The Beautiful Breath
Updated: Oct 10
The breath is a chord that connects us to this life. Meditators use the breath as a guide to awakening and approach it with reverence. Once severed, we are cut off from this world and return to the Mystery from whence we came.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Hebrew word for spirit is Neshama (נשמה) or "soul." Neshama is a cognate of nesheema, which literally means 'breath'. There is a Jewish belief that this breath came from God and is the source of part of man's soul, the God spark.
The Indian poet Kabir wrote: "What is God? He is the breath inside the breath."
In the New Testament we find pneuma (πνεῦμα) which refers to the Holy Spirit, the spirit by which the body is animated, the breath, or wind. "Ye are the temple of God, and the Spirit of God dwelleth in you." (1 Cor 3:16)
The breath is a gift that brings the ultimate gift of life. In the Book of Job 33:4, it is written: "The spirit of God hath made me, and the breath of the Almighty hath given me life."
In the Qur'an it is written:
And remember when thy Lord said unto the angels: Lot I am creating a mortal out of potter's clay of black mud altered. So, when I have made him and have breathed into him of My spirit . . . Qur'an 15:28-29
The Qur'an uses the word nafas for the breath of Allah, and the word Ruh for His own soul. These same words are also used to refer to the human breath and human soul.
In this lifetime, we can know peace by following this breath, by respecting it, by appreciating its import. It may seem a little thing, but everything you experience comes because it comes. All things come courtesy of the breath, as the teacher Prem Rawat often says. The breath is no small thing.
Our sense of value and of importance is determined by what we get accomplished. Our valuation of our failure or success comes from the outside. Most neither appreciate the beauty of the breath nor the preciousness of life that flows from its incomings and outgoings. We give more attention to our ambitions and plans and illusions. In fact, the disjointed, chaotic thought patterns we may identify with can dysregulate the breath. I call this seeming self the little self. The little self imagines some future probability that doesn't come to pass and feels anxious around that; breathing patterns change, physiology changes. The little self imagines some perceived slight and gets angry; breathing patterns change, physiology changes. The little self ruminates on the past and sadness arises; breathing patterns change, physiology changes.
But the breath doesn’t judge our worthiness. It touches us like the sunshine or the rain whether we are saints or sinners, wise or confused, successes or failures as the world defines these things. It comes because it is supposed to come whether we deem ourselves worthy or unworthy. It is a timepiece of sorts and each one holds within it the possibility of awakening.
We can appreciate the beauty of existence with each breath, and admire the simplicity of being as life unfolds moment by moment courtesy of this breath.
Each inhalation and exhalation can be a prayer of thanksgiving.
Life begins with a breath and ends with a breath. On the last day of our sojourn here when we struggle to take another one, we will truly appreciate its value. We won’t be able to buy another one, no matter how much wealth we've amassed. We won’t be able to command another one to come no matter how much power we had consolidated. We won’t be able to strong arm life for another day, no matter how athletic we had become. Recognizing this, we use this opportunity, this moment, this breath, to receive the gift that is given. Here comes another one… and another one.
The in-breath and out-breath are like bits. A bit is a binary digit, the smallest unit of data that a computer can process. A bit represents a state with one of two possible values. These values are most commonly represented as either "1" or "0", but other representations such as true/false, yes/no, on/off, or +/− . These values control gates, circuits, polarities, switches, voltages, currents, processes and other states at the machine level. Similarly, the breath has a bi-lateral influence (and is influenced by) respiratory muscle activity, ventilation efficiency, chemoreflex and baroreflex sensitivity, heart rate variability, blood flow dynamics, respiratory sinus arrhythmia, cardiorespiratory coupling, and sympathovagal balance.
All technology, from simple transistors to cloud infrastructure to artificial intelligence, is built atop this binary system of I's and 0's, just as all of the complexity that is your life comes courtesy of In's and Out's. The aggregate of the operating system, the programs, and the frame called YOU begins and ends with I's and 0's.
In meditation, we ride the breath deeper and deeper to inner stillness and peace. We follow its natural rhythm. The mystery of life dances within us. Everything unfolds because we have this breath: thoughts, emotions, sensations, and consciousness itself. The mind may be fickle and attention wavering, but the breath is steady and faithful. We return and rest in its constancy. We use the breath as an anchor for the mind; it is firm and secure. The mind wanders again, but, as soon as we remember and return, there it is, in and out. As attention becomes more stable, we learn to follow each inhalation from beginning to end and each exhalation from beginning to end, resting in the pauses between breaths.
The neural architecture undergirding attention becomes more robust. With practice, those neural networks involved in executive functioning, error processing, and reorienting of attention become stronger and more efficient. At the experiential level, sustained concentration begins to feel effortless.
As thoughts drop away and the mind learns to stay on the breath, it's beauty and perfection begin to shine. Attention and awareness become more stable and concentration is sustained without wavering. Staying the mind becomes effortless. The mind becomes more radiant. By developing concentration on the inhalation and exhalation of the breath, we may experience bright lights Buddhists call nimittas. They may appear as discrete or diffused (Lindahl et al, 2013). Buddhism delineates each stage of attention and concentration and the literature also details a range of psychological and physiological experiences associated with each stage. These perceptual and cognitive experiences are similar to those associated with sensory deprivation which have been shown to enhance neuroplasticity (Boroojerdi et al., 2000; Fierro et al., 2005; Pitskel et al., 2007; Maffei and Turrigiano, 2008). The brain becomes more integrated functionally and we see increased synchronicity among neural networks.
