The Power of Breath

“The lungs are placed in a recess so sacred and hidden that nature would seem to have specifically withdrawn this part both from the eyes and from the intellect: for, beyond the wish, it has not yet been granted to any one to fit a window to the breast and redeem from darkness the profound secrets of nature. For all of the parts of the body, the lungs alone, as if shrinking from observation, cease from their movement and collapse at once on the first entrance of light and self-revelation. Hense such an ignorance of Respiration and a sort of holy wonder.”

 John Mayow – Tractatus Quinque (1964) quoted from Anatomy of Hatha Yoga – H. David Coulter


If you have been to any yoga class you will probably have found that the breath plays a massive part in the practice. If you are focused on your breath only, you are practicing yoga. The breath helps us in many ways, it helps us keep focus and concentration, it helps us to soften and relax mentally and physically, and it helps us to access inner space and knowledge. With breath we also connect the inner environment with the outer environment and vice versa. We merge, we connect, it makes us whole. We have never known life without breathing and have become so used to it being second nature we hardly ever recognise it. Only if we are short of breath or if we take a big sigh do we probably give it some thought, which is quite incredible seen as it is the reason we are here, it is literally our life force (Prana in Sanskrit) and it’s obvious where we would be without it! … Certainly not in this physical world anyway. So, if breath gives us life, it is pretty powerful already, therefore, if we actually give it some focus and listen to it, surely it can tell us quite a lot.

If we think about times where we have been angry, or have been in a situation where suddenly we feel anxious, then we probably realise that in those moments the breath shortens and becomes fast, and along with that the heart starts to beat faster, and this surge makes us feel out of control. It then takes our perception to shift to allow us to start to calm down, we start to take longer breaths, usually in through the nose and out through the mouth, to help us come back into balance, but as soon as that thought arises again, we feel ourselves spiralling out of control. 

Here the mind and thought, in the memory of the situation, have made it so we associate that awful feeling with the memory of the situation. Even though as soon as the moment has passed where we have experienced it, we remember it differently to what it actually was. All of our memories are distorted, not true to the actual reality of what happened. As soon as we experience, we perceive it in our own way therefore one person’s view of a situation can be completely different from another – how do we know who is right? We can go over and over again and again which carries us even further away from the truth, we end up feeling lost and out of control, or we become unable to acknowledge that we may actually be wrong, making it hard for us to let go and move on.

Here the mind has taken over and it is easy for us to run away in thought with what has happened, we make up our own stories and overanalyse every detail, we place blame, feel guilt, ask why me?! – we become completely disconnected from the present moment and make it hard for ourselves to heal and let go of whatever it is that has happened because we keep thinking about it and giving it weight. If it is something that is extremely sad and hurtful we may even bury it away, deep deep down, and reject any feelings that come up when we think about it, making us feel cold and empty and ultimately very sad.

When we practice working with the breath we start to become clear.  Little by little, breath by breath, we start to release. Not only can breath purify the body but it can also purify the mind, creating the space we need to decipher which thoughts have meaning and benefit and which ones don’t. When we simply focus on our breath, we are bringing our mind into the body, the mind and body become one force. Mind has space to be free from thought, connecting inwardly and becoming aware of experience in the moment. When we start this practice it is so easy to be distracted, all of a sudden we are off in thought on a beach somewhere drinking from a coconut, but as we continue it becomes easier.

“By watching our thoughts carefully, we can learn to directly experience each thought or concept as it arises. By gently and skilfully staying with each thought, we can experience the different patterns and tones. This is what is meant by going to the inner experience or by actually becoming the experience” Openness Mind - Tarthang Tulku

When a thought or a distraction arises, we have the moment of awareness, the space to realise whether that thought or distraction serves us or not, so we can choose to go back inward and focus again on the breath or experience within the body. When we start to refine our awareness it becomes easier to catch the thoughts and then allow them to pass. We choose to stay in our inner experience rather then get carried away in thoughts and daydreams.

When moving through life the practice differs,  the more difficult life is the harder the practice can become but this is when it is essential. It can really help gain some clarity and space. It helps to bring some focus and keep us grounded. No matter what the whirlwind may be, if there is stillness within then we are better equipped to deal with it. We will still feel pain and sadness – but ultimately strength shines through.

The mind really likes to label things, it is so quick to place everything and everyone in boxes and for some reason, in our society, it seems mind steers towards negative more so than positive. In physical yoga this usually manifests in thoughts such as “I can’t” or “that person is better than me” or “that’s way more than five breaths.” Which is okay, we all have them, this is just the mind trying to distract. These thoughts are the very things taking us out of our experience, meaning that we aren’t getting all we can from it. What transforms the practice is the focus on the breath, learning to concentrate, learning to let those thoughts pass when they do come, and take the awareness back inward. Creating the space we need to go deeper physically and mentally. When we bring focus to the breath we learn how to control the mind, we see when mind is playing tricks, we become aware of ego and learn to overcome it. We have choice and we have created the space to choose wisely.

When we focus on the breath either in meditation or in our physical asana practice or just in day to day life, we are becoming more in tune with our true selves. Instead of joining the mind in thoughts and distractions we align ourselves within and we start to come into balance. This takes a lot of practice and patience, emotions and feeling of all kinds will start to come up, and it is here where we have to catch ourselves labelling and asking why, we need to try to learn to allow ourselves to just feel, without labelling, without judgments, just feel wholly and allow whatever experience is there to come forth. Once the experience (feeling, emotion, or whatever it is for you) presents itself to you then that is your chance to either hold on and keep it in, or allow and release. When we focus on the breath we relax and when we relax we open up space. It is with this space where we can choose if it still holds value and meaning or if you are ready to let it go. We gain inner knowledge, we learn to use it wisely, and we learn to trust our inner voice.

This is all from the simple practice of becoming aware of the breath.

With our breath we come into the present moment, and in the present moment we are able to see clearly. We are able to ease and release physical and emotional pain.

So when you are next in your practice and you are having difficulty concentrating, or if you are just sat at your desk getting lost in thought, or taking a walk, try to connect with your breath. See how long you can focus on your inhales and exhales, when a thought comes in try to catch it, acknowledge it and accept it, and then direct the awareness back to the breath.

It’s quite incredible how difficult it is at first, but once you breakthrough the initial barrier of the mind, there is so much to learn and experience. A whole world of magic that awaits. 

“As we develop our meditation, gradually our awareness increases. The mind naturally clears of confusions and dissatisfactions, and we touch upon a meditative clarity, an awareness which is there no matter where out thoughts go, no matter what occurs. Once we open to this awareness, we find strength and true confidence in ourselves: not an arrogant confidence, but a positive feeling that is truly integrated and balanced. All our decisions come effortlessly; all our actions arise naturally from this deep and nurturing awareness” Openness Mind - Tarthang Tulku

If you want to discuss anything that we have touched upon in this post please email me! I would love to hear your thoughts/experiences.

Sarah x