1 THE POWER OF BREATH MASTERY
For breath is life, and if you breathe well you will live long on earth.
Let me tell you about my awakening to the breath. I was in the first grade at a Catholic school in New Bedford, Massachusetts. The pastor of our church made the first of his weekly visits to our classroom that Friday morning.
We all sat in awe of this very stern-looking old guy dressed in a long black robe with a bright red cape, holding a leather-bound Bible, its pages trimmed with gold leaf. We were all afraid. For all we knew, God could strike us dead if we didn’t listen and behave. (Yes, I am a recovering “Cathaholic.”)
Switching back and forth between French and English, he talked about heaven. That was nice. And he talked about hell—definitely not nice. He told us how if we were not very, very careful, and if we did not do exactly as we were told, we would all end up in that terrible place forever! Then he read from the book of Genesis and told us how: “God took the dust of the earth and formed the body of man;
and breathed into the nostrils of man the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”
To say that those words made an impression on me would be a huge understatement. I was smitten! I began to feel uncontrollable and unimaginable excitement at the thought that God was breathing into me. It was the most amazing thing I had ever heard, and I couldn’t understand why everyone else wasn’t excited about it like me.
I couldn’t sit still. I couldn’t shut up. I think I was in a state of rapture. I know I became too animated, and I guess I disrupted the class, because I remember the monsignor’s hands on my shoulders: he was forcing me to sit back down in my chair.
Either because of him or in spite of him, something in me was definitely awakened that day. I sensed there was something magical, mystical, something wonderful and beautiful about breathing, and no amount of guilt, fear, force, shame, or cajoling was going to change or erase it. This was the spark that lit a fire in me, and to this day, I remain utterly fascinated—more than ever in fact—with breath and breathing, and with the power and potential of breathwork.
From that moment of revelation, my personal path of breathwork took me on an incredible adventure from an X-ray technology program in Boston, and then into the US Navy during the Vietnam War era as an independent hospital corpsman, deep-sea diver, and emergency rescue specialist. I trained CPR and first-aid instructors, EMTs, and other emergency responders; developed the first stress and coping program for the American Red Cross; and designed a master’s program called “The Breath as a Tool for Health, Growth, and Change” at Lesley University in Cambridge.
Breathing training led me to study in India with yogi masters; to the Academy of Chinese Medicine in Beijing; and to the Russian Academy of Science in Moscow. I’ve learned methods of breathing
from Zen Buddhism, from Rebirthing with Leonard Orr, from Holotropic Breathwork with Stan Grof, and other sources.
Recently, breathwork led me to Silicon Valley, to the Nissan-Renault Group’s Research Labs. This automaker developed a prototype of a car that integrates a breathing feature into the driver’s and passenger’s seats. A mechanism in the seat, taken from Innovzen’s O2 Chair, moves in a way that promotes and supports full, relaxed breathing. It was an honor to present and fun to demonstrate the concept of “onboard breathing” to the CEO and his team. In the next few years as self-driving cars hit the highways, we’ll have more free time to focus on other things, like energizing and relaxing ourselves on the way to and from work.
All of these experiences have been the deep well where I’ve drawn from many different schools and styles of breathing to create a unique and diverse program for breathing training. That’s why my martial artist friends call me “the Bruce Lee of breathwork.” I’m not saying I’m like Bruce Lee, but one trait we do have in common is the willingness to think outside the box and uncover every stone—to share the best from all of our teachers—and the dedication and dream to teach what we have learned to anyone ready and willing to do the work.
What Is Breathwork?
Breathwork is the use of Breath Awareness and Conscious Breathing for healing and growth, personal awakening, and transformation in spirit, mind, and body. All the breathing techniques you’ll learn in this book have this definition at their core. Breathwork falls into the field of self-improvement and personal development. It is a self-help, self-healing method in alternative medicine. It is also a key
to spiritual purification and self-mastery. It is the most holistic and complementary approach to health care, and it is an essential part of any genuine spiritual development program.
Here is a partial list of settings and situations where breathwork is now being taught and applied, courtesy of Dr. Peter Litchfield (President of the Graduate School of Behavioral Health Services):
Alternative Health Care
Drug Abuse Prevention
Education (all levels)
Flight Training (aviation)
Peak Performance Training
Trauma and PTSD
More and more people are waking up to the incredible value of breathwork, and they are applying it in their everyday lives at work and at home. Coaches, health-care professionals, counselors, trainers, teachers, and therapists are using it to create breakthroughs for themselves and for those they serve. For spiritual seekers, it’s a direct path to spiritual awakening, self-realization, and enlightenment. That’s why breathwork is a major skill set that high-performing and successful individuals have mastered—it’s the secret ingredient that puts them exactly where they want to be.
