The Cycle of Breathing

Breath HemispheresAs I lay in bed one night, unable to sleep, I decided to watch my breath as a mediation. Not only is breathing vital to living, it holds the path to relaxation and ultimately can help us gain control over our lives. Symbolically, it represents various cycles of life: birth-death, day-night, Summer-Winter.

The delicate complexity of natural breathing is easily flummoxed by attention from the breather. It needs to be observed rather passively. It’s like looking for a star in the night sky which can only be seen by gazing slightly away from the actual object of attention.

If you wish to observe your own breathing cycle, you first need to be “in the room”, completely relaxed, present in the space you fill. Be aware of the parts of the room you cannot see, to the sides and behind you. Now you can sense the three-dimensionality of your breath from the breath and body itself, rather than from any “ideas” you read in this post. Keep your mind out of your body’s way while you observe it.

While lying in bed, I relax my awareness into the room (with eyes open). I allow my body to soften to the point I feel I am melting into the mattress. I feel heavy. My mind stops thinking, and I allow my body to do its own thing. My eyes, nose, sinuses, throat, chest and abdomen relax deeply, sinking into the bed. All my limbs follow suit. (It is possible to do this sitting in a chair or standing, but it’s harder to allow the body to relax as deeply.)

I take a huge breath and sigh out. Near the end of this exhale, the breath seems to stop for a few seconds. It does not, in fact, stop. The breath naturally lingers at its end. The exhale slows dramatically, but continues almost imperceptibly for a number of seconds. So there is no “end” of the breath, really. It just slows to a dead calm as the body prepares for the next inhalation. Be gently aware of this beautiful sighing diminuendo and enjoy it. Let it linger as long as it needs to build the energy for the next inhalation. It may be surprisingly long, anywhere from one or two seconds to 20 seconds or more, depending on how relaxed you are and how deeply you are breathing.

Before the inhalation begins, there is a desire, a warm yearning behind the heart. This “need” is a wonderful, deep and satisfying feeling, especially just before the inhalation beings. It’s impending fulfillment gives it a glowing anticipation. As this need begins to fulfill itself, the breath will appear to fill from the inside out, as if by itself. The reason for this feeling is that the body and mind are not interfering with the process. The muscles are working naturally. When this happened to me, I felt giddy, as if witnessing some rare, shy bird emerge from hiding within a tree.

The breath will fill effortlessly. Give in to it. Relax into it. This is tricky during observation. Depending on how relaxed and calm you are, the back will expand and fill along with the stomach and pelvis. The breath will fill under the arms and up into the tops of the shoulders. Remember to “let” this happen, don’t interfere. It’s amazing how much the body can expand and open to accommodate a full, deep breath. You may notice the neck and spine “gathering”, shortening. If lying on a bed, your head will slide down the pillow as the body expands.

Remember, don’t “make” anything happen. Just notice. Keep the attention in the room as this miraculous process of breathing happens. Keep the chattering, possessing mind from scaring the shy bird away. If it does interfere, that’s OK. There are more breaths to come. Look forward, not back. This is a wonderful process. Enjoy it. There’s plenty of air to go around, at least for awhile longer.

Now we are at the top of the breath. The inhalation can take anywhere from 2 to 15 seconds. As with the out breath, it will slow as the lungs fill. What happens now?

The turn from inhale to exhale is subtle. It is merely a change of angle, not backtracking the path of inhalation. Again, the breath never stops, anytime. It moves in a circle, or perhaps a wave. Try not to hold the breath at the top. I think of this part of the breath as being at the top of a slow motion roller coaster ride. There’s a moment where you feel weightless. It’s fleeting but unmistakable. The greatest “lift” is right after the top. So it is with the breath. There will be a floating sensation at the curve from inhale toward exhale, and before you know it, you are deflating. Here again, the feeling will come from behind the heart, as if the air is just disappearing from inside you. There is no pushing, no effort.

As you ride the breath down again to the bottom curve, your may notice your body elongating as it closes into the next cycle. This is natural and normal. The speed of exhale will slow gradually as the lungs empty. We are again at the bottom of the breath, the sweet diminuendo before the next cycle turns.

There is no beginning, no end. The breath is like a wave, or a turning wheel. Learning to be aware of something so intrinsic to who we are can engender a calm attitude and deep satisfaction. From there we can direct ourselves almost anywhere.

May you Breathe Deeply and Live Deeply.

19 thoughts on “The Cycle of Breathing

  1. David,
    This is a very nice primer on some basic meditative techniques. In the meditation group I attend most of us sit up straight in a chair but a few will lie flat on the carpet. I have done the lying down way in my own bed but it is sometimes tooo comfortable and you know what happens then….
    Anyway, just wanted to say hi and that I appreciate your space here.

  2. Ron- Nice to see you. The thing about not being able to fall asleep while lying in bed it that it allows a good meditation while lying down.

    Thanks for stopping by.


  3. David, thanks for stopping by! Following my breath is one of my ways of “coming home” to balance. I liked how you compared the initial soft focus of attention on breath to looking slightly away from a star in order to see it well.

  4. Hi MB- My overactive mind takes quite awhile to “come home” at all. Yet that kind of focus is relatively easy, more like doing less rather than more. Looking away seemed to work.

    Nice to see you.

  5. Gently pull the trigger (do not jerk the trigger) at that pause, just between the inhale and exhale.

    I learned this in the Marines when training to use the rifle. However, you see, it has more meanings then one.

  6. Interesting, Travis. Do you mean at the top of the breath, when the lungs are full? I assume so. I like “do not jerk the trigger”. That idea could almost be a daily mantra in itself.

  7. Hi David!

    Long time, I fell off the blog-world!

    Just came by today to wish and you dear ones a fun, frolicky Holi.

    Let the colours enrich your life!

  8. I love my breath!!! I see it too as like a ying and yang symbol. Breathing in I am present. Breathing in I am peaceful.

  9. Hello James- Yin and Yang, connected, related. Good idea. Pema Chodron talks about focusing on the out breath. I like your little medtation on the in (present) and (I assume you meant) out (peaceful) breath.

  10. HI David,
    Lovely blog and beautiful writing. It’s always good to hear you at your best. Thanks for the uplifting and poetic stimulus to my day. 🙂

  11. Hi David, my mistake, I meant to say it the other way around,

    Gently pull the trigger straight back (do not jerk the trigger) at that pause, when the lungs are empty, just after exhaling and before inhaling.

  12. Travis- Interesting idea. I’ll have to try it. The overall idea is not to “do” anything. So the body is “breathed”. But it’s tricky to stay out of the way.

  13. Hi David,
    I love this post. Thank you for your beautiful observations, and reminding us to….breathe. Many years ago, my naturopath told me I was a “shallow breather” — I tended to mildly hyperventolate when I was stressed. Since then, I’ve become more aware of my breathing, particularly when I am feeling tense.

  14. Mary- Glad you liked it. I, too, have learned much from observing my breath, but also from learning to breathe better. The body’s natural breath is rarely within the grasp of most people, since we are all “stressed” so often that our bodies forget how to breathe properly.

Comments are closed.