A Philosophy of Breath

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

Like most philosophers, Rousseau places the mind at the center of the philosophical universe. “Life is not breath,” he declares, but “our senses, our mind.” From Plato onward, most philosophers have taken up this fascination with the mind and have tended to ignore things like the body and the breath.

Of course, some Western thinkers object to this kind of mental fetishism. Nietzsche, for instance, liked to joke about the bodies of philosophers. He viewed the scholar’s “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 develops what we moderns might call computer pose. As Nietzsche puts it, “every specialist has his hunched back.”

I was trained in this tradition, trained to live the life of the mind. And, as I plunged deeper into this world, 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.

My experience helped me see that, despite its many virtues, the Western tradition has tended to ignore the power of the body and the breath. It has 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. These traditions point out that to think clearly, you must first breathe clearly.

To most philosophers, this probably sounds crazy. Why focus on breathing? Don’t we breathe without ever having to think about it? It’s true. Our breath flows without any conscious attention, while sleeping, reading, or watching reality TV.

But something changes when we bring awareness to it: we transform the physical, mental, and spiritual quality of our experience.

This is because breath is tightly connected to our mental and emotional states. Get freaked out or pissed off – your breath speeds up. It moves into your chest and becomes choppy and constricted. 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.

There are thousands of breathing practices to choose from: from bellows breathing to alternate nostril breathing to kapalabhati (breath of fire) and more. 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. I also recommend seeking out a teacher with experience in breath work, meditation, or yoga.

Here are a few tips for getting started with three-part breathing:

  • 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.
  • 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).
  • Pause for a moment between breaths, making sure not to tense up. Feel the sensations that arise when your body is full of breath.
  • 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 have the basic breath down, you can experiment with variations:

  • Mantras – you can focus your attention on repeating a mantra as you breathe (see the Mantra practice for more on this).
  • Counting Length – you can count the length of your inhales and exhales (in seconds), working to bring the two into balance.
  • Counting Down – You can count down from 50 (or any number you choose). Each full inhale and exhale counts as one breath.
  • Heart Center Breathing – For the yogis, the heart is perhaps the most potent area of the body. To begin opening this space, you can simply bring your attention to the sensations in your heart as you breathe.

Once you become comfortable breathing consciously, you can begin to bring this practice into all aspects of life. When walking, flying, driving, or waiting in line at the post office, I bring my attention to the breath. I sometimes get strange looks from the person next to me. But breathing relaxes my nervous system and opens a space for creativity and joy.

If you decide to become a master breather, check out Gay Hendricks’ Conscious Breathing and Donna Farhi’s The Breathing Book. 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.

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