Two functions in the human body are constant and (mostly) involuntary: the beating of the heart and breathing. Of the two, only one can, with effort, become a conscious act: breathing. From a biological perspective, unconscious breathing functions in tandem with primitive parts of the brain responsible for bodily survival and conscious breathing instead stimulates more evolved sections of the brain that are responsible for higher intellect and conscious living. Hence, by becoming conscious of our breathing and, eventually, infusing our normal breath with our own light of consciousness, we evolve multidimensionally.
Short Breaths Result in a Short Lifespan
Unconscious breathing is typically at a high rate and results in a shorter lifespan. This is why, smaller creatures such as rodents and squirrels (relatively less evolved) breathe fast and have short lifespans. On the other hand, elephants and such larger mammals breathe much slower and live longer.
Thus, the additional benefit of learning conscious breathing is a longer lifespan. Here we outline simple steps to breathe consciously.
Using the Breath to Develop Consciousness
It is impossible to breathe consciously without infusing our understanding of ourselves with a deep experience of breathing itself. Hence, the first step in learning to breathe consciously is to develop an intimate awareness of our breathing.
The first step in practice is to count each inhalation and exhalation. Assuming a comfortable sitting posture, or lying down in shyavasana (lying like a corpse on one’s back with the legs spread just so and arms by the side of the body), count each time you inhale or exhale. Without interfering with your breathing, observe your breathing pattern intently. Count each complete breath (inhalation plus exhalation) till you count 30 breaths, and then reverse the counting from 30 to 0. The purpose of the reverse count is to activate more conscious levels of our mind responsible for advanced logic and infuse our breath with the same awareness. Perform this practice for 10-15 minutes every day for a few days before moving to the next phase.
Deeper Awareness of Biological Mechanisms Transforms us from Lower to Higher Beings
The next step is to develop an awareness of the more complex biological mechanisms by which we breathe. Developing awareness of the entire respiratory system from nostrils to lungs deepens our intimacy with our own breathing.
Assume a comfortable position or lie down on your back and start the practice with 5 minutes of counting the breath. After 5 minutes, allow yourself to forget about the practice and just stay in a state of relaxation for a few minutes. Now, becoming aware of how your breath interacts with your nostrils; the cool air that enters during inhalation and the warm air that is exhaled in return. Feel the breath flow through the back of your mouth, near your tonsils, and down your pharynx (where the mouth meets the throat). Further, feel the breath travel down through the esophagus, your food and windpipes, and into your chest. Be aware of the movement of your chest with each breath, and the expansion of your lungs inside. Typically, one passage – nostril to lung, will be more active than the other, which plays a supportive role. Feel how every cell in your body is enriched with oxygen and prana with each inhalation, and the toxic carbon dioxide and other chemicals that are expelled by them with each exhalation. Experience this entire phenomenon deeply but gently. Cease the practice after 10-15 minutes, forget about it and relax for a few minutes more, then end the session.
Awareness of Each Lung Individually is a More Advanced Practice
We can further deepen the practice by developing a deep sensitivity to each one of our lungs separately.
Following the same practice as above for 5 minutes, become gently, but acutely aware of your chest and rib cage and how they heave gently with the breathing process. Then, sitting in a thunderbolt posture (vajrasana), keep your head and spine in a straight line. Now, interlock all 10 of your fingers behind your neck and, from your waist, bend sharply to the right. Hold the position while breathing deeply 10 times. You will be able to feel the predominant activity of the left lung in this posture and apply the previous conscious experience tactics to this lung in isolation. Repeat the activity 3 times on either side to develop a deep awareness of the breathing process of each lung individually.
Even Everyday Yoga Benefits from Conscious Breathing
Such activity brings consciousness to breathing and thereby slows it down while enhancing the respiration rate (the amount of oxygen that is absorbed by the lungs with each breath), relaxing your mind and emotions, and improving physical health. Additionally, the ability to focus gently on the breath sharpens the mind and sublimates its chaotic tendencies into more peaceful ones. Such practices are the basis for transforming the mind and body from a base and nervous-response mode to a higher, peaceful, and more conscious one. Yoga and breathing practices are best with conscious breathing rather than with simple and repetitive breathing, even if the breathing is done with intent rather than involuntarily.