Observing the Breath

What exactly should one observe in the Breath during meditation?

Generated using Canva AI

That was my nagging question after the first few sittings of Aaana Paana at Dhamma Paphulla in Jan of 2016, when I went in for my first 10 day retreat. I went into the 10 day retreat with a lot of excitement and motivation. But just an hour or two into the first day, I was feeling lost. I had no clue as to what I could observe. Ofcourse, it did not help that everybody else seemed to be cruising along. I felt positively lost.

Over the course of the next 7 days, there were a whole list of things about the breath I could observe as physical sensations. Here are some, in no order of priority or importance.

  • Quantity of air moving through left-vs-right nostril
  • Contraction and expansion of the nostrils as the air moves in and out
  • The feeling of air rubbing on the inside of the nostrils
  • The difference in temperature while breathing in and out
  • The change in orientation of hair within the nostril
  • Breathe-in makes sound, breathe-out makes another kind of sound
  • Floatation like feeling while breathing in, sinking like feeling while breathing out
  • Chest expanding and contracting
  • Stomach expanding and contracting
  • The sensation of Diaphragm moving down and up
  • In fact, slowly but surely it will also begin to feel as if the whole body is contracting and expanding to make the breath happen, not just the chest
  • The feeling of leaning slightly forward during breathe-in and backward during breathe-out, as if the body is adjusting for subtle changes in centre-of-gravity caused due to air being inside vs not
  • Shifting experiences of dizziness
  • Over a period of 1 hour, the speed of breathing changes
  • Over a period of 1 hour, the quantity of air sucked in and out changes
  • Sometimes breathe-in happens for less time than breathe out, and sometimes its the other way around
  • Just behind the upper part of the nose, inside the skull somewhere, there is a sensation of wind pipe becoming dry upon breathing in and wet upon breathing out
  • Sensation of air gushing in and out just around the vocal chord at the back of the tongue
  • Shoulders moving up and down along with the breath
  • The experience of a rhythm set in the body with the breath
  • The experience of being able to control the breath, when we consciously breathe, and the experience of breath happening all by itself, when we simply sit back and watch. The experience of stopping breath all together and how dizzy it makes us feel, and soon enough we let go and breathing resumes. This is especially useful becaue much of the mental-space is like this. While we can surely take charge once in a while, much of what happens there happens automatically all by itself. Much like we can’t stop the breath forever, we can’t seem to stop the mental-activity for beyond a few tiny moments either.
  • Brush of the air on the upper lip. It feels amplified if you have a moustache.
  • It feels as if something (like a bunch of rods) is pitched on the upper lip and it moves up during breathe-in and down while breathing-out.
  • And slowly and surely, we come in touch with subtle vibrations that seem to resonate with the movement of breath, but is independently there neverthess.
  • The beat (or rhythm) of these vibrations may or may not sync with the beat (or rhythm) set by the breath.
  • Try breathing faster, the rhythm of the vibrations change a little while later. Try breathing slower, the rhythm of vibrations change a litte while later.
  • And slowly, you will come in touch with the “sound” of heart beating and the vibrations it produces. Vibrations set forth by the heart have a different rhythm than the one set by breath, which are different than the one that seems to exist around the upper lip and forehead.
  • And if you pay enough attention you will identify seven distinct rotating vibrations from the lower part of your spine all the way to the top of your head.

There is so much to observe in the breath. Pick your spot and observe the sensations of breath over there with a lot of curiosity. It will appear as if the entire user manual of the mind-and-matter-universe is encoded within the sensations of breath. Watch it with curiosity and buckle up for a fantastic ride. Enjoy your meditation.