by Milena Screm, Counselor Supervisor Trainer, director of Insight school – Milan

A single point of focus, in the body: breath, the essence of life

For millennia, from East to West, humans have acknowledged breath as a key factor not only for physiological life, but also for consciousness.

From shamanism, to yogic philosophies, to the traditions of the peoples of the Pacific islands, to the practices of Hesychasm: a single red thread, the conscious flow of air in and out of the lungs.

In the 14th century, on Mount Athos, the monk of Italian origin Niceforo il Silenzioso (Nicephorus the Silent) sensed how much keeping his attention on breathing was essential when he wanted to gather himself to get in touch with the sacred.

This same attitude, in different ways, is also proposed by yogic and Buddhist practices. Ancient knowledge that today can have, thanks to scientific research and mass communication, a place of honour in Mindfulness.

The definition of this word, given by one of its eminent exponent, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, doctor and researcher at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, is: “present and non-judgmental state of mind”; it is therefore a state of mind, reachable thanks to a practice articulated in steps.

The first step is to sit comfortably and still, with eyes closed or half-closed, so as to promote a slight relaxation of the body, the simple let go of unnecessary tension, and the shifting of attention from outside to inside yourself.

When this shift of attention from the external environment to within oneself is carried out, often non-experts encounter a difficulty: what to pay attention to? The answer and practice are simple: on the flowing of breath. Why? Because it is something natural, because it is a body aspect, and … for many other reasons.

Breathing is a simple and physiological activity, it does not require special performance. It is natural to let the air flow in and out of the lungs.  There is also something very important that happens when we breathe with attention and presence: the breath becomes a mirror of the attitudes we have in life, when we try to control it. Just as in breathing, so in life, it is possible to learn a lot from the natural rhythm, from slowness, from savouring every single inhalation.

The breath offers an anchor to attention. Most of the time the mind wanders, tries to understand, broods, pushes away experiences considered unpleasant, chasing the pleasant ones. 

But with these mental attitudes it is easier to be managed by life’s ups and downs. By learning to bring attention with precision and delicacy to the breath, you cultivate a capacity that allows you to be present on a precise object, instead of being carried here and there by the unstoppable flow of thoughts.  This is an essential key to well-being.

The breath moves through the body. People accustomed to experience everything in the head, can find in breath a lower center of gravity, bodily; little by little, by practicing, it becomes possible to let go of thinking for a moment, and to go down to the belly. Attention is trained to feel the fullness of the breath, its rise and fall in the body, the physical sensations of movement that accompany it. This attitude helps to align body and mind, bringing a greater sense of presence. Breath awareness makes you feel the very essence of being alive, a useful resource, especially when going through a difficult time. 

Breathing is a complex, fascinating, curious physiological activity. Sometimes people verbalize that they get bored watching their breathing. Yet it is something so unique, complex yet simple, rich, diversified, sometimes mysterious… Is this breath really the same as the previous one? Or is it different in length, consistency, intensity? When you open up to the sensations of breathing with curious eyes , it becomes a wonderful experience. Just consider you are kept alive at all times through this mysterious process of inhaling and exhaling, of oxygenating and pumping the blood, with the air reaching all the cells of the body. Isn’t it amazing that there is air to breathe, a body to breathe and a mind that can observe all this? 

The breath breathes.  You can hold your breath for a while, and you can choose to deliberately breathe fast and shallow, or deep and slow for a certain time.  You can diversify your breath at will. Or you can learn to align with the breath, moving gently with it, leaving the will dormant.  This is a good training for life, over which we have only partial control: sometimes is good to intervene, to do something; other times it’s better just to flow with things.

The breath invites us to rest and recover energy. When facing an emergency, the breath physiologically tends to accelerate, the sympathetic nervous system kicks in and the tense muscles prepare to fight or flight. When the emergency ends, the body follows a period of rest and recovery, the breath slows down and the body relaxes.
 However, stressful jobs, noisy neighbours, practical difficulties that repeat every day, such as traffic jams and crowds on the subway, personal and professional demands, constant worries, haste and much more, tend to make the tension responses chronic.  In the long run the body cannot recover. The silence, quietness and inner space of presence originated by the breath allows the entire body to rebalance and regenerate itself; a portable and natural tool for management and prevention.

Keywords; breathing, health, psychology, mindfulness

© Milena Screm 2020
About the author:    

Supervisor Counselor & BreathWorker   
Founder and president INSIGHT School of BreathWork Counseling – Milan (Italy)

Author of fourteen books in psychology, published in Italy, France and Spain, among which we denote:  “BreathWork”  (1998), “Autogenic Training” (1989,2012), “Rebirthing & Water” (1994), “The history of Rebirthing” ( 1992 ), “Rebirthing, breathe for renewal”, the first book published in Italy on rebirthing (1989, 1993, 2011)