What is a breath? Is it just a to-and-fro movement of air elements passing into the lungs and returning out of it? This is a very narrow and mere biological explanation. In true sense a breath has more qualifications than a biological character, because a breath reveals about your physical, mental and spiritual qualities.
Normally an average healthy human body breathes about 32 times per minute taking each factor i.e. inhale and exhale as separate breaths, otherwise if one complete breath is assessed by combining the both inhale and exhale, it would be 16 times per minute. Generally, some researchers have observed that there are three types of breathes as illustrated above. The arrow marks stand upward denote inhale and the downward ones stand for exhale.
While inhaling the natural breath begins to count mentally 1, 2, 3, 4 etc from its starting point, without making any thrust over the breathing process. If you are able to count 3 and more that means your inhalation is long, if you count 1 and 2, which means your inhalation is in medium length and finally if you count only for ‘1’ it means your inhalation is very short. Likewise you can assess your exhalation also.
Certainly, every one has his/her own way and unique nature of breathing mechanism. Even among the twins, the breathing system is not identical to the other. So the Buddha indirectly insists to note this point in Satipatthana Sutta and in ‘Anapansati Sutta’. He gives a good example “Like a turner knows, while he rotating a long turn he knows it and a short turn, he knows it.”
As the Buddha explained, the practitioners of Anapana sati should observe their breathing mechanism keenly, as to whether it is a long inhalation, note it. Whether it is a short inhalation note it. If you have long exhalation, note it or short note it. Likewise, like a turner knowing the rotation of his tool, a practitioner of Anapanasati should watch the breaths.
If you watch your breaths carefully as explained above, at the end of each inhalation and exhalation there would be a ‘pause’ before reverting back to each system of breath. Some research reveals that most of the meditators observe a ‘pause’ after exhalation, some observe after inhalation, only few observe both sides i.e. before exhalation and before inhalation.
So in any one of the following patterns your breathing mechanism will be and it may change due to your physical and mental nature and due to various reasons such as movement of moon etc.
For the practical purpose the above patterns may be modified into ‘breath loops’, the seven steps before the practice, as follows:
(i) Watch your inhalation only for 2 minutes.
(ii) Watch your exhalation only for 2 minutes.
(iii) Watch both inhalation and exhalation for 5 minutes.
(iv) Observe the duration of each inhalation and exhalation, whether they are long, medium or short.
(v) If inhalation and exhalation are equal, assess them whether they are long or medium or short.
(vi) Some meditators would observe variable duration of the breaths if so, note it carefully.
(vii) In final stage, understand your breathing mechanism by observing the pause. Please do not deliberately make or extend the pause by thrust, either holding the breaths inside the lungs or out of the body i.e. out of the nostril doors preventing the air passing through it.
After finalising your ‘breathing mechanism’ start the practice. There are two sets of ‘breath cycles’ given under for the practical purpose.
Clockwise breath cycle
Those who start the practice from exhalation for them clockwise cycle is suitable.
Anti clockwise breath cycle
Those who start the practice from inhalation, anti clockwise cycle is suitable.
The above breath cycles should be observed according to their unique pattern of breathing mechanism, noting the every moment of breaths as follows:
(i) from the beginning inhale, middle, and if there is pause observe it.
(ii) from the beginning, exhale, middle and end if there is pause observe it.
As explained above the breath cycle should be observed by this sequential:
(i) Inhale - middle of the inhalation - end of the inhalation.
(ii) Before reverting back to exhalation if there is pause, observe it.
(iii) Exhalation - middle of the exhalation - end of the exhalation.
(iv) Before reverting back to inhalation if there is pause, observe it.
Don’t change the pattern of cycle from clockwise to anti-clockwise and vice-versa. By observing your natural ‘hand free’ breath cycle, the duration of pause would increase by its own accord without any thrust and effort, which means you are nearing to first Samadhi.