Breathing (or respiration) occupies a very distinctive place in life. It is probably the most familiar manifestation of the ebb and flow of the pulse of life. We know that animate life forms (human, animal and insect) breathe. But inanimate life forms (e.g. plants) also breathe and even minerals are known to "respire".
Breathing is innate and instinctual. We don't have to learn how to breathe. We come into the world already doing it. (Did you know that even fetuses are known to breathe amniotic fluid while in utero?) From the very first breath of air that heralds our arrival here on Earth to the last one that signals our passing from this lifetime, breathing is life itself. The need to breathe is the most immediate of our bodily needs, even before hunger. In this way it is also our very first, conscious awareness of the duality of life and death in our lives.
In human terms, we commonly think of breathing as as a way of taking in air and oxygen and expelling carbon dioxide. But the importance of breathing in our lives and in our development goes much further than just this physiological exchange of gases. Breathing is, in many ways, the foundation for establishing and maintaining all health. It is what allows health to happen.
But not all breathing is equal. Despite the fact that we come into the world breathing as we are meant to breathe, for most of us, it soon becomes something very different. We begin interfering with our innate capacity to breathe properly from the time of very early childhood. We quickly learn to regulate, modulate and sometimes even stop our breathing. Why? Because controlling the breath is one of the most effective ways of controlling how much we feel. Stop breathing even for just a few seconds and you will have effectively begun to numb yourself to your inner experiences.
As such, the type of breathing that is so important to health is not this commonly shallow and attenuated kind. It is something different, which I refer to as "conscious breathing".
WHAT IS CONSCIOUS BREATHING?
So what is conscious breathing? There are two characteristics that together transform ordinary breathing into conscious breathing.
The first is breathing diaphragmatically into the belly, feeling the torso expand spherically 360 degrees in every direction as you inhale. (Conscious breathing is not -- as common wisdom might have it -- about focusing on getting air into the lungs.) Watch a newborn or infant breathing and you will immediately see what diaphragmatic, conscious breathing is all about. The second such characteristic is the quality of consciousness (or awareness) that we bring to our breathing -- i.e. the degree to which we focus our attention on, and allow ourselves to experience, all of the sensations and feelings evoked by the movement of the breath and of the body as a whole as we breathe.
When practiced as part of breathing, these two characteristics together are what transform regular breathing into conscious breathing — the kind of breathing that becomes a powerful source of healing.
THE IMPORTANCE OF CONSCIOUS BREATHING
You might be wondering what it is about conscious breathing that makes it so important to establishing health.
The answer has to do with the multitude of positive effects that breathing has on our body and on our energy. Breathing is, directly or indirectly, involved in all aspects of health because it is how we prepare or "prime" our being to more fully express the inner wisdom that is the source of all health and healing. The following are just a few examples of the more significant ways in which conscious breathing achieves this.
Conscious Breathing As A Gatherer Of Healing Energies
Conscious breathing is the primary mechanism through which we draw into ourselves the subtle energies and spirit that heal our bodies and enliven our being. In fact, one could say that energy and spirit are carried into the body on the wave of the breath as one.
On an energetic level, when we consciously breathe in, the intention and force of the inhalation literally entrain subtle energies from the universal energy field (i.e. the energy field that permeates all of creation) into the auric field through openings called "chakras" to feed and nourish the body and all of its systems and structures. Similarly, on a spiritual level, it is through the intention and force of each in-breath during conscious breathing that we "call" spirit to us to fill and "in-spire" our being. And it is by continuously breathing spirit and energy in and out that we become enlivened. Conversely, this is also why shallow, shortened or stiff breathing — all manifestations of non-conscious breathing — can often lead to feelings of lethargy, depression, alienation or limitedness. It is not just a shortage of oxygen. It is that in that state, we are literally depriving ourselves of life and spirit.
The connection between the breath (on the one hand) and energy and spirit (on the other) is well recognized in Eastern systems of medicine and is embodied in the concepts of chi in Chinese medicine and prana in the Ayurvedic medicine of India, respectively.