I teach breathwork as a formula for personal transformation in which three basic skills or elements are taught:
Awareness (the consciousness factor): The message is “wake up!”
Relaxation (the release factor): The message is “let go!”
Breathing (the energy factor): The message is “take charge!”
I have found that no matter what method is used, or what label is given to it, every miracle event; every healing experience; every positive shift, emotional release, or behavioral change—every bit of growth can be linked to one of these three elements. Real power and magic comes from blending them and simultaneously engaging in these three elements deliberately and consistently. In practice we increase, expand, and refine our awareness. We use the breath to relax more quickly and deeply, and in more situations. And we learn breath control that results in more energy and aliveness, comfort and pleasure, and personal power and resilience.
I also call what I do breath therapy, which is based on two key ideas:
1. The breathing system in most people is not functioning at an optimal level. We need to heal it. We need to improve
or restore our breathing capacity, to correct any dysfunctional habits or patterns that inhibit or interfere with the free expression our true nature and full potential.
2. Once our breathing is full and free, healthy and natural, once it is restored or raised to an optimal level, then it automatically becomes a therapeutic tool. The body and breath can be used to heal the mind, and the mind and breath can be used to heal the body. Breathwork can be used to heal attitudes, emotions, and behaviors.
There are five principles of breath therapy. These principles came about as I searched for the answer to this question: “Why do dramatic positive results—even miracles—happen as a result of breathing sessions, and not in other kinds of therapeutic sessions?” The answer to that lies in the application of these five principles:
1. The technique (there are many techniques, each with a certain purpose or effect).
2. The atmosphere in which one practices (physical/psychological/emotional/energetic).
3. The teacher (making use of the “power and purity of our personal presence”).
4. The mind of the breather (thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, intentions, desires, will).
5. The “something else” (a mystical or magical factor: luck, grace, timing, readiness).
BREATHE NOW: HOW ARE YOU BREATHING?
Let’s try a quick exercise.
A healthy person should be able to breathe both low in the belly, as well as high in the chest, easily and at will. You should be able to breathe slowly: two or three breaths per minute. And you should be able to breathe quickly: sixty or even 120 breaths per minute. When sitting at rest, your breathing should be low and slow.
How are you breathing? Observe and sense your breathing right now.
Put one hand over your belly and one hand over the center of your chest, and monitor your breathing. How does it feel to breathe? What moves when you breathe? Where does the breath go? Are you a chest breather? A belly breather? Is your breathing fast and shallow, or is it slow and deep? Is it smooth and regular, or choppy and chaotic? Are there pauses in the breathing?
As with any art or skill, the key to excellence or greatness is in understanding and applying the fundamentals. Even the world’s greatest musicians practice the scales before a performance. You will go a lot further and a lot faster if you start with the basics and keep returning to them. When it comes to breathwork, there are two basic aspects: Breath Awareness and Conscious Breathing. You can think of these as yin and yang, active and passive aspects of the practice.
Breath Awareness: Being the Breath
Breath Awareness means paying close attention to the breath as you allow it to come and go on its own, by itself. The idea is to simply observe your breathing, watch the breath, witness it. No need
to breathe in any particular way. This is the passive aspect. It is the practice of pure awareness applied to breathing.
The awareness we are talking about is meditative awareness. It is not thinking, not judging, not comparing, not analyzing; you are not trying to figure out anything or do anything right. In fact, Breath Awareness is not really something you “do.” We are talking about a soft, open state of alertness and presence. Breath Awareness is a mindfulness practice. I also call it “breath watching.” In fact I use the terms interchangeably. It is attention training. All you need to do is decide to focus on your breathing and to observe it, sense it, moment to moment.
BREATHE NOW: SENSE YOUR BREATHING
Bring your attention to the breath. Focus on your breathing. Sense your breathing. Observe it, listen to it, feel it. Witness it. How do you know you are breathing? What feelings and sensations tell you that you are breathing? Where do those feelings and sensations occur? Where does the breath go when it flows into you? What does it touch? What moves when you breathe? What muscles do you use?
As you become more aware of the breath, you naturally become more aware of other things occurring in your mind and body: thoughts and images, feelings and sensations, perceptions and emotions. You may become more aware of your physical tensions, energetic contractions, habits, patterns, urges, reactions, and inner dialogue.