Life unfolds moment by moment because the breath comes- so seemingly simple, this in-flowing and out-flowing. Paradoxically, the seemingly simple is truly complex.
Two clusters of neurons help regulate the breath. One site is the pre-Bötzinger complex (preBötC) which generates respiratory rhythms (frequency and amplitude) to meet behavioral and metabolic demands- i.e, when stressed or calm, healthy or ill, moving or still, etc. These respiratory signals travel via the vagal nerve which branches out to most of the organs of the body. Within the brain, there is also a pathway that connects the preBötC to brain regions associated with emotion, arousal, and motivation. "The Pre-Botzinger complex appears to play a role in the effects of breathing on arousal and emotion," noted UCLA neuroscientist Jack Feldman. Indeed, by paying attention to the breath, we can detect signature patterns when stressed, angry, sad, calm, or excited... and do something about it!
On a podcast, Dr. David Linden, Ph.D., professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, referenced studies his colleagues were researching. They were able to record signature breath patterns at different regions of the brain that map to neural activity in the cerebellum, the neocortex, the habenula, and other regions. It is reasonable, he argues, that conscious modulation could therefore have effects on neural function and by extension cognition, emotion, and behavior.
We can also dial down the sympathetic nervous system, or "fight-flight-freeze" stress response with the breath. Diaphragmatic, rhythmic breathing improves vagal tone and turns up the parasympathetic nervous system, sometimes called the "rest and digest" response. Scientists have found a frequency of 5.5 to 6 breaths per minute to be restorative, triggering the “relaxation response." It may take several minutes of controlled breathing to experience this. But the more we practice the faster and deeper we drop into relaxation.
The second site for breath control is the parafacial nucleus. The parafacial nucleus coordinates breathing and speaking and controls non-rhythmic breathing via the phrenic nerve. The phrenic nerve is a faster highway than the vagus. Breathing techniques mediated via the parafacial nucleus/phrenic pathway often produce immediate changes to the body and mind. Effects are felt within seconds, not minutes. Ancient pranayama techniques and modern iterations like the Wim Hof Method change our oxygen/CO2 levels. We adjust the ph balance of our blood in seconds, inducing a hypoxic/hypercapnic state one may experience as tingling, light-headedness, heat, etc.
We can learn to regulate stress top-down and learn how to take control of our bodies and minds at the physiological level. There is a close correlation between anxiety and our ability [or inability] to manage stress. This is a skill that can be trained. Learning to control the breath to regulate physiological and psychological responses is like learning how to hack into a computer at the assembly or machine level. Indeed, we can adjust baselines to stress and change our default settings.
Ancient yogis gave names to the 4 cycles of the breath:
puraka- the in-breath
antar kumbhaka- the pause between the in-breath and out-breath
rechaka- the out-breath
bahya kumbhaka- the pause between the out-breath and in-breath
Yogis also created hundreds of pranayamas or breath work exercises for each cycle. Here are just 5 (1 per cycle):
Sudarshan kriya extends the pause (kumbhaka) between the in-breath and out-breath.
Extending the out-breath, making it twice as long as the inhalation (a 2:1 ratio) induces the relaxation response. When we extend the exhalation, we slow our heart rate.
Nauli Kriya exploits the pause between the out-breath and in-breath (bahya kumbhaka).
Box breathing, vritti pranayama, is a form of yogic deep breathing employed by the United States Navy SEALs. I use this technique to lower my heart rate after working out or before bed. It consists of breathing in (puraka) for x seconds, holding (antar kumbhaka) for x seconds, exhale for x seconds (rechaka), and hold (bahya kumbhaka) for x seconds. X could be from 3-10 seconds.
We can use the breath to regulate many physiological processes:
Change the blood’s ph balance
Increase or decrease oxygen saturation
Increase or decrease C02
Change systolic blood pressure
Improve pulmonary capacity
Increase body temperature
Slow or raise heart rate,
Strengthen the immune system (Kox, et al., 2014).
Increase mental alertness
Change the pattern of brain wave activity which may impact emotional state (Zhang,2022).
Another breath comes. A signal from the brainstem travels down the spine to the diaphragm which contracts, pushing out the ribcage and abdomen. Simultaneously, the intercostal muscles pull the rib cage up and out. The chest expands, the thoracic cavity increases in volume decreasing intra alveolar air pressure. Air is pulled into the nose. It is slowed, filtered, and humidified. It divides into the right and left lungs, traveling further down the airways, dividing another 15 to 20 times and further dividing thousands of times to fill the air sacs where a gas exchange takes place. Molecules of oxygen bind to molecules of hemoglobin. Iron acts as a magnet. These iron molecules are recycled stardust, remnants of supernovae that exploded billions of years ago. Chemoreceptors monitor carbon dioxide levels which will influence the frequency and amplitude of each breath we take. The muscles relax and we exhale. A pressure vacuum is created and we draw in another small breath composed of gases that sustain us.
The atmosphere is made up of the inbreaths and outbreaths of all things that respired, past and present, from cyanobacteria and phytoplankton to velociraptors that roamed the earth during the Age of Dinosaurs. It took billions of years for the atmosphere to assume the composition of gases we inhale.
Another breath comes. Can you appreciate what just touched you?
First published 4/28/2022
Edited and republished 6/1/2023