Don’t Think

Teach him to live rather than to avoid death: life is not breath, but action, the use of our senses, our mind, our faculties, every part of ourselves which makes us conscious of our being

Jean Jacques Rousseau, Emile

In ten years of training in philosophy, not once did I hear a professor talk about breathing. We talked about justice, equality, free will, and truth. But breathing was a bit like the paint on the classroom wall. Unless it got totally uneven and messed up, nobody paid any attention to it.

A few of the great philosophers mention breathing. Aristotle has a treatise called “Breathing” where he looks at the physiology of breath. But Rousseau does the best job of capturing the philosophical sense of indifference toward breathing: “Life is not breath,” he declares. It is “the use of…our mind.”

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Most philosophers share Rousseau’s obsession with the mind.  But there are a few outliers in the Western tradition.  The German philosopher Nietzsche had a more embodied approach to philosophy.  He saw the “life of the mind,” not as a virtue, but as a disease. The mental symptoms: the scholar becomes delusional. He lives with an “overestimation of the nook in which he sits and spins.” The physical symptoms: the scholar’s posture slumps. As Nietzsche puts it, “every specialist has his hunched back.”

Video of Nate Klemp and Gay Hendricks author of Conscious Breathing talking about the effects of conscious breathing on the body, mind, and spirit.

As I plunged deeper into the life of the mind, I started to experience – in my own body and mind – a few of these scholarly dysfunctions. Hours of endless reading helped give me the beginnings of a hunched back. It also created a chaotic and unfocused mental state.

I started to think that Nietzsche might just be onto something.

I now see that despite its many virtues, the Western tradition has tended to ignore the body and the breath.  It’s overlooked the key insight of the Chinese and Indian traditions: the idea that our physical state – our breath, our alignment, and our health – shapes our mental and spiritual state.

This is because breath is tightly connected to our mental and emotional states. Get freaked out or pissed off – your breath speeds up.  Get sad or depressed – your breath rises into your upper chest, becoming limp and lifeless.

And now here’s the key insight of the Chinese and Indian traditions – this relationship between breath and the body/mind is a two way street. Just as fear shortens your breath, lengthening and relaxing your breath dissolves fear. The mind changes the breath, but the breath also changes the mind.

Modern science offers an account of how this works. By consciously deepening the breath, we reduce blood pressure and heart rate. We calm the nervous system and stimulate the lymphatic system’s detoxification process. We also calm the mind – shifting brainwave activity from anxiety producing beta-waves to calmer, more focused, alpha-waves.

So for this week’s experiment, let’s explore what happens when we bring our conscious attention to breathing.

What’s the best way to start breathing consciously?  There are thousands of techniques and practices to choose from. But to begin, I recommend a simple three-part breathing technique that I learned from my best friend Thad Wong, founder of the New York City Shaolin Center.

Here’s how you do it:

1. Find a quiet place and sit either on the floor or on the edge of a chair.
Your spine and head should be upright – as if suspended from a string that attaches to the top of your head.

2. Never force your breath. It should feel smooth and fluid, not rigid and choppy.
As you inhale, direct the breath to the belly first (part 1). Once the belly expands, begin filling the middle ribs and chest (part 2). Then bring the breath all the way up into the upper ribs and collarbone area (part 3).

3. Pause for a moment between breaths, making sure not to tense up. Feel the sensations that arise when your body is full of breath.

4. Then, as you exhale, allow the expansion in your upper chest to release (part 3), followed by your middle ribs (part 2), and finally by drawing the navel into the spine (part 1).

The goal is to both lengthen the breath (to slow your inhales and exhales) and to balance the breath (to match the length of your inhales and exhales).

Once you’ve mastered conscious breathing, you can begin bringing this practice into all aspects of life. When walking, flying, driving, or waiting in line at the post office, see if you can bring your attention to the breath.  You might get some strange looks from the person next to you. But you might also find that this kind of conscious breathing dissolves stress and opens a space for creativity and joy.

If you decide to become a master breather, check out Gay Hendricks’ book Conscious Breathing. Gay will actually be joining us on Thursday for a short video interview on breathing.

There are many amazing teachers out there as well. Thad Wong, Max Strom, and Saul David Raye taught me most of what I know about breathing and, if you ever get the opportunity to work with them in person, I highly recommend their classes and workshops.

Let me know what you think.  Have you experienced the power of breathing in your own life?  What shifts do you feel as you spend the week with the intention to breath consciously?


If you haven’t already, be sure to check out my new free ebook “Finding Reality.” It’s a book about Thoreau’s lessons for living deep, deliberately, and in the moment, even in the midst of the digital world created by iPhones, Facebook, and Twitter.   It’s short, it’s practical, and, best of all, it’s free.

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Update: Life Beyond Logic Interviews Gay Hendricks on Breathing
posted May 7, 2011 by Nate


  1. Todd Perry says:

    A quick point I’d like to add is that it has really helped me to reflect on the process of matching my mood to others and then use that same process as the foundation for a practice of yoga, mediation, awareness of the breath in all aspects of daily life, and, more generally, awareness of the body.

    I lived with remarkably little awareness of my body (including the breath) until my late 20s, and it made a big difference for me one I started learning a little more about what was going on with my body.

    However, just a few weeks ago I began to focus intentionally on matching my mood to other people, and that one simple adjustment in how I live my life having a dramatic impact on all aspects of my life. I think what I’m focusing on is what most people call empathy, although I think the term empathy evokes a lot mental stuff about philosophy and morality, and for me, the power of mood matching is that it is more of a physical act that I’m am trying to get in the habit of doing all the time — like walking with good posture.

    Before I understood mood matching, I was just going through the motions of my yoga/meditation/breathing practice — that is seeking awareness of my body but not really finding it. It turns out that there is great power in turning the mood matching part of the brain inward on the body. Because mood matching is primarily a physical, not a mental act, it works best as a way of becoming aware of my body.

    I’ve heard yoga teachers talk about having empathy for yourself, so I’m not suggesting anything new here, but I wasn’t “getting it before”, and I see now what a powerful idea this is.

  2. Nate Klemp says:


    Thanks so much for your thoughts on this! I’m so glad to hear that you have made this powerful discovery. I’m a big believer in the idea that each of us ought to find our own practices and techniques for deepening our experience of each moment. It sounds like you have found something really profound here!


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