“Right exercises, which lead direct to the aim of mastering the organism and subjecting its conscious and unconscious functions to the will, begin with breathing exercises. Without mastering breathing nothing can be mastered. But, to master breathing is not easy.”

—PD Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous

“Here, monks, having gone to the wilderness, a foot of a tree, or an empty building, a monk sits down with legs crossed and body erect. Establishing mindfulness to the forefront, always attentive he breathes in with mindfulness and breathes out with mindfulness.

Breathing in long he knows ‘I am breathing in long.’
Breathing in short he knows ‘I am breathing in short.’
Breathing out long he knows ‘I am breathing out long.’
Breathing out short he knows ‘I am breathing in short.’

He trains himself ‘breathing in, I experience the whole body.’
‘breathing out, I experience the whole body.’

He trains himself, ‘I will breath in concentrating the mind.’
He trains himself, ‘I will breath out concentrating the mind.’
He trains himself, ‘I will breath in releasing the mind.’
He trains himself, ‘I will breath out releasing the mind.’

He trains himself, ‘I will breath in observing impermanence.’
He trains himself, ‘I will breath out observing impermanence.’
He trains himself, ‘I will breath in observing dispassion.’
He trains himself, ‘I will breath out observing dispassion.’

He trains himself, ‘I will breath in observing cessation.’
He trains himself, ‘I will breath out observing cessation.’
He trains himself, ‘I will breath in observing relinquishment.’
He trains himself, ‘I will breath out observing relinquishment.’ “

—The Buddha Shakyamuni, Siddhartha Gautama, Ānāpānasati Sutta

Breathing is the first.

After watching my partner grow our daughter from two cells, I am convinced that life begins then, at the joining of two cells (the one—space—to the two—sperm and ovum—to the three—embryo). Yet there is undeniably a shift that happens when the first breath is taken. Perhaps it is simply the first thing that you do on your own. Until that first breath outside the womb, mother and child are one (one and not one). And then the lungs fill with air from the world and mother and child change (not one and one).

Buddhist meditation practices often begin with breathing. Yoga postures use the breath to connect the mind and the body. The foundational practice of many Chinese martial arts, zhan zhuang qigong, is a standing posture and steady, relaxed breathing.

acupuncture toronto breathing henry claflin
Photo by Artem Sapegin on Unsplash

The relationship between breath, mind and body, or between breath, self and others, is beautifully organized by G.I. Gurdjieff (Ouspensky’s teacher, whose quote is above). Humans take in three kinds of input: Impressions, Breath and Food.

Impressions are the sensory input from your eyes, ears, nose, mouth and skin.

Breath is respiration: inhalation and exhalation. The exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide happens in the lungs and in every cell. The rhythmic expansion and contraction likewise happens in the chest and everywhere.

Food is everything that goes through the GI tract. This is hopefully just water and nutrients, but may of course include things that are not nutrition like plastics, man-made chemicals, and processed food-like products (refined sugars, coloring, preservatives, etc.).

Breath is only one of the things we receive from our environment to survive. Self-development involves working carefully and consciously with all three inputs, yet breath is where we begin. One observes themselves, comes to know oneself. Although I am no Gurdjieff scholar, I understand that the thinking goes: Once you know yourself, you can begin to actually make choices about what you do with your body and mind. This is a practice of developing a will (you are neither born with nor entitled to will power).

Will is the capacity to want to do something, to decide that you will do it, and then it is done. For example, many of us know that eating refined sugar is not good for us, but we do it anyway. Having will, you can decide to no longer eat sugar, and then it is done, you do not eat sugar anymore. However, if you’ve ever tried to stop eating sugar, or start an exercise routine, or learn to play the piano, then you probably know that these things are easier said than done. The place to start is to make the decision to observe your breath, and see how long your will to observe breath lasts. One breath? Three? Half a breath, if I am being really honest and really stringent about my definition of “observe”. Observe your breath, and nothing else, for ten minutes and you will likely discover that you have functionally zero will power.

I do not know this for sure, but I believe Gurdjieff would say to observe the breath always. While walking, while thinking, while talking with friends, while engaged in whatever kind of work you do. The more comprehensive the observation, the more doorways it opens into the development of will.