A very important part of Breath Awareness is simply to witness these various phenomena; notice them without judging, resisting, or attaching to them. If you get distracted by these things, or if your mind wanders off on a tangent, no problem, just return your attention to your breathing and fully focus on the next breath. Look for details in the breathing that perhaps you have never noticed before.
With practice, you will naturally move toward a place of freedom and inner peace, and the realization that nothing is happening to you: it is simply happening! You will develop a natural ease and a greater sense of aliveness. Ultimately you will realize that you are always and already free, no matter what you think or how you feel.
Because of the power and potential of this fundamental practice, we are going to spend a lot of time on it, and we’ll keep coming back to it, especially in chapter 4, “Breathing to Transform Your Spirit.”
Conscious Breathing: Doing the Breathing
The second basic aspect of breathwork is Conscious Breathing. This is where you come in. You are an active participant in the breathing process, more than the witness. Conscious Breathing means that you deliberately control, direct, and regulate the breathing in some way. You give the breathing a certain quality or a specific pattern. You breathe with a conscious intention. You are creative.
With Breath Awareness, the breath breathes you; with Conscious Breathing, you breathe the breath.
An example of a Conscious Breathing exercise is to breathe at a rate of four to eight breaths per minute, which is considered to be a “therapeutic zone” since it has so many naturally therapeutic benefits. So let’s begin with an average of six breaths per minute. That means a five-second inhale and a five second exhale.
BREATHE NOW: REGULATE YOUR BREATHING
Breathe in for a count of five seconds, and breathe out for a count of five seconds. Spend some time settling in to this rhythm. Make your
breathing pattern smooth and steady, inhaling for five seconds and exhaling for five seconds. Simple isn’t it?
Start by focusing on your breathing. At first simply being aware of it, observe it, then begin to gently bring it under your conscious control. Let the breaths be smooth and steady and rhythmic, inhaling for five seconds and exhaling for five seconds:
Inhale, 2, 3, 4, 5
Exhale, 2, 3, 4, 5
Inhale, 2, 3, 4, 5
Exhale, 2, 3, 4, 5
How do you feel after a few minutes of this practice? If you find it difficult to breathe that slowly, then use a count of two or three or four to start. Or just count faster!
If this rhythm is quite easy, experiment with a count of eight, ten, or twelve, or count more slowly. In any case, don’t push, don’t force, don’t stress, or strain. Relax. Be patient with yourself as you practice.
We will play with many other Conscious Breathing exercises and techniques in the coming chapters, but start with this one to begin a daily practice. Do it first thing in the morning, do it at lunchtime, and do it again before bed. Do it if you find yourself becoming tense or upset, or scattered in your thinking. Remember to:
Inhale, 2, 3, 4, 5
Exhale, 2, 3, 4, 5
Inhale, 2, 3, 4, 5
Exhale, 2, 3, 4, 5
• • •
Practice going back and forth between these two basic elements of breathwork, the fundamental ingredients of breath mastery. It is essential for us to learn to flow back and forth between active and passive, between doing and being, between breathing the breath and letting the breath breathe us. In other words, practice both Breath Awareness and Conscious Breathing.
Integrate Breath Awareness and Conscious Breathing into your everyday activities and interactions. For example, when walking or running, pay attention to your breathing or deliberately breathe in rhythm to your footsteps; or when listening to music, notice the quality of your breathing, the effect that the music has on your breathing, or keep the beat with your breath. When stuck in traffic or standing in line at the grocery store, observe your breathing, or gently bring it into this slow, smooth rhythmic pattern of six breaths per minute.
Breathe consciously when you watch a sunset. Use the breath to actually take in the experience. Breathe consciously when someone insults you, praises you, or tells you his or her problems. Begin using your breath to focus or center yourself, to relax or energize yourself. Use it to prepare for important events, to get through challenging tasks, and to recover from stressful experiences.
Get into the habit of observing your breath and taking control of it before, during, and after various activities, events, and interactions. That’s the ultimate key to Breath Mastery: turning your daily practice into a way of being. It’s especially important to note the changes that occur in your mind and body when you practice breathwork, and track them in your breathing journal.
