The Breath and The Body

By Caty Brown

Art by Sophie Williams and Sabrina Eager


From a biological perspective, our body doesn’t actually allow us much conscious control. We have this idea that we’re in control of our bodies, but no matter how much we focus on it, we can’t make our hearts beat in a different rhythm, can’t make our immune systems work more efficiently, and can’t tell our brains to produce more dopamine (I know, I’m bummed about it, too). But this is for good reason! Allowing us to interfere with our heartbeat would almost certainly be disastrous. So, the exceptions to this rule of “don’t let consciousness interfere with survival” are particularly noteworthy because of how seemingly counterintuitive they are. For instance, we can avoid blinking to the point of pain and burning before our bodies will take control back. But this example’s importance pales in comparison to the other notable exception: breathing. Most of the time, we forget about breathing and our body handles it for us, performing the vital process of exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide so each and every cell in our bodies can create energy. I find it surprising that our body will allow us conscious control of such a vital exchange. Even though our bodies take back control if we hold our breath for too long, it’s nonetheless odd that we can consciously deprive our cells of the single most important exchange for eukaryotic cell survival.

So, if this seems so odd and counterintuitive for survival, why can we do it? To answer this question, consider the scenarios where we decide to control our breath. Being underwater is one, but the fact that infants instinctively hold their breath underwater implies that this isn’t necessarily the reason we are “allowed” to control our breath. The next scenario that comes to mind is to control our emotional state. For instance, when we’re presented with scenarios like public speaking, confessing love, or admitting guilt, our emotional state of anxiety ramps up our heart rate, respirations, and intrusive thoughts.[1] To counteract this, I’m sure we’ve all at some point employed a breathing technique or two. Whether it be as simple as taking deep breaths or something more complex like square breathing, we can reduce our physical anxiety by controlling our breathing.

This idea is the one I find most plausible: the breath being a link between our emotional energy state whether that be anxious or aroused or somewhere in between and our conscious thought. By controlling our breath, we can play an active role in controlling the collective state of emotion we’re feeling at any given time. Breathing to control this instinctive emotional energy is a way for our consciousness to interact with the present self.

Meditation

The ability to manipulate our emotional energy using our breath is certainly an exciting prospect. What can we do with it? As previously mentioned, we can use it to control a spike in anxiety. But we can take that further, into the art of meditation. Since very nearly the beginning of meditative practice, breath has been important as a way to connect us to our emotional energy state, helping to foster a state of mental well-being. Ānāpānasati, loosely translated Sanskrit for “mindfulness of the inhalation and exhalation,” is a Buddhist meditation method that was widely practiced in ancient times and is currently popular as well. In practicing this type of meditation, one must concentrate upon the length (long or short) and weight (heavy or light) of the breath. Becoming aware of the way air enters the nostrils, how it fills the lungs, how it warms the upper lip, is all a part of focusing on the breath to allow for clarity of thought.[2].


And, when successfully meditating, there is a real change in the way our brains behave. If you’ve been a little worried at how I’ve been sounding like a New-Age hippie eating granola and smelling of, shall we say, skunk, here’s some sure enough scientific proof to assuage your worries. According to the research of Gaëlle Desbordes, a Harvard Medical School radiology instructor and neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital, our brain activity markedly changes as a result of meditation Even when performing everyday tasks in no way related to meditation, decreased activity in the amygdala — which controls the ability to feel certain emotions, like fear in particular — was found.[3]. So, if we can change the way our amygdala works, then meditation can quite literally change the way our brain triggers an emotional response*. And dozens upon dozens of meditation practices encourage using the breath as a way to ground us, bringing our conscious thought towards our present self. Upon just a quick Google search of “how to meditate for beginners,” breath was mentioned in every search result on the first page. The breath is the one of the most important aspects of meditation, serving to anchor our thoughts. When we get more in touch with our breathing, we can slowly learn how our consciousness can exist within our bodies more easily, more happily, and less stressfully.

I’m sure you’re enthralled with the thought: a happier, less stressed out version of you must sound appealing. What could be better than that?

* While I won’t go into further detail here, many studies offer scientific proof on how meditation can affect our brains. If you are interested in incorporating meditation into your life, consider looking into them.

A Beginner’s Meditation: Body Scan


Begin by finding a comfortable position: seated or lying down on your back, up to you!

Bring your attention to your breath. Don’t try to change it yet, but allow your mind to settle on the way your breath feels.

As your inhalations inflate your lungs, focus on how your nostrils cool, how your chest stretches slightly as it rises, how the air feels as it moves across your tissues.

As your exhalation exits your body, feel the warmth begin to sink into the tissues of the nose, feel your rib cage settle down into your chest, feel the air becoming gentler as it exits the lungs.

When you feel like your mind is starting to settle, bring your attention to your feet. As you breathe in, focus on bringing light and softness into each foot. As you exhale, think of letting go of anything you don’t need there. Continue until your feet feel relaxed and light.

With your next inhalation, follow the above steps for your calves, and then thighs, hips, hands, forearms, biceps, shoulders, chest, neck, mouth, and face.

When you have finished each section of your body, take a moment to bask in the feeling of your breath and your body fully connected. When you are ready, bring your awareness back to the room, and gradually move small sections of your body to return to the outside world.


Orgasms


Well, a happier, less stressed out version of you that also has banging orgasms might be a little better. Orgasms, for vagina-owners at the very least, are often shrouded in a bit of mystery. Swirl, tap, circle, rinse and repeat might have worked yesterday, and then it doesn’t work today. But if the breath can work such wonders on our daily emotional state, what might it be able to do for the overwhelming onslaught of feeling that is an orgasm? Quite a lot actually.

