Breath Awareness: A simple guide to get you started.
Breathwork starts with a very simple first step: awareness. All you need to do is pay attention to your breath, and you are already practicing breathwork and will begin to feel its benefits.
This simple exercise in breath awareness will help you tune into your sensations, understand your body’s needs, feel more at home in your body, and protect your most precious resource.
Are you a brain taxi?
We each take more than 20,000 breaths per day. That’s over 20,000 opportunities to bring awareness to how we are breathing. But how many of those breaths do you actually notice? The chances are, if you’re like most people, not many.
The average client I encounter is generally living life from the neck up. They experience their body as nothing more than a “brain taxi” and take their breath for granted.
Do we know where we are and where we’re going?
Breath awareness is the foundation and starting point of any practice.
Just like when we use a GPS, we need to know where we are now in order to navigate to where we are going.
When we begin to notice our breath more often, we also start to become aware of the habitual (and generally negative) thought patterns and physical postures that we adopt. This “gap” or ability to become “the witness” of our body-mind gives us the opportunity to reframe and respond, rather than react unconsciously.
And this is the key: we cannot help but react to the world around us. Many of us are just reacting unconsciously most of the time.
Tune into sensation. Understand the body’s needs.
When we meet our body’s genuine needs, it feels good. As we pay more attention to our breath, we are able to tune into the physical sensations in our body, so we can start to listen to what we really need in each moment. We increase our capacity to feel and be with our emotions, which also improves our ability to connect with others more deeply.
How to protect our most precious resource.
How many tabs do you have open in your browser right now?
How many times has your phone buzzed and dinged since you started reading this post?
Bringing more mindfulness to our breath is a way of reclaiming this most precious and limited resource: our attention.
Clients often complain that they find it challenging to focus on work that is deeply satisfying or to be fully present in their relationships with so many notifications and messages to attend to. Their experience is one of continually multitasking; not only are they multitasking projects, but also the people in their lives.
When I look at how they are interacting with the world, their attention, their breath, their energy tends to be focused in the upper part of their body and head, which generates an anxious quality to their state of being.
Where to start: understand the lack of awareness.
The lack of awareness around our breathing is understandable: we live in challenging times where our attention is constantly being pulled in so many different directions. The opportunities for distraction are seemingly endless, not only from the outside environment, but also from inside our minds.
As a result, we are generally unaware of the unconscious breathing habits that could be having a negative impact on our body and mind.
Story time: I was where you are now.
In what now seems like another life, my day job (often nights and weekends too) was working as an attorney in London.
From time to time, I would notice that when checking and responding to the hundreds of daily emails on my computer and phone, I would hold my breath, leaning forward with squinting eyes, a tense neck and back, and shoulders hiked up to my ears. Then I would take a deep sigh, followed by a gasping, mouth-breathing pattern that was fast, shallow, and into the upper chest.
Any of this sound familiar?
During these periods of intense focus, I would feel an underlying sense of anxiety, as if I were fighting a losing battle to clear my inbox. I would lose my sense of perspective and by the end of the day (or night), I would be left feeling both wired and tired and close to burnout.
Then, seemingly by luck, I learned some of the basic principles of better breathing, which I’ll be sharing with you in these posts. The simple awareness of the feeling of breathing opened my eyes to what might be possible, and the moment I started playing with the techniques, everything changed.
Awareness allows you to feel at home in your body.
As one of my female clients (an ER pediatric physician) shared with me recently, simply becoming aware of her breath helped her to feel more at home in her body, more at peace with her thoughts and feelings, and more able to trust in herself and in the flow of life as it moved through her.
This feeling of peace started with breath awareness.
Because breathing happens mostly unconsciously, without this initial awareness it would not have even been possible to make the choice to change. By bringing attention to the breath, even just for a moment, this inserts a conscious gap between stimulus and response, it alerts us to the fact that we have a choice, and helps us understand that we can, if we want to, breathe better, think better and feel better.
And the more aware of this choice we are, the more this choice becomes both easy and obvious.
Breath Awareness: how to get started.
Find a comfortable position, sitting, standing or lying down, with feet planted firmly on the floor and a straight spine.
- Breathe through the nose.
- Roll the shoulders back.
- Relax the upper body and soften the belly.
- Feel your belly expand with each inhale.
- Feel your belly contract with each exhale.
- Focus on your natural breathing rhythm.
- Focus on the movement of air in and out of the nostrils.
- Feel the cooler air flowing in, and the warmer air flowing out.
- Return your focus to the rhythmic rise and fall of the belly.
That’s all you need to do to get started with breath awareness.
Breath Awareness: next steps.
Notice that the breath flows without us needing to do anything, without us having to go and fetch it, to grasp at it, to work for it. Our breathing is just happening. The body is simply breathing itself.
When we tune into this feeling, we can start to appreciate each breath as a gift and give ourselves full permission to receive it.
If your mind wanders, that’s ok, just keep coming back to the breath, like an anchor for your attention.
Observe which parts of your body move as you breathe: belly, chest, back, shoulders, neck?
Perhaps put one hand on your lower belly and one on your chest to really tune into the movement.
Feel the flow of your breath.
Is it slow or fast? Deep or shallow? Smooth and steady, easy and effortless? Or tense, forced and irregular?
Don’t try to change it or judge it. Just notice.
Just notice how you are feeling at this moment. What is your emotional state, your “inner weather?”
Breath Awareness Homework 📝
There is an intimate two-way relationship between breath and emotion, between what you are feeling and how you are breathing.
Just begin to pay attention to how you feel in this moment, along with your breath.
Your homework: as you move through your day, if you begin to feel anxious or disconnected, become curious as to how this is reflected in your breathing. By bringing awareness to your breath, your feelings may well start to shift all on their own…
Marcus Blacker | Life and Breath Coach