What Is the Essential Breath?
Every day young children come to play in the sand at the beach where I live. They dance and spin, sing and shout, running wildly through the dunes and into the frothing surf, seemingly oblivious to the cold water and wind. Their aliveness is the envy of all the adults who stolidly tread the shore, amazed and exhausted by the relentless nature of the children’s energy.
Most of us remember the exuberance of our own early youth when we breathed with relaxed open bellies and as a result had an almost limitless supply of energy. Then we began to learn and develop poor breathing patterns. Now, as adults we find ourselves looking for ways to reawaken this experience of aliveness—frequently turning to artificial uppers such as caffeine, sugar, nicotine, alcohol, or expensive megadoses of vitamins and herbs. Feeling the agitation that results from artificial stimulants we may resort to tranquilizers and sleeping pills to quell our growing unease, and thus begin a roller coaster of ups and downs. Or we subsist on the excitement of one fleeting moment after another using sex or our obsession with work and material possessions to momentarily ignite us. We have a sneaking suspicion that we could feel better, more energetic, more at peace, and that something, something not quite definable, is missing from our lives. Curiously the answer to recovering this dynamic vitality lies intrinsically within us—in the unconditioned breath that we had as a child.
Breathing is the most readily accessible resource you have for creating and sustaining your vital energy. Tapping this resource involves a process of unleashing the potent elixir of what I call the “essential” breath. This is the breath you breathed as a young child. Most of us have lost a connection with this breath and so have lost a connection with a natural way of being and our own natural energy resource. Opening the doors to this life force involves rediscovering the virgin nature of the breath.
Breathing is one of the simplest things in the world. We breathe in, we breathe out. When we breathe with real freedom, we neither grasp for or hold on to the breath. No effort is required to pull the breath in or to push the breath out. Given the simplicity of breathing one would think it was the easiest thing to do in the world. However, if it were truly so easy there would be few unhappy or unhealthy people in the world. To become a welcome vessel for the breath is to live life without trying to control, grasp, or push away. And how easy is this? The process of breathing is the most accurate metaphor we have for the way that we personally approach life, how we live our lives, and how we react to the inevitable changes that life brings us.
A tree growing out of the ground is as wonderful today as it ever was. It does not need to adopt new and startling methods.
Throughout time the process of breathing was always considered inseparable from our health, consciousness, and spirit, and it is only recently that we have reduced breathing to a mere respiratory exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen. In Greek, psyche pneuma meant breath/soul/air/spirit. In Latin, anima spiritus, breath/soul. In Japanese, ki, air/spirit; and in Sanskrit, prana connoted a resonant life force that is at no time more apparent to us than when that force is extinguished at the moment of death. In Chinese the character for “breath” (hsi) is made up of three characters that mean “of the conscious self or heart.” The breath was seen as a force that ran through mind, body, and spirit like a river running through a dry valley giving sustenance to everything in its course.
Today, our intuition about the potential power of the breath is firmly embedded in the very structure of our language. We speak about the breath in common, everyday expressions but it rarely occurs to us to associate this with our immediate bodily experience. We say that we need “a breath of fresh air,” “You take my breath away,” “I couldn’t catch my breath,” or “I waited with bated breath.” Or exclaim that something was “simply breathtaking!” We complain of someone “breathing down our neck” and needing “room to breathe,” “breathing a sigh of relief,” or “taking a breather.” We tell our friends “not to breathe a word,” and we complain about being “out of breath.” And yet few of us, when faced with fatigue, illness, or anxiety, look to our breath as a possible source for regeneration. Because it is right under our noses, the significance of this ever renewable source of energy has escaped our attention.
Most people are not aware that they breathe poorly. Fewer still are aware of the consequences of restricting this central life process. From headaches to heart disease and a vast array of common maladies in between, breathing badly takes its secret toll. Most significantly, very few people understand the ways in which they restrict and distort their breathing. Habitually breathing high into the chest, breathing too fast, and breathing shallowly are epidemic today. And one does not need the trained eye of a respiratory specialist to recognize these patterns in ourselves and in others. A casual glance of any city street will reveal the extent to which tight belts, tight bodies, and tight schedules are literally taking our breath away.
Correlations between breathing and the state of our body and mind have been made for thousands of years in ancient Taoism, in Yogic scriptures, and in the medical practices of India (Ayurveda), Tibet, and China. More recently, countless scientific studies have supported this ancient wisdom, linking effortless breathing with the mitigation of some of our most insidious modern health problems. Breath therapy, sometimes combined with other healing practices such as biofeedback or yoga, has been found to alleviate (and sometimes cure) migraine headaches,1 chronic pain conditions,2 hypertension (high blood pressure), 3 epilepsy,4 asthma,5 panic attacks, and hyperventilation syndrome,6 as well as coronary heart disease.7 A recent study by Suzanne Woodward and Robert Freedman showed that slow, deep breathing alone will result in a significant reduction in menopausal hot flashes.8 In a pilot study prior to their own research, progressive muscle relaxation exercises and slow, deep breathing reduced the incidence of hot flashes by an impressive 50 percent.9
Breathing techniques are also being used to help those with life-threatening illnesses enter a meditative state and calm the terror that often accompanies illness and death. Two of the major proponents of “comeditation” or “cross breathing,” Richard Boerstler and Hulen Kornfeld, have been teaching this ancient Tibetan technique at hospitals and medical schools throughout the United States. (See Resources for more information.) According to Patricia A. Norris, Ph.D., clinical director of the Menninger Clinic’s Biofeedback and Psychophysiology Center, her staff has been using comeditation since it was introduced to them in 1987 by Boerstler and Kornfeld. As Norris enthusiastically relates, “We use it for people in severe pain or with serious neuromuscular disorders. It is especially helpful for people who are anxious and unable to slow their breathing. The recipients say they have never felt so relaxed. We find it eases anxiety, tension, and pain. We also teach it to family members, who are happy to have something that allows them to feel helpful, connected, and at one with the patient.”10
Relaxation research shows that breathing techniques can help ward off disease by making people less susceptible to viruses and by lowering blood pressure and cholesterol levels. When we breathe in a relaxed fashion we move from a destructive metabolic state to a constructive one. This shift from operating in a chronic stress mode to a mode of relaxed alertness can affect the synthesis of protein, fat, and carbohydrates, increase the production of cells for immune system activation, promote bone repair and growth, as well as enhance the cellular, hormonal, and psychological processes.11
We experience the benefits of these chemical, cellular, and neurological changes on a more subjective level in the way we feel and think. People who practice open breathing through healing arts such as tai chi, yoga, or mindful meditation, are rewarded not only with optimal health; they also seem to have a different relationship to life’s stresses. They are able to remain calm and centered in the midst of seeming chaos. We speak about such people as being grounded, centered, and having “presence of mind.” Perhaps the most universal experience of my own breath work students is their new-found ability to handle tough situations with an ease that previously seemed illusive. Just as each breath arises with its own uniqueness, they have learned to open to each moment as new and different, and as a result, are finding new solutions to tenacious problems. As their minds become clearer and their emotions become more balanced through calm and regular breathing, they are creating a life that is conducive to health, well-being, and a sense of inner peace. And not so surprisingly, I notice that people who do breat...