even if you do it every day for the rest of your life. I always discover something new and surprising about breath. Part of this is because I am an explorer, and part of it is because my senses are so open to the world that I am able to perceive differences. What used to seem the “same” to me is now perceptibly different because I have more data.

The Breath Experience

When you take a conscious breath, you may experience any number of sensations.

Immediate relief Sleepiness
Boredom A sense of being at ease
Muscular relaxation A flood of thoughts
Nothing much Excitement and energy

There is no way of knowing for sure what your breath experience will be like because the interplay between the dimensions of breath—metabolism, information, and emotion—is infinitely complex. What you or I experience in any given moment of breath awareness is actually a side effect of what the body is doing as it balances its energies, heals itself, assesses the environment, acts on its instincts, and mobilizes to meet challenges from without and within.

There are two major aspects to the practice of breath awareness. The first is learning how to pay attention, which itself has two parts: learning to ride the rhythms of awareness, and discovering your favorite sensual pathways. The second aspect, oddly enough, is learning how to handle relaxation. When you relax, you come down off the stress response and you feel the pain underneath—the pain of tensed muscles along with fatigue. Your mind may be flooded with images of what made you tense, and your body will feel the sensations of tension once more before letting go.

The process is similar to the experience of sitting on your foot and cutting off circulation. You don’t feel anything at first, but when you restore circulation by standing up, you feel the pins and needles. Almost every exercise in this book has to do with restoring or increasing circulation, and you will experience various kinds of pangs as you explore the conscious breath. Rarely will you encounter anything as intense as what happens when you sit on your foot. Mostly, they will be relatively tiny sensations, but be accepting of them because this is how relaxation happens.

Personally, I love the stress response, with its tingling surge of instant energy throughout the body. It saved our ancestors many times, and I am sure it has saved my life at least a few times. But, like a powerful motor, you don’t want to rev your nervous system needlessly.

Whether you are dealing with your kids or competing in the Olympics, having just the right amount of energy is critical. In the martial arts, sports, singing, or speech making, the ability to relax in action is highly valued because it helps you perform at your best. Breath awareness teaches you how to modulate your stress response directly so that you can control your levels of excitement and relaxation in any situation.

The more your senses evolve, the more you will notice how each moment is slightly different from any other. Mostly, you will experience what relaxation feels like. These sensations of winding down do not mean that you have failed in breath awareness. Rather, when you are at ease, your body will systematically review every time you have been ill at ease, to fine-tune its responsiveness. The different parts of your body will talk to one another. This is what human nervous systems do; it is an adaptive trait, part of our survival mechanism. It speaks to the success of your breath experience if the noise of the different parts of your body and brain talking to one another sounds like a cocktail party.

Open Your Senses

Arrange to sit somewhere comfortable where you won’t be disturbed for a while. Sit upright in a chair with your back supported and your feet on the ground.
Sit for 1 minute with your eyes open and get used to just being there.

Notice that you are breathing, and open your senses to breath.

Find some aspect of breathing that is pleasant to you right now—the touch of air in your nostrils, down your throat, into your chest and belly. The rhythmic in-and-out of the breath, the massage of it, the quiet sounds. Focus on the sensation you like most and keep returning to this pleasure.

Your mind will always wander; the key is to be gentle in returning to the breath. In an easy and casual manner, keep bringing your attention back to the sensual experience of breathing.
When thoughts come, you will often become totally lost in them and forget that you are breathing. When you return from the thoughts, you will have a choice of what to pay attention to and again you can enjoy the breath.

You can practice this exercise for 1 minute, 3 minutes, 5 minutes, or even 20 minutes.