A curious thing about breathing is that it happens either automatically or consciously.
Whats even more interesting is when we bring our attention to breathing and try not to control it.
Controlling is very easy and feels quite solid. We can lengthen or shorten and strengthen or soften our breath. But when we just feel the air moving in the nose and avoid actively participating it becomes very hard to discern if we are totally relaxing.
The way that we control the breathing might be more or less dynamic. What I mean is that we can make the breath more intense, thats obvious. Making the breath more gentle can also be a type of control.
The natural breath begins when there is an absolute minimum of action while being aware of the sensation of breathing. And that is just the beginning of feeling ones way in, by relaxing it goes much deeper.
I think this ancient practice of breath awareness deserves a special category to set it apart. Because the typical textbook description of breathing is that it can be either voluntary or involuntary. Really there is a third possibility, it can be consciously involuntary
I know this sounds like splitting hairs and Im pretty happy about that allusion because natural breathing is the meditation equivalent of nuclear fission. In terms of the search for the inner witness, breathing is the bomb that clears the path or if you prefer a broom that sweeps away
The first dramatic realisation when zeroing in on this still point of non-doing while breathing is the mystery of time. Some people say there is only the present moment and others say there is no exact present rather time is a continuum with a neural delay between objective event and subjective awareness.
Einstein brilliantly supposed that time can happen faster or slower depending on the density of gravity fields. Taking our internal experience of natural breathing a word that fleshes out our time perception is immanence. Its kind of timeless. We dont know if its the present or if time is fast or slow. Just feel the breath and avoid the intellect.
This illusion of momentariness usually blends into a sustained sense of presence. Time as a wave rather than as a particle. Very occasionally for some people this moment in time becomes a gateway a wormhole to an altered experience of an inner universe. Most of the time however other thoughts get in the way of finding this time sense.
Thats the grand picture of possibilities and I’d like to keep things simple and focus on the process rather than the outcomes.
The natural breath is very subtle. To approach it there should be a sense of not knowing if its happening completely. You can try it now for a few breaths. Sit still with eyes closed and feel the air moving through your nose. Can you actively relax the breath letting it flow very smoothly. Then see if its possible to continuosly let go of control of the breath while anchoring attention on just the sensation in the nose.
Your personal natural breath will have its own length and depth. The way your body breathes is synergistically related to your stress levels. The metabolic rate of the body is carefuly constructed by a senstitive nervous system which monitors both internal and external information.
The external sights, sounds and movements provoke internal changes in heart rate and breath rate. It all happens very quickly and obviously the best place to practice attuning to the natural breath is where you can feel secure with a minimum of disturbance.
Ive described the natural breath as consciously inovluntary or being simultaneously aware of breathing without doing the breathing. This is an essential practice for a preliminary type of Yoga known as Dhyana which means a state of mental absorbtion. In Dhyana there is an effortless experience of attention.
There is a sense that the breath awareness holds the attention and the mind is not pushing it to that place. There is a special kind of attention which produces the best result. As if you were watching out of the corner of your eye, mildly interested in whats happening yet also connected with the inner peace of a clam still mind.
There are any number of secondary practices that can assist finding this type of experience like working with the body, the thoughts, the memories and emotions. All of which are very useful and practical to complete a bigger organisation of Yoga. Then there is the deeper state of Yoga that observes the witness, like watchiing the attention rather than watching the breath.
But keeping things simple I’d like to discuss just one single alternative to effortless breathing that helps to orient in practice and that is to actually control the breath.
As Ive already mentioned we can control the breath to make it very soft and gentle and smooth. This is still voluntary controlled breathing but it is approaching surrender and it makes it easier to let go. Its a point of departure of stepping off.
So when trying to find the natural breath go ahead and actually breath very gently with rhythm. Then gradually allow the body to breath by itself.
I like to restrict myself to just this one intervention or reponse to the difficulty in finding the natural breath. I find it to be the perfect stepping stone. Alternatives could be relaxing the body or the eyes, clearing the mind or reciting a mantra or chanting.
The natural breath can be used not only in meditation but also in asana and pranayama. Especially in pranayama we see natural breathing becomes the perfect restorative practice to the various controlled styles of breathing. Its the litmus test of stress response which gives just the right measure of how long to pause between exercises and after practicing.
If we are using the natural breath in meditation beginning with gentle conscious breathing helps greatly to bring attention in a fixed way. Gradually releasing the control and moving to natural breathing the attention also softens. There is a big difference between tightly focussed attention and soft diffuse awareness. This difference can be seen in the levels of electrical wave frequencies produced by the brain but thats another story.
So when it is difficult to bring attention, if there are external distractions or internal thoughts and emotions it can be very helpful to use a tight focus on gentle breathing. This can happen many times during a single session of meditation.
The location of the natural breath is not limited to the nostrils of the nose. We can feel the breath in many parts of the body and its wonderful to explore.
The second most important place to find the natural breath is in the diaphragm. This depends to a degree on the ability to breath diaphragmatically so the nose comes first as its more available. But if you can sense the movement and change in pressure in your upper abdomen and lower ribs go ahead and use it.
When our focus is on the nose the information from the eyes seems somehow more distracting. By moving to the diaphragm the feeling becomes more grounded, more somatic and less visual.
The principal of shifting gradually from gentle control to total surrender works exactly the same with natural diaphragmatic breathing. Begin by breathing gently and feeling the movement. Its no problem to use an absolute minimum of control. Expanding the belly on inhale and guiding it back inwards on exhalation. Then once the attention is tightly focussed begin to let go of control. See if you can relax the abdomen rather than activate it during both inhalation and exhalation.
Ill be writing on many other aspects of breathing and yoga practice I hope this article is helpful to explore the subtley and find the specificity in your own play with breathing and attention. Having technique which is simple and clear takes away alot of confusion about how to practice.
This piece was written to describe how natural breathing is consciously involuntary. Related articles ask why our natural breath is unique and what it tells us about stress and how other types of breathing exercises enhance and support natural breathing (or disturb it).
A very large subject which I havent touched on here is what happens in the mind to distract us from the ability to find focus. Emotions, memories and plans and Ill cover that other posts.
If you would like to find out more information about my work please check my site. I am a yoga therapist and teacher who loves to teach both how to teach and how to practice and I work with individuals to find the most useful and rewarding practices.