One of the things that give me most joy as a yoga teacher is asking a group of students to simply stand, and connect with their breath. No matter what kind of a day they’ve had, a moment of magic happens when they feel the support of the ground under them, and their breath moving through them. It’s the simplest way of finding that elusive present moment.

I see the practice of yoga as a moving meditation and the breath as the force that animates that movement. But, yoga as its essence is only a way to practice skills you take into the rest of life. Skills that make standing, sitting, lying, walking, working, playing, and living easier and freer.

Watch a baby breathe. Every single part of their body participates in the act of respiration. They let themselves be breathed, rather than consciously breathing. Yet, somehow by the time most of us are adults, we have a distorted breathing process. Watch how many times a day you hold or restrict your breath in some way. I do it when I’m waiting for the traffic-light to go green. I also do it when my mobile rings somewhere in the depths of my bag. Not to mention when the kids scream, the boss isn’t happy, someone cuts you off, or any number of unexpected things happen. Watch yourself. You might be surprised how often you impede the primary source of life moving through you. After all, when there’s no breath, there’s no life.

Breathing is related to how we feel. We talk about needing ‘a breath of fresh air’ and ‘room to breathe’ because someone is ‘breathing down our neck’. Similarly, we ‘take a breather’ and ‘breathe a sigh of relief’. Our bodies are not static containers, but growing, living, changing expressions of our experiences and our lives. We may go through change and flux, but behind and under all of these is our breath. Learning to anchor in the breath can give us one of the most powerful tools for recognising that we have a choice how to react.

Working with the breath is like peeling an onion. As each layer comes off there are changes, transitions, shifts, emotional changes and sometimes tears. So, how do we get back to that joyful, spontaneous, easy, free breathing of younger years?

The easiest way is to go back to what is called ‘essential breath’ which is the breath you breathed as a child. While there is no one way to breathe, essential breath has several characteristics which typify it.

The first is what’s called oscillation. This means that the whole body moves and is supported by the breath just like it does in a baby. The movement arises effortlessly, usually starts at the core of the body, and moves outwards and back in again.

The feeling and rhythm of the breath is calm and regular (and in my experience the mind and body feel the same way). Breathing this way is initiated by the diaphragm and its helpers the intercostals and the abdominals, and not the secondary respiratory muscles such as the scalenes in the neck, the pectoralis, and the upper trapezius which tire a lot more quickly and aren’t as effective. A quick check on where most people want a massage first is likely to include their shoulders, neck and back. It’s not surprising considering how most of us breathe.

Finally, the out-breath will be slightly longer than the in-breath, and the breath is flexible. It has the capacity to change, move, and adapt depending on what you need it to do whether you are running for a bus, getting a fit of laughter, hiking up a mountain, making love or sleeping peacefully.

Your primary breathing muscle, the diaphragm beats over 22,000 times a day without you having to control it. Yet, if you wanted to, you could hold your breath, speed it up or slow it down. Breathing is unique in the body’s systems. It goes on unconsciously a lot of the time, but we can also access it and control it. The power of essential breath lies in tapping into the space between unconscious breathing and conscious breathing, and finding out where you interfere, and get in your own way.

Try it now. Just to sit quietly, without any distractions, and feel yourself breathe in and out. Notice the body slightly expanding on the in-breath, and how it settles on the out-breath. Then notice if there are any pauses between the in and out-breath. How does the quality, texture, and depth of your breath feel? Is it fast, slow, tight, dense, loose, easy, hard?

Once you’ve ascertained where you are breathing, notice where you’re not. Are there any parts of your body that feel a bit disconnected, or habitually tight or tense? Start to imagine your breath moving into those areas, expanding and opening out the tight spots.
Once you know how and where you breathe, you can start to amplify the breath to support your daily activities in the most natural way. Everything becomes easier.

In The Breathing Book, breath expert Donna Farhi defines essential breath as ‘a conscious flow that arises out of the depth of our being and dissolves effortlessly back into our core. It arises from a background that is still and silent and dissolves back into the same stillness’ .

At first glance, this definition may seem too esoteric for most of us. Yet, what Farhi is alluding to is that there’s a rest stage in the breath. We breathe in, there’s a short pause. We breathe out, there’s a longer pause, and we naturally breathe in again. Tapping into the restful part of breathing, the space where nothing happens connects us into a profound sense of relaxation where nothing is expected of you. You’re not going anywhere, or doing anything. You’re simply being, resting, and preparing for the next breath.

This sense of relaxation offers a fundamental basis for letting go, trusting, and going with the flow. We all hold on for dear life when change happens, and the breath is the easiest part of us to hold. In this way, the process of breathing lies at the core of every action and reaction we make or have, and so by returning to it we go to the core of the stress response.

Learning about breathing is the easiest and most accessible way of accessing, creating, and sustaining vital energy and a relaxed way of living. When we harness the power of the breath, we empower ourselves in ways we didn’t think possible to support, nurture and nourish ourselves throughout life. So, take a deep breath and go explore!

When we are born we enter the kingdom of breath
We embark on this endless oscillation which will carry us
through life to deliver us dutifully
into the hands of death
Breath is the fragile vehicle on which we cross this
ocean of life
Everyone breathes, of course
One could almost say that, in Nature, everything is breathing
continuously. Rhythmically.
But, for us whether our breathing is free or impaired,
makes all the difference
How many people go through life half strangled, incapable
of a real sigh
Much less, real laughter ?
To live in freedom is to be able to breathe, fully, freely.

Frederick Le Boyer

1. Donna Farhi, The Breathing Book, (Owl Books, Henry Holt and Company, 1996)