The way we approach breathwork reflects the way we approach life. By observing your breathing, you can learn a lot about yourself. Sometimes we need to paddle our boat if we expect to get anywhere
in life, and sometimes it’s better to pull in the oars and let the river of life carry us forward. Sometimes we are called to take charge and sometimes we’re called to get out of the way. Sometimes control is necessary and sometimes the call is to surrender. Sometimes we live our life, and at other times life lives us. Sometimes we breathe the breath, and sometimes we let the breath breathe us.
The Three Convergences in Breathwork
Three key elements—what I call “convergences”—create the framework for all breathing methods, styles, and schools. Many breathwork teachers and practitioners have already been applying them intuitively in their own way, because all the benefits of breathwork depend on these three elements for optimum results:
1. Combining consciousness and breathing
2. Combining consciousness and relaxation
3. Combining conscious breathing and complete relaxation
The First Convergence: Combining Consciousness and Breathing
We are breathing all the time, but most of the time we are completely unconscious of it. The breathing is happening, but our consciousness is focused elsewhere. Our awareness is often pushed and pulled and controlled by random unconscious impulses, miscellaneous forces, and other people. The practice of mindful breathing compensates for this, restoring a certain natural power and balance.
When your awareness jumps from one thing to another constantly,
your healing energies and creative forces are lost or dissipated. When you bring all your attention to the breathing, your energy begins to accumulate and you develop tremendous personal power. For lack of a better word, “magic” is possible when we bring together consciousness and breathing. For many people, this simple practice is life-changing.
As you begin a daily Conscious Breathing practice, you will dramatically increase your internal awareness as well as your situational awareness. Also, your health, well-being, and performance will be enhanced. When you master Conscious Breathing, you will naturally experience more comfort and pleasure, more success and ease—in body and mind, in your intimate relationships, and in your professional life.
The Second Convergence: Combining Consciousness and Relaxation
Consider this: when you are in your most relaxed state, you are literally sleeping. You actually sleep through the most relaxing moments of your life! You are unconscious in those moments when you are most relaxed, so you have probably never had a waking experience of pure, deep, and total relaxation.
You have to get out of the way for your body to relax and rejuvenate itself. Your ordinary consciousness—filled and busy as it is with all its incessant mental activity—interferes in the body’s ability to relax. Thus nature sees to it that you disappear for a while every night. Having you go unconscious seems to be the only way your body can take a break from your head tripping! Slumping on a couch, drinking beer, and watching TV is a very poor substitute for genuine relaxation.
Being wide awake and totally relaxed at the same time is so rare
that when it occurs during a breathing session, most people describe it as a peak religious experience, a peace that passes understanding. They describe the experience as bliss or ecstasy, a feeling of pure, causeless joy. They inevitably resort to spiritual or religious terms to describe what is actually a very basic, yet profound human experience.
When you master this second convergence in breathwork—bringing together full consciousness and complete relaxation—you touch a place in yourself, you open to a state that all the great masters and saints lived in and lived from. You get a taste of the life lived by the Buddha, Jesus, Lao-tzu, Krishna, and all the other sublime teachers.
The Third Convergence: Combining Conscious Breathing and Complete Relaxation
This is a high art and a transformational skill: the merging of peace and power. Master it, and you will discover, experience, and accomplish things that the average person can only dream of.
Usually when people breathe in a powerful way, they don’t relax. And when they relax completely, they don’t breathe. The more they breathe, the less they relax; the more they relax, the less they breathe. This is the common dilemma and the normal experience of people who have not mastered the art of breathwork. The idea is to turn it all around so the more you breathe, the more you relax, and the more you relax, the more you breathe. Stop sacrificing one for the other and you will enter the ranks of the great saints and yogis, the famous artists and legendary warriors.
Here we apply the principle of economy: we focus on breathing fully and freely, deeply and powerfully, all while using as little muscular effort or activity as possible. We engage in deliberate relaxation even as we practice breathing deeper, faster, and more powerful breaths.
Combining full, free breathing and complete relaxation with great awareness is the secret that leads to the most empowering and enlightening benefits in breathwork. It is the door to what we call peak, flow, or transcendent states. It can be described as an “energized calm” or a “dynamic peace.” You owe it to yourself to master this third and key convergence in breathwork.
The Three Convergence Reminders
1. Practicing the first convergence means practicing mindful breathing or Breath Awareness. You’re learning to let the breath breathe you.
2. The second convergence is about becoming conscious of the tensions in your body and eliminating unnecessary muscular activity. It’s especially important to relax the accessory breathing muscles.
3. The third convergence is about combining powerful breathing and deep relaxation in a conscious and creative way.