To begin, I’ll backtrack to one of the fundamental ideas of meditation. When using the breath as a tool for meditating, we train our mind to be more sensitive to its feelings. As thoughts and emotions come up, we acknowledge them and then return our focus to the breath. In the long term, we become more aware of ourselves; our joys and pleasures come to the forefront of our consciousness. When using the breath as a tool for better orgasms, we use it somewhat differently. Instead of focusing our conscious attention upon calmness and reflection and letting go, we are focusing our conscious attention on rapture, on the particular ecstasy of sexual sensation.

I know, you’re thinking, “Duh, of course we’re focusing on how the sex feels.” But are you really? You’ve never found your mind wandering to what you’ve got going on tomorrow, whether you look good naked, when you should be getting to sleep, and just occasionally, to whether or not you should just get it over with? If you have, you’re among lots of company. Even when one really wants to masturbate or really wants to have great sex with their partner, controlling our feelings of distraction or self-criticism or stress can be difficult. Here is where your breath comes in. Focusing on the breath, just like in meditation, will pull our thoughts away from these feelings and root us in the present moment. The body exists in the now, and we have to bring our consciousness to it.


Then, we can take another step and go from focusing on the breath to manipulating it. Doing so can bring us from just being present in our sexual feelings to being active in our sexual feelings. Orgasmic breathing, for example, is a breath manipulation technique designed to help energy, in this case the energy associated with sexual pleasure, flow through the energy channels of the body.[4]. The largest energy channel in our body aligns with the chakras, from the root of the spine to top of the head. If you aren’t familiar with chakras, they are seven energy centers along the spine that correspond to different aspects of mental and physical health. For instance, the crown chakra, at the top of the head, is associated with purpose and connectedness. The sacral chakra, located just below the belly button, is associated with sexuality, pleasure, and intimacy.[5]. As we breathe, we’re focusing on pulling the sexual energy we’re feeling near our sacral chakra all the way up to the crown.

At first, especially if you’ve never meditated, done yoga, or been very successful in having orgasms, you might feel a bit silly. That’s okay, let that feeling go, return to the breath, and keep trying to sink into the feeling. A point may come where you start moving the energy, realize it, and promptly distract yourself from it in your excitement. That’s okay too. Just as meditation is a practice, so is sex. Don’t force it. Allow yourself to learn.

Orgasmic Breathing for Beginners


Whether you’re masturbating or having sex with another person, begin focusing on the tight, warm, buzzing feeling in your pelvis near your sacral chakra.

Tighten the pelvic floor muscles (the muscles you tighten if you’re trying not to pee) and begin an inhalation.

As this inhalation inflates the bottom of your lungs, the center of your lungs, and the top of your lungs, focus on pulling that tight and warm energy up your spine as far as you can.

As you’re pulling the energy up, engaging your abdominal muscles by pulling in your belly button, pulling your shoulders back and engaging your chest muscles, and lengthening your neck can all help it to move further.

When the energy has traveled as far as you feel like you can get it to go without forcing it, exhale and release your pelvic floor muscles. You should naturally feel the warm and buzzy feeling drop back down.

With your next inhalation and pelvic floor tightening, try to pull the energy up further than you did before.

When you can bring the energy all the way up to the crown chakra at the top of your head (which may not happen the first time you try!), repeat the process and let your attention, breath, and orgasmic energy move from your pelvis to the top of your head on a loop.


You and Your Breath


Finding the healthy and happy state of mind that your breath can bring you to is difficult. People spend their lives learning more about meditation, learning more about themselves, so you shouldn’t beat yourself up about finding it difficult to learn to clear the mind, or to control an orgasm. Think about how incredible the results are: decreased stress, general wellbeing, change in brain chemistry, and (perhaps most elusive) consistent orgasms. These things take time, attention, and dedication. But regardless of how long it takes to become an expert, taking a moment to breathe and focus on your own emotional energy, sexual or otherwise, can almost immediately benefit you. Perhaps our bodies knew what they were doing when they decided to let us control our breathing. Forging a deeper connection with your body, with the present self, with the other half of you, is an inhale away. When you and your body aren’t just roommates, you might find that life becomes something new. Days feel happier, sex feels better, thoughts feel like your own. Using the breath to unify the body and the mind can transform your life. And all jokes aside, what could be better than that?



[1] Cirino, Erica. “Everything You Need to Know About Anxiety.” Healthline, September 8, 2016. https://www.healthline.com/health/anxiety-symptoms.

[2] “Buddhadasa - Anapanasati (Mindfulness of Breathing).Pdf.” Accessed November 13, 2020. http://www.buddhanet.net/pdf_file/anapanasati.pdf.

[3] Desbordes, Gaëlle, Lobsang T. Negi, Thaddeus W. W. Pace, B. Alan Wallace, Charles L. Raison, and Eric L. Schwartz. “Effects of Mindful-Attention and Compassion Meditation Training on Amygdala Response to Emotional Stimuli in an Ordinary, Non-Meditative State.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 6 (November 1, 2012). https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2012.00292.

[4] Soul Flower Blog. “Chakra Chart Meanings,” July 2, 2018. https://www.soul-flower.com/blog/chakra-chart-meanings/.

[5]The Sex Ed. “Orgasmic Breathing.” Accessed November 13, 2020. https://www.thesexed.com/blog/2018/10/3/orgasmic-breath.