Breath Awareness

A Guide to This Simple Yet Profound Practice

“Breathing in progress here.” I saw this notice attached to a friend’s computer recently. Susan had decided to take daily relaxation breaks by focusing on breathing, and the little sign served as a reminder. Breath awareness—observing the flow of breathing—had become an important part of her life.

Susan is not alone. For centuries, individuals from every culture have been drawn to the practice of breath awareness. Why? In a lecture given to students of the Zen tradition, the master Yasutani-Roshi (1885-1973) gave this explanation: “There are many good methods of concentration bequeathed to us by our predecessors in Zen. The easiest for beginners is counting incoming and outgoing breaths. The value of this particular exercise lies in the fact that all reasoning is excluded and the discriminative mind put at rest. Thus the waves of thought are stilled and a gradual one-pointedness of mind achieved.”

Yasutani-Roshi guided students in a variety of techniques for practicing breath awareness, beginning with counting the breaths and culminating in the instruction to stop counting and begin “trying to experience each breath clearly.”

The practice of watching the breath was widely advocated by early Christian teachers as well. For example, the orthodox abbot Saint Hesychios (eighth century) described the practice of watchfulness (the equivalent of awareness), and then linked it to breathing: “Every monk will be uncertain about his spiritual work until he has achieved watchfulness…. Watchfulness is the heart’s stillness and, when free from mental images, it is the guarding of the intellect…. With your breathing combine watchfulness.”

Breath awareness is also thoroughly integrated into the yoga tradition. It plays a role in every aspect of practice, from the performance of asanas to meditation. In fact, breath awareness is so important that it is not unusual for instructors to claim that without it, yoga is not yoga.

With such impressive credentials, you might imagine that breath awareness training centers would have sprung up everywhere. But the reality is that training in breath awareness is often disorganized, and rarely brought to the lofty outcomes described by traditional masters. So let’s take a look at breath awareness systematically, and create a map for the journey.

First Steps of Yogic Breathing

Try this experiment. Bring your breathing into your awareness and follow it much like you might follow a long volley in a tennis game. As the breath flows out and in, learn to sense the experience of breathing and the small variations that take place in breath flow. Notice whether your breathing is comfortable or uncomfortable. Change your posture. Feel the sensation of breath in your new position. Notice any sighing or unusual breaths. Don’t be alarmed by them—just notice them. The next time you are walking, watch your breath again. Out and in; out and in. You will soon find that you can observe your breathing in any situation you choose.

In yoga two reclining postures are used to simplify the early stages of breath training: savasana (the corpse pose), done in a supine posture, and makarasana (the crocodile), done lying on the stomach. Use the supine pose to observe relaxed abdominal breathing. To observe deep, diaphragmatic breathing, use the crocodile pose.

Be sure to be aware of your breathing under less than perfect conditions. Climb a long flight of stairs—then watch. Swim underwater; watch your breath in the shower when water is flowing over your face; drive on a gravel road—behind a truck—with the windows open. Your goal is to observe your breathing with a certain detachment. You are becoming the student of your own breath, and you will learn how resilient and accommodating your breathing really is.