A common instruction for meditation practice is to “follow the breath.” For me at least, this isn’t as easy as it sounds. Try the experiment yourself. Sit up straight, close your eyes, and for just a minute or two focus on being a completely passive observer: witness yourself being breathed, following the inhalation and exhalation with no more control of it than you would have of a friend’s breath. If you’re like most people, you’ll find it hard to observe your breathing without interfering with it in some fashion.
There’s a reason why merely following the breath is so hard. Of all the physical processes by which we live, our breath is unique. For only our breath is both automatic and subject to our conscious control: it can be an unconscious or a conscious act. Before the experiment, you probably had no awareness that you were breathing, much less were you aware of the particular quality of your breath. But in the same moment you started following your breath, you may also have found yourself exerting control over it—slowing it down, deepening it, etc. Once we become aware our breath, it’s hard not to lead it. (Why exactly this is so is a story for another time.)
This unique position of the breath, as a natural bridge between the conscious and unconscious parts of our nature, hints at the value of learning how to use it artfully, as is taught in the ancient yogic practice of pranayama. Needless to say, as a practice that promises, among other things, to open a channel whereby the conscious mind can extend its influence into the unconscious and into the body, it beats the hell out of learning to vomit voluntarily!