The breath has a powerful effect on the mind.
Watching the breath and mind carefully, you can see that as the breath lengthens, slows and softens, the mind slows, and the thought streams become shorter and less intense. Whether you use sequences of postures coupled with inhalation and exhalation, or practice breathing exercises (pranayama), a dramatic change in the mind occurs. With this understanding, many excellent windows into awakening have been found over the millennia.
An important first step is to focus on how inhales and exhales are done. There are three main regions of the breathing apparatus, a) the clavicles and upper chest, b) the main chest and intercostal muscles and c) the diaphragm or belly region. The amount of air moved and the deepness of the breath increases as you move from a) to c). All three regions are engaged in what is called a complete yogic breath. It is helpful if you try to do these separately so that you can recognize each one. Placing your hand on your belly, intercostal muscles or shoulders while you breathe is a useful way to isolate and observe each in operation.
There is much debate about exactly how inhales and exhales should be done and in which sequence for pranayama. Many senior teachers recommend doing pranayama by inhaling “from the top down”, i.e. upper chest to belly, and exhaling “from the bottom up”, i.e. belly to upper chest. This would be the first approach recommended.
Others recommend inhaling “from the bottom up”, and exhaling “from the top down”.
As to the length of the inhale and exhale, focus more on the exhale than the inhale. If your exhale is rough and jagged and leaves you gasping for the next inhale, back off until you reach a place where you can practice with comfort and ease. The exhale should be at least as long as the inhale. Preferably, and naturally for most, it will be longer.
A classical breathing practice from Zen meditation is to count your breaths. To begin with, count both the inhales and the exhales. Breathing consciously and slowly, count each half of the breath cycle from 1 to 10 and then again return to 1. If you are pulled away by thoughts and lose your place, return to 1 and begin again. How successful are you at reaching 10 without losing count? Is this more difficult than you expected?
Notice the state of the mind and the breath when you begin the practice. Then, after doing the practice for a while, observe it again. How is it different? What does your mind feel like? Are you more still or less still? Are the thought streams as intense? Are there as many thought streams?
After some practice with counting both the inhales and exhales, shift your focus to the exhales and count just them. Notice the state of the mind when you begin, and then again after some time. How is it different from when you were counting both inhales and exhales? Are you more still or less still? Are there as many thought streams? How does the mind feel?
Now repeat the exercise while counting just inhales. Again, what happens with the mind and thought streams? How is it different from counting exhales?
Counting the breath is a powerful meditation approach….Being unable to count your breaths without interruption is a revealing practice. Perhaps your mind isn’t as much under your control as you believed it was.
This practice can also be of great value in daily life if the mind begins to race, or becomes trapped in a tight, emotional, loop of thoughts. When this occurs, turn to the breath and the simple counting of exhales. See if the loop doesn’t slow down, replaced by shorter and slower trains of thoughts on other topics.
The next step in using the breath as a meditation practice is to begin carefully watching it.
Sit in a comfortable, steady meditative posture in which you can remain still for some time. Slow and deepen the breath until it becomes regular and even with the exhale as long as or longer than the inhale.
Pay close attention to what happens at the end of an exhalation. Without any forceful retention or straining, be aware of the mind as the exhalation ends, before the inhalation begins. Watch the exhalation tail off and softly end.
Where does it go? What does it disappear into? Be watchful as the energy of the exhalation ends and before the inhalation begins. Is there a space there? What does it look and feel like? What is thought doing?
Shift your attention to the beginning of the inhalation. Watch carefully its source. Where does it come from? What causes it to come into being? What initiates it? What happens to the energy of the mind?
Next, as the inhalation continues, watch as it expands and then comes to an end, without your holding or straining, watch it tail off. Where does it go? Is there a space there before the exhalation begins? When the exhalation begins, where does it come from? Who initiates it? What happens to thought at these turnings of the gate of the breath, this ending of one movement and the beginning of the next? What is in that space?
This powerful meditative approach using something that you do thousands of times every day is always available, free of charge. It has been used for thousands of years. Answering these few questions in these simple exercises can be the only practice you will ever need on your path to awakening.
As with physical postures, recognize that the breath is a powerful tool. If it is misused, or highly stressed, it is possible to injure yourself, physically or mentally. Be alert to stresses and your limitations, cardiovascular as well as others. If in doubt, consult your physician or health care provider.