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Breathing as a Metaphor for Living

By Dennis Lewis
The way we breathe reveals a great deal about the way we live. The movements and rhythms of our breathing reflect our innermost mental and emotional attitudes toward ourselves and others. By observing, by sensing, our breath in the midst of our daily lives we gain new insights into our lives and a new understanding of the meaning of transformation and wholeness.
As we observe our breathing in the various conditions of living, we may notice, for example, how the extent and comfort of our inhalation reflects the degree of our readiness and ability to embrace life at that moment. We may also notice how the extent and comfort of our exhalation reflects the degree of our readiness and ability to let go of the known and open ourselves to the unknown, to trust something other than the habits and suggestions of our self-image. We may notice how during fear or other strong negative emotions we restrict the flow and duration of our breath by contracting various parts of our body in order to reduce the energy available for feeling. And we may also notice how during more pleasant emotions we increase the flow and duration of our breath to take in more energy and thus to feel more.

Through a deep work of self-sensing, we not only learn about the subtle, constantly changing needs of our bodies, but we also begin to learn about the ways in which our mind, emotions, and breath influence one another. By listening to the sensation of our body, especially our breathing, not only when we are in quiet circumstances but also when we are in the middle of the difficult situations of our lives, we become aware of connections between parts of ourselves that ordinarily escape our attention. By sensing the way our breathing changes in relation to changing circumstances, as well as by sensing the attitudes, tensions, postures, and emotions that arise in these same conditions, we begin to learn about the intimate relationship of our breath to our overall sense of ourselves, our self-image. 

Our Breathing, Like Our Self-Image, is Restricted

As we receive more impressions of ourselves through self-sensing, and as we resist the compulsion to label these impressions, we will experience first-hand that our breathing, like our self-image, is in general very restricted. The tight, restrictive structure of unnecessary bodily tension that cuts us off from natural, spontaneous, whole-body breathing, closely mirrors the tight restrictive structure of our self-image that cuts us off from new, more real perceptions of ourselves and others.

As “adults,” most of us are shallow breathers: we breathe mainly in the top of the chest. We have lost the natural, spontaneous whole-body breathing that we experienced as babies and young children-breathing that engages the breathing spaces not just of the chest but also of the belly, back, spine, and solar plexus. This movement from whole-body breathing to upper chest breathing reflects the movement from a multi-sensory experience of our life-energy centered in our belly area to an ego-based experience centered in our upper chest.

To rediscover the power of whole-body breathing and unlock the pure energy of being inherent in our bodily life on this earth, we need to learn how to sense ourselves from the inside and to release the unnecessary tensions associated with our self-image. These tensions are closely linked to our habitual patterns of thinking, feeling, moving, and so on, patterns that often consume our energy, undermine our health and well-being, and separate us from our own real center. It is through a deeper awareness of our breath and a lawful movement back to whole-body breathing that we can begin to get in touch with the energy locked into these patterns of tensions, and free up this energy for the growth of our being. 

Our Inability to Exhale Fully

One of the biggest obstacles to awareness of our breath and the return to natural breathing is the inability that many of us have to exhale fully. This should come as no surprise since many of the problems of our lives also involve our inability to “let go,” to “give up” when necessary, and see what life will bring. Whereas inhalation has to do with taking in, with receiving, exhalation has to do with giving and emptying. Full inhalation without full exhalation is clearly impossible.

It is important, therefore, to see what stands in the way of full exhalation. For many of us, what stands in the way is often what is no longer necessary in our lives. Our inability to exhale naturally, to discard the stale air in our lungs, is analogous to our unwillingness or inability to “let go” of old attitudes, concepts, beliefs, and ideas that are no longer of any real use to us. Our inability to exhale fully often reflects our inability to “let go” of our self-image.

Those of us who are unable to exhale fully, to “let go,” in the normal circumstances of our lives are unable to inhale fully as well. In full inhalation, which starts in the lower breathing space and moves gradually upward through the other spaces, one’s abdomen, lower back, and rib cage must all expand. This helps the diaphragm achieve its full range of movement downward. For this to happen, the muscles and tissues involved in breathing must be in a state of dynamic harmony, free from unnecessary tension.

This expansion is not just a physical phenomenon, however, it is also a psychological one. It depends on both the wish and the ability to engage fully with our lives, to take in impressions of everything in and around us. In the same way that inhaling fully and deeply enlivens all of our internal tissues and organs, taking in impressions fully and deeply enlivens our inner being.

In Conclusion

Full exhalation and inhalation, letting go and taking in, are most possible when we are free enough to let go of the known and embrace the unknown. In full exhalation we empty ourselves-not just of carbon dioxide, but also of old tensions, concepts, attitudes, expectations, and feelings. In full inhalation, we renew ourselves-not just with new oxygen, but also with new impressions of everything in and around us. Both movements of our breath depend on the “unoccupied, empty space” that lies at the center of our being. The sensation of this inner space (and silence), which we can sometimes experience in the natural pause between exhalation and inhalation, can provide a pathway into the unknown. It is the sensation of the unknown that can enliven us and set us on the path of wholeness. 

Copyright © 1998-2000 by Dennis Lewis
Dennis Lewis, certified by Master Mantak Chia and Bruce Kumar Frantzis, teaches natural breathing, chi kung, tai chi, and meditation. He is the author of the acclaimed book The Tao of Natural Breathing and the audio program from Sounds True Breathing as a Metaphor for Living. Dennis can be reached through his website at or by phone at 415-282-4896.