Life doesn’t come with a “road map,” so to speak. But we get clues along the way, by means of external signs, mental responses, and physical cues. The Greek word “pneuma” means both spirit and breath—and one of our primary physical cues is breath.
Like a curtain, our first breath hides everything that happened to us before birth and whatever may follow our final breath. Our breath helps us gauge how comfortable (or uncomfortable) we are in any given moment. When we are afraid, we tighten our bodies and breathe faster; when relaxed, we soften and breathe slowly.
Breath is at once essential and mysterious. Many forms of spirituality look to breath awareness as a source of wisdom. We may observe the effortlessness of breath as a meditation, or consciously slow or speed the breath in practices like yoga, martial arts, meditation, and biofeedback. Here are four insights into mindful breathing that’ll help you inform your breath (and help your breath inform your life):
1. Ancient yoga teaches that each of us is given a certain amount of breaths for our individual life span. Therefore, the more slowly we can learn to breathe, the longer we will live.
2. Our breath is an indicator of anxiety, mood. and overall state of being. When we know how to work with our breath, we can change our mood, manage panic attacks, and even lower blood pressure.
3. In recent decades, more and more focus is being put on breathing as an essential part of physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. When we find ourselves dealing with panicky feelings, succumbing to the physical impulse to breathe quickly and shallowly, we’ll intensify the feelings.
If, instead, we fight that urge, taking slow, mindful inhales and exhales, we will find ourselves becoming more calm. Create space between your thoughts and your instinctual physical responses. It will help you find perspective again.
4. Breath is a gateway into your inner world and an essential practice in the art of healthy living. It is at the heart of prayer, meditation, yoga, childbirth, pranayama, running (the “runners’ high” is a product of breath), and ecstatic sexual practices.
Regardless of culture, environment, or personal history, humans share the legacy of birth, death, and the common yearning to make meaning of the time in between. What if the secret of life could be found within this first and final human experience of breath.