In Taiji Quan, we develop the feeling of breathing with the whole body. Breath in, the torso expands like a wave from abdomen to chest, the shoulders and hips open, the elbows and knees fold, the limbs all swell. Breath out, the wave recedes, the spine lengthens, the whole body concentrates and shoots out, condensed and clear. Breath in to receive like a pillow, a loving embrace. Out to spin and slip around and through. The mind can sit on this ebbing wave of breath like an emperor on the throne. Here it can relax, it can abide in not-doing, it can let the autonomic rhythm of breath orchestrate movements.

The Neijing defines a healthy person—and by implication, the ideal of the sage—as someone whose carotid and radial pulses change in quality in accordance with each season. The pulse is driven by the lungs. The circulatory system as a whole is thought of as a circuit that starts not with the heart as in Western medicine, but with the lungs. While the heart sets the pace and rhythm, the lungs provide the power behind the circulation of blood, fluids and nutrients. To be healthy, first the lungs have to be working well. When the lungs are working well, the pulse has the most basic requirement to resonate with the environment. (While many physiological functions can go awry and prevent resonance, healthy breathing patterns and lung function are the fundamental requirement. Only when breath is correct we can look at other causes of disease like mental health, stress, digestion and absorption, toxicities, injuries, etc.)

Neijing and Taiji take a similar physical or embodied approach to self-development, changing the body to develop one’s whole self, and using the mechanics of breathing to get the entire system performing at the highest level possible. To get deep into the mental side of breathwork and its implications for self-development, I look to Buddhism.

In the old writings about the Buddha, a teaching called Ānāpānasati Sutta outlined a breathing meditation design to bring the practitioner to Nirvana. In Ānāpānasati breathwork, enlightenment hangs on the awareness of breathing in and out.

As the Buddha gives instructions on how to be mindful of the breath,

He trains himself, ‘I will breath in concentrating the mind.’
He trains himself, ‘I will breath out concentrating the mind.’
He trains himself, ‘I will breath in releasing the mind.’
He trains himself, ‘I will breath out releasing the mind.’

He trains himself, ‘I will breath in observing impermanence.’
He trains himself, ‘I will breath out observing impermanence.’
He trains himself, ‘I will breath in observing dispassion.’
He trains himself, ‘I will breath out observing dispassion.’

He trains himself, ‘I will breath in observing cessation.’
He trains himself, ‘I will breath out observing cessation.’
He trains himself, ‘I will breath in observing relinquishment.’
He trains himself, ‘I will breath out observing relinquishment.’

Mindfulness has lost part of its identity since the Buddha’s day. Nowadays “mindfulness” has been made easier to accomplish, with a much more modest purpose. But Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, was bold and always looking at the potential of a lifetime.

Sati is the Pali word for mindfulness. The first people to write down Siddhartha’s teachings and the stories about him, wrote in Pali. Sati means ‘to remember’ or ‘to bear in mind’, as in to remember the true nature of phenomena: emptiness, interconnection, illusion—the full depth of wisdom and worldview that stemmed from the Buddha to bring people to Nirvana.

Buddhist scholar Robert Gethin writes, “Sati is an awareness of things in relation to things, and hence an awareness of their relative value. Applied to the satipațțhānas, presumably what this means is that sati is what causes the practitioner of yoga to “remember” that any feeling he may experience exists in relation to a whole variety or world of feelings that may be skillful or unskillful, with faults or faultless, relatively inferior or refined, dark or pure.”

Mindfulness is not simply to observe, but to remember the truth of what you are observing.

Breathing becomes more than breathing. It is a rhythm pulsing under every experience in life, reminding you that you have a body, you have emotions, you have a mind. Reminding you that your breath is a tool to focus yourself on joy, pleasure and tranquility. Reminding you of the truth of impermanence, to “give up greed and distress for the world”.

On every breath in, and on every breath out, hang the mechanics and the wisdom that free you from suffering.

acupuncture toronto breathing henry claflin
Photo by Joshua Abner from Pexels

Cover photo by Joshua Abner from Pexels.

Henry Claflin

Henry is an acupuncturist, herbalist, martial artist and writer. He practices in the Queen West area of Toronto, Ontario.

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