There is lots to be said about the two most obvious parts of the breath: The inhale, and the exhale.
The first is an act of bringing something that is outside of us, inside of us. It is like eating, being nurtured, or educated. In each case, the alchemy is one pointing toward the self: it begins beyond our boundaries, and it ends inside of our boundaries.
The second is an act of sending ourselves out in to the world. It is like using our knowledge to make a meal or teach a lesson, tending to the wounds of someone, or expressing our love in words. Here, the alchemy is a transformation of energy that begins as something unfelt and untouchable by the world, and yet we manage to make it an experience to those within the world.
This is why it can feel like such a transformation to change from an inhale to an exhale as we think or say words. The inhale is an act of bringing this truth in to my inner world. Saying a part of a breath-prayer with the inhale is an act of changing myself. The exhale is an act of sending the truth out into the world. Maybe sending the thought out there changes the world. At the bare minimum, exhaling with a statement is a sort-of promise to follow these words I am sending out with actions.
There is actually more than just the inhale and the exhale, when we want there to be. We have the ability to pause, to hold the breath for a moment.
You won’t be the first person to ever tell me I am overthinking things, but I believe this to be true:
There is a strange sort of subtle fear involved with holding the breath. Our bodies, of course, need a constant source of oxygen. Our cells cry out when we cut off our supply to them, even if it is only for a moment.
I think this is why considering a thought or phrase while holding the breath feels so intense. It is a bit like turning a spotlight on, or cueing up soundtrack music to intensify the feelings. There is this background sense of ‘Alert! The body is not getting its oxygen.’
Holding the breath, for even a moment, is a bit like a fast in microcosm. It is a way to temporarily assert that we are bigger than our physical nature. Paradoxically, both a fast and a holding of breath must come to an end if we are to live. In a different way, therefore, each of these reinforces the idea that we are not bigger than our physical nature: Holding the tension between these two ideas… Owning the idea that we both are and are not bigger than our physical nature? This is a nondualistic reality that contemplative activities alone can usher us into.