In contrast, Western systems of medicine have no such conceptual counterpart linking the breath to energy and spirit. Nonetheless, even in Western culture, we can find a historical understanding of the connection between the breath and spirit through language. For instance, the etymological root of our modern English words "respiration" and "respire" is the Latin word respire, i.e. re (meaning "again") + spirare (meaning "breathe"). But spirare itself comes from the Latin root word for "spirit," i.e. spiritus. So to breathe (i.e. re-spire) literally means to bring spirit into ourselves, again and again. Another example comes to us from the Judeo-Christian tradition through Hebrew language. The word ruach, which is used throughout the Bible, is alternately translated to mean "breath" when used in reference to a living creature and "Spirit" when used in reference to God. But the origin of both words is the one Hebrew word "ruach".
Conscious Breathing Evokes Relaxation
Conscious breathing is also essential to the relaxation of the mind, the physical body and the emotions. This aspect of conscious breathing is of great important to our well being because the more relaxed we are, the more fully our body is able to express the inner intelligence that heals and creates health.
Although the connection between breathing and relaxation is fairly widely known, it is not always fully understood. This is because the physiological effects of breathing on our ability to relax are only part of the story. To fully understand the connection between breathing, relaxation and health, we also have to look to the energetic aspect of these processes.
When we think of relaxation on a physical level, we often think in terms of muscular flexibility and suppleness. But while these terms are useful for describing physical matter, they do not really have much meaning when applied to the non-physical aspects of our being, such as the emotions and mental functioning. Instead, we could say that on an energetic level the analogues to the physical concepts of flexibility and suppleness would be a state of flow and a state of openness (or receptivity), respectively. So one way or another, all relaxation is ultimately a movement towards one or both of these states — flow and receptivity.
Conscious breathing helps us relax because it is one of the simplest and most efficient ways of reestablishing states of openness and flow. First of all, consider that when we breathe consciously (i.e. deeply and with awareness), what we are doing is literally opening ourselves up to receive the breath. This intention to "take in" the breath is already in and of itself a state of receptivity (or openness) that, as described above, has the effect of relaxing us.
Secondly, the rhythmic in-out, in-out movement of the breathing process acts like a pump to move the breath and, with it, our energy thereby helping to create a state of flow. And this pumping action (and the resulting flow of energy) further help us to maintain that state of relaxation by making it much less likely that that tension will be recreated. This effect is akin to the way that the flow of a rushing river is apt to keep the river from freezing, even in sub-freezing temperatures. The force and movement of the water's flow itself keeps the river from freezing. The more flow there is, the less the water is capable of hardening. In this same way, the more our energy flows, the less likely it is to harden and manifest as bodily tension.
Conscious Breathing Brings Us Into Presence
Another important aspect of the effect of conscious breathing on health is its ability to bring us into presence.
In its simplest terms, presence is the state of being aware of, and paying attention to, the present moment. The more present we are, the more we are allowing ourselves to experience the flow of life. And while the content of our present-moment experience will vary from moment to moment, it is usually characterized by a focused mind and a sense of being grounded and in contact with our bodies.
So how exactly is it that conscious breathing helps bring us into presence? Consider that all breathing (whether conscious or not) can only happen in the present moment, i.e. you might hold in your mind an image of the breath you just took, or an anticipation of the one you are about to take, but these are nothing more than that — mental images. The act of breathing itself can only take place in the here and now. As such, it is the perfect "object" of attention for our mind because the moment we consciously pay attention to our breathing, we are by definition shifting our attention to the here and now and coming into presence.
And the benefits to health of cultivating presence are numerous. For instance, by helping to slow down and focus the mind, presence is directly and powerfully involved in the reduction (or elimination) of anxiety, which is almost always the product of a our mental projections and an over-active mind. Presence is also the fundamental process through which we let go of our identification with ego and begin allowing an awareness of our deeper nature, our true self, to emerge. This has tremendously positive implications for our sense of mental, emotional and physical well-being.
But perhaps the most important connection between presence and health has to do with the way presence makes the intelligence inherent in consciousness (i.e. wisdom) more available to the body. In general, subtle energies (including healing energies) follow awareness. So when our awareness is distracted or focused elsewhere other than in the body and in the present moment (e.g. such as when we are in our thoughts mulling over the past or worrying about the future), these energies become vague and scattered, making the information contained within them less accessible.
Presence impacts this situation in two ways. First, through presence, our awareness is gathered, focused and brought deeply into our bodies. As such, healing energies that might otherwise be either scattered or disembodied become concentrated within us making the information contained within those energies clearer and more available to the body. Secondly, by helping us become more grounded in our bodies, presence is the state through which consciousness "makes contact" with the body and imparts to the body the inherent wisdom of that consciousness. So, the more present we are, the more information for healing we make available to the body and the greater the body's capacity to heal becomes.
There are many other health benefits to cultivating presence but they all ultimately rest on these two characteristics: the ability of presence to reduce anxiety and the way presence makes the wisdom of consciousness available to the body. And conscious breathing is the principal vehicle through which we come into presence.
Conscious Breathing Stimulates And Energizes The Pineal Gland
A fourth benefit of conscious breathing, and probably one of the least known, is its effect on the pineal gland. During conscious breathing, each inhalation energizes and stimulates the pineal gland, which is itself very important to health and wellbeing. On a physiological level, the pineal gland is responsible for the production of melatonin and the regulation of the body's various bio-rhythms. So a physically healthy pineal gland can lead to more regular and restorative sleep as well as a sense of emotional balance.
On an energetic level, there is another significant change that happens in the pineal gland through the process of breathing that has even broader positive consequences for health and well-being — the energetic stimulation of the pineal gland through breathing activates and opens up the 3rd eye (i.e. the anja chakra) thereby opening up our psychic vision and expanding our ability to perceive the "bigger picture" of life.
While this may at first glance seem like more of a nicety than an actual health benefit, the opening of our psychic vision is actually a very important pathway for developing the higher consciousness that allows us to see the deeper meaning of life in general and the place of our individual lives within it. It allows us to know and better understand the hidden order within all of reality -- even its seemingly arbitrary or more chaotic aspects. This in turns confers on us an inner sense of peace, safety and meaningfulness that has a profoundly positive and healing effect, particularly for the human ego, since without it the ego would otherwise find itself only able to function from its inherently limited perspectives of fear and separation.
To get a feel for how powerful the healing effects of pineal gland stimulation can be, imagine for a moment that regardless of what was happening or not happening for you in your life (whether you were experiencing life in any given moment as joyful or sad, satisfying or lacking, etc.), you were able to see the hidden meaning and order within reality. That despite how you were otherwise experiencing life, you knew in your heart that there was nothing random or meaninglessness about your experience. That even your pain and suffering belie a deeper, hidden order that makes such experiences purposeful. How would that change or alter how you feel about yourself and your life? How would it change your experience of the unknown? If nothing else, you would probably experience a lot less fear in your life. Now imagine such changes in perception might inspire and embolden you to live a more purpose-driven life, a life based not on fear and a belief that life is random but on your own inner passion. What would that do for your sense of happiness and wellbeing?
In short, it would not be hyperbole to say that the stimulation and development of the pineal gland is at the heart of all personal growth and human development. In fact, this is why all of the world's various esoteric traditions have meditative practices that incorporate some form of attention in the area of the forehead (i.e. pineal gland) as a vehicle for ascending in consciousness. And conscious breathing is a uniquely powerful tool for pineal stimulation/development.
For most of us, breathing is something that just happens in the background with very little awareness on our part. But as you can see, there is nothing little or unimportant about the place of breathing in creating health. And thankfully, working with the breath is as easy as simply beginning to become aware of it, moment to moment.
Happy breathing everyone!