Monday, January 10, 2005

The Art and Science of Breathing

The Art and Science of Breathing

Everyone knows how to breathe. We do it unconsciously. Sometimes we follow the advice of health practitioners and fitness gurus to breathe properly: that is, deeply, sucking air in using one's abdominal muscles and exhaling, with the stomach compressed, lungs completely emptied.

Every intake of breath brings in fresh oxygen which is injected into the bloodstream, invigorating every cell in the body. Every exhalation helps to expel carbon dioxide wastes from the body. Good effective breathing would naturally create a healthier body.

But there's another function of breathing that's also very important. All mystics know that: Breathing helps to control the mind. The breath is a vital link between the microcosm of the body and the macrocosm of the outside world.

We all know that our breathing pattern changes depending on the state of our mind--whether we are sad, excited or bored. But we do not always realize that the reverse is also true: we can control the states of our mind by controlling our breath.

Controlling the mind is one of the most difficult things for us to do. Sometimes we know that we shouldn't think certain thoughts but somehow they keep popping up in the mind and there's no way we can "kill" them like how we kill processes in a multitasking operating system.

The mind is a powerful instrument but also a very difficult one to control, which is why Buddhists call our usual mode of thinking, the "Monkey Mind"--it is always jumping around like a wild monkey from one thought to another. Most of us cannot control our minds easily because we usually operate in a reactive mode--one stimulus triggers one thought which triggers the next thought and so on, until we realize that--often to late--that we are already angry, or in some other heightened state of emotion.

Now, since we can consciously control our breathing if we choose to, why can't we use the breath as a lever to control the mind?

Which is precisely the reason why breathing meditations are very common among many mystical traditions. When we focus on the breath, we are actually going down to the source of all mental impulses.

Whenever we want to compose ourselves, we instinctly draw a deep breathe, slowly. Why can't we do that all the time, synchronizing breathing with the thinking process?

If we exercise our breathing "muscles' more--we naturally would gain a more granular control of our thought processes. Thoughts and the breath are intimately link--we just don't always realize that. Even the word "inspiration" comes from the Latin word spirare, meaning breathe.

Breath meditation exercises could be very dull affairs--you are asked to focus on the in-breathe for half-and-hour, and then the out-breath for the next half-and-hour and then the "point-of-breath" for the next half-hour. But if we understand the relationship between the breath and the mind, we will begin to fathom how powerful this simple bodily function of breathing, which we often take for granted, is.

Yogis take a lifetime to master the breath. There's a whole mystical science behind it. We might not have the time and inclination to pursue such things. But at least, be occassionally conscious of how your breathe.

How you breathe determines how you think. So breathe properly, for breathing, is more important than you think.

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