When you take a conscious breath, you may experience any number of sensations.

  • Immediate relief
  • Sleepiness
  • Boredom
  • A sense of being at ease
  • Muscular relaxation
  • A flood of thoughts
  • Nothing much
  • Excitement and energy

There is no way of knowing for sure what your breath experience will be like because the interplay between the dimensions of breath—metabolism, information, and emotion—is infinitely complex. What you or I experience in any given moment of breath awareness is actually a side effect of what the body is doing as it balances its energies, heals itself, assesses the environment, acts on its instincts, and mobilizes to meet challenges from without and within.

There are two major aspects to the practice of breath awareness:

  • The first is learning how to pay attention, which itself has two parts: learning to ride the rhythms of awareness, and discovering your favorite sensual pathways.
  • The second aspect, oddly enough, is learning how to handle relaxation. When you relax, you come down off the stress response and you feel the pain underneath—the pain of tensed muscles along with fatigue. Your mind may be flooded with images of what made you tense, and your body will feel the sensations of tension once more before letting go.

The process is similar to the experience of sitting on your foot and cutting off circulation. You don’t feel anything at first, but when you restore circulation by standing up, you feel the pins and needles. Almost every exercise in this book has to do with restoring or increasing circulation to the physical and emotional body, and you will experience various kinds of
pangs as you explore the conscious breath. Rarely will you encounter anything as intense as what happens when you sit on your foot. Mostly, they will be relatively tiny sensations, but be accepting of them because this is how relaxation happens.

I ♥ Stress

Personally, I love the stress response, with its tingling surge of instant energy throughout the body. It saved our ancestors many times, and I am sure it has saved my life at least a few times. But, like a powerful motor, you don’t want to rev your nervous system needlessly.

Whether you are dealing with your kids or competing in the Olympics, having
just the right amount of energy is critical. In the martial arts, sports, singing, or speech making, the ability to relax in action is highly valued because it helps you perform at your best. Breath awareness teaches you how to modulate your stress response directly so that you can control your levels of excitement and relaxation in any situation.

Elegance in Action

In most life situations, a tiny fraction of the stress response is what is most useful – just a slight boost, maybe 1% or 5% of being scared. Meditation is one of the main times, besides dreaming, that your body can adjust its meters and dials and train itself to have only appropriate stress, exactly when needed and only to the extent that it is needed. You may have heard the expression, Nature loves elegance, or nature is economical. It's true. Your body, as a part of nature, loves elegance in effort, to use energy well.

The body spends a lot of time during meditation
debriefing the alarm response – making little movies about the stuff you got scared or stressed about, examining the exact nerves and glands that were triggered, replaying the whole scenario so that it is more efficient and successful. Although this process feels noisy and painful, if you allow this debriefing, you will have a clearer head next time you are in a stressful situation, and you will tend to function better.

Perceiving Relaxation

The more your senses evolve, the more you will notice how each moment is slightly different from any other. Mostly, you will experience what relaxation feels like. These sensations of winding down do not mean that you have failed in breath awareness. Rather, when you are at ease, your body will systematically review every time you have been ill at ease, to fine-tune its responsiveness. The different parts of your body will talk to one another. This is what human nervous systems do; it is an adaptive trait, part of our survival mechanism. It speaks to the success of your breath experience if the noise of the different parts of your body and brain talking to one another sounds like a cocktail party.

Open Your Senses

Arrange to sit somewhere comfortable where you won’t be disturbed for a while. Sit upright in a chair with your back supported and your feet on the ground.
Sit for 1 minute with your eyes open and get used to just being there.

Notice that you are breathing, and open your senses to breath.

Find some aspect of breathing that is pleasant to you right now—
the touch of air in your nostrils, down your throat, into your chest and belly.
The rhythmic in-and-out of the breath, the massage of it, the quiet sounds.

Focus on the sensation you like most and keep returning to this pleasure.

Your mind will always wander; the key is to be gentle in returning to the breath. In an easy and casual manner, keep bringing your attention back to the sensual experience of breathing.

When thoughts come, you will often become totally lost in them and forget that you are breathing. When you return from the thoughts, you will have a choice of what to pay attention to and again you can enjoy the breath.

You can practice this exercise for 1 minute, 3 minutes, 5 minutes, or even 20 minutes