The Tao of Breath: A Simple Ode to Breathing

by Barefoot Doctor (Stephen Russell)

In this article, written in honour of my esteemed and wonderful friend, Alan Davidson, one of the truly good people on the planet, I’m about to extol the wonders of breathing as not only the most important thing in life (everything else can wait), but also as the most direct lever you have available in any single moment to instantly transform your state of mind, whenever caught in anxiety or negativity of any kind.

I’ll begin with the proposition, move onto explaining the mechanics of optimal breathing and finish with suggested uses of breathing to alter mood and mindset.

The Proposition

A few months ago, I contracted swine flu on a flight to Germany, which developed into pneumonia, which in turn caused my beloved left lung to collapse – during the course of which melodrama, I was half a breath away from dying three times in two weeks. I’ve been practicing breathing as a central activity for more than 40 years, having been an avid martial artist and meditator from the age of 11. So I already knew the significance and benefit of optimal breathing, but was afforded the clearest proof of it – if proof were needed – on finding myself only just able to take the next breath.

So when I write this, I’m not doing so in a merely intellectual way but as an impassioned exhortation to reframe your relationship with the whole notion of breathing as the very nub of life.

The problem with selling breathing as an elixir of life is that air is ubiquitous, hence apparently commonplace – and one of the most striking attributes of human nature is to go swiftly numb on the commonplace to the point that it loses all perceived value, even when we’re discussing something that, were it absent for more than a few seconds, would mean the end of the world for everyone.

Air is the elixir of life. Optimize your breathing and you optimize your life. And the first step to optimized breathing is to start appreciating air as an agent imbued with vitality.

Any quantum physicist or Taoist mystic will tell you, what you focus on grows. Focus on the life-giving properties of air and they grow. This simple focal shift is enough to begin the process of you becoming mindful of your breathing.

Most of the time you run around distracted by the external world, and the attraction outwards has an effect of drawing you forwards into the front of your body, thus losing contact with the back of you. Indeed, most people only become aware of their backs when they have back pain. However whenever you lose contact with the back of you by being all shoved up into the front of you, you’re severely minimizing and limiting your internal space. The effect then is of the front of you being all cramped up, which translates automatically into physical tension. This adversely affects the vital organs by limiting blood and energy circulation and generally squashing them – especially the diaphragm and lower lung region – thus limiting breath capacity.

Conversely, by training yourself to be mindful of your breathing, you all but instantaneously reintroduce awareness to your back, thus releasing the pressure from all the organs and affording you more internal space.

And when I refer to internal space, I allude as much to the psycho-emotional as the physical – meaning that, by expanding your internal physical space, you simultaneously broaden your perspective. This is significant in respect of any conundrum or dilemma, because it’s only by zooming out that you can appreciate enough of the picture to make informed choices.

The idea is to train your awareness on your breathing all the time – no matter what else you’re doing – for paradoxically, though the breath is in constant motion, it’s also the most constant factor in your life, aside from your heartbeat. So no matter what conundrum or difficulty life poses you, provided you retain active awareness of your breathing at the heart of your moment-by-moment sensation of being you, you’ll be able to maintain constancy at the psycho-emotional level.

The mechanics of breathing

As for the mechanics of breathing, retraining for optimal capacity and flow at all times starts by the very simple act of desisting from holding your breath. Many people walk around holding their breath without realising it; this is a well-intentioned, yet misinformed attempt to control the inflow of information coming at you from the world, based on the erroneous notion that if you hold your breath, you hold the world steady. But all it does is exacerbate stress and anxiety, thus actually reducing your capacity to process information.

Learning to stop holding your breath is perhaps the most important thing to learn in the world, yet all that’s required is to become aware you were holding it in the first place, and then let it go. You’ll find it a helpful reminder to place your palm on your solar plexus (upper abdomen) and allow the warmth to accumulate and penetrate, at least once an hour, especially when in conversation with others.

Next step, in order to get the lungs working properly (efficiently and fully as opposed to just using the tops of the lungs), is to reverse the normal breathing pattern of sucking the belly in and expanding the chest to inhale and allowing the belly to let go on the exhalation. Instead, exhale by firming the stomach muscles, as if drawing the stomach back towards the spine, then inhale by allowing the belly to swell.

Visualize a sponge in your lower abdomen just behind your belly button. Picture squeezing the sponge to push all the air out of it (and you). Do this as you exhale, gently contracting the stomach muscles to squeeze the sponge. To inhale, all you have to do is relax the stomach muscles, and the sponge refills with air all by itself. So the only mild exertion required is on breathing out; breathing in happens by itself.

Practice this every day for three weeks with your hands resting on your lower abdomen – 7 breath cycles each session – while lying in bed in the morning after waking and again at night before falling asleep. This practice will transform your entire breathing pattern, which in turn will transform your whole life (for the better by a long, long shot).

Tonal and qualitative adjustment

Once you’ve corrected the actual mechanics, you’re then able to adjust the tempo, tone and quality of the breath, and it’s this that gives you the magic lever on your mindset and mood.

By slowing your breath down and evening out the duration of the inhalation and exhalation, you instantly slow your mind down enough to be able to think clearly.

By evening out the duration of the exhalation and inhalation, you even out your relationship with the past and future, respectively; the exhalation releases the moment that went before, and the inhalation introduces the next moment to you. This effectively brings you more fully into the here and now, whence exclusively all your personal power is derived.

By softening the quality and tone of the breath until it becomes as smooth as silk and silent as a soft summer breeze, you soften and silence the quality and tone of mind; when the mind softens and silences, your thoughts instantaneously become more positive and optimistic.

Above all, always luxuriate in the breath, revel in its silken quality and bask in its life-giving power.

Finally, indulge in imbuing each in-breath with the power to bring you whichever qualities you most need to accentuate in your life that moment: perhaps peace, confidence, stability, security, joyfulness or so on. And imbue each out-breath to rid you of whichever aspects of self you wish to diminish: perhaps fearfulness, doubt, self-criticism, regret, guilt, shame, resentment or so on.


So from now on, allow your breathing to be central to every moment’s experience. No matter how awful you’re feeling, just keep breathing and it’ll pass. No matter how amazing you’re feeling, keep breathing and that’ll pass, too. Everything does – including the breath, in and out through your nose and mouth. And by attuning yourself to it, allowing it to be at the core of whatever else is occupying you at the time, you align yourself to that aspect of self that knows how to ride the passing of all phenomena with the most ease and enjoyment.


Barefoot Doctor (Stephen Russell)

Stephen Russell is one of the UK’s best-loved personal development teachers.  He has dedicated his life to exploring, interpreting, practicing and teaching the methods and philosophy of ancient Taoism. He specializes in making these ancient Chinese teachings accessible and relevant for busy people in the modern world.

Learn More About Barefoot Doctor @ www.


  1. And I love this makes sense and the way he teaches it, makes it attractive to such a broad range of people…open. To be able to look at my past manifestations and recognize the yin/yang cycle, and start to see at it different levels. Now it’s learning about the energy that excites me, I always wanted to understand energy/emotion/thought and our relation to it, besides just observing what we can manifest. How many different ways we can be in love and conversation with the Tao, how close we can get….no hurry though…I wouldn’t want to miss a thing you see….
    Thank you for sharing this! Love Penny

    1. Penny,

      The breath is a fascinating truth: at a simple level is just the ordinary in/out of life. Yet when I add my delicious attention entire worlds of possibility open to me. The longer and deeper I sit in that gentle attention, the more wisdom is revealed to me. A simple in/out indeed…ad

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *