Breathe, Relax, Feel, Watch, Allow: The Practice of Being Present

Kripalu Scholar-in-Residence Stephen Cope, best-selling author of Yoga and the Quest for the True Self, takes us step by step through the core Kripalu Yoga practice known as BRFWA—a powerful tool for coming home to ourselves.

The very centerpiece of all meditative technique is the simple practice of being present for experience. Being fully here, right now. In the body. In the breath. Not leaning forward into the next moment. Not reaching back into the previous moment. But allowing this moment to be okay exactly as it is.

In the Buddhist tradition, this practice is often referred to as mindfulness, which is defined as “the practice of paying attention, on purpose, to the experience of the present moment—without judgment or reactivity.” Mindfulness is bare attention to the present moment.

Well, it turns out this isn’t as easy as it sounds. We drive to Kripalu for the weekend, with the explicit intention of quieting down, meditating, letting the mind settle. No sooner have we sat down to meditate than we feel a vague hankering to get up and get a cup of tea, or check e-mail. We are a restless people. Being with the moment, exactly as it is, is not our specialty.

So, what to do? I found out early on in my contemplative practice that it helps to have some small technique to help us to be fully present to now—some simple practice to help us be with the flow of thoughts, feelings, sensations that arise in each moment—and in fact are the moment.

When I first arrived at Kripalu, almost 25 years ago, I was taught just such a simple and straightforward technique. It is called BRFWA (we pronounce it “bur-fwa”). BRFWA is an acronym for “breathe, relax, feel, watch allow”—a simple technique for being present with our moment-to-moment experience.

For 25 years now, I have used this technique almost every day. I can’t believe how powerful, useful, and practical it is. It’s right there in my back pocket all the time.

Here’s how it goes. It’s not complicated at all.

Step One: Breathe. Simply remembering to breathe consciously in the midst of a difficult or challenging moment can begin the process of shifting everything. Take some full, deep breaths—what we call diaphragmatic breathing. This simply means letting the wave of breath penetrate deep down into the lungs and abdomen and belly; completely fill and empty the lungs a few times. If we’ve become tight or scared or anxious, the breath itself will begin to break up this dense emotional state. If we’re caught in some kind of obsessive thought-loop—worrying, fretting—the breath will break the pattern right away. (A small miracle here: It’s impossible to be stuck in an endless, obsessive thought-loop while you’re breathing consciously.) Yogis understood that the breath is the switch that integrates the emotional body with the physical body—and so conscious breathing immediately opens up parts of the body that have been shut off from conscious awareness. This is the first step in “coming home” to ourselves in the present moment. You see it on bumper stickers all the time, and it’s true: Just breathe!

Step Two: Relax. In this step, we consciously relax the musculature of the body. I like to coach myself to scan through the body and find areas of muscles that feel tight and constricted, and then I literally coax them to soften, relax, let go. Often the belly is the most effective area to begin relaxing. I often coach myself by saying “soft belly.” Because, when the belly relaxes, the whole body begins to soften and let go. Our deep, diaphragmatic breaths continue to support this process of relaxation. Full yogic breath helps the muscles relax and automatically cuts through any fight-or-flight response, moving away from the sympathetic, “fight or flight” system to the parasympathetic or “rest and digest” system. (And what we’re “digesting” here is not only food, but also experience.) The conscious relaxation phase of the technique helps to break up tightness and resistance in the body and mind.

Step Three: Feel. This refers to an active state of feeling—moving actively toward the sensations in the body, the energy, the emotions. We “breathe into them,” as if we could send the breath right into their epicenter of the experience. By actively feeling, we develop the acuity of our awareness so that we can begin to feel the whole range of sensations and emotions in the body—their color, texture, their intensity, their mood. Actively feeling means turning our attention minutely toward our moment-by-moment experience—dropping our judgments and learning to be with things exactly as they are. We develop curiosity, so that we become interested in the exact topography of the feeling or sensation. Ask yourself, Where in the body is the feeling or sensation most intense? What is the exact texture of the sensation? Are there any patterns of movement? This is another step in the process of “coming home to ourselves.” This is a really rich phase of the process—because we find precisely the areas of our awareness that have been split off, shut down, concealed from our awareness.

Step Four: Watch. Now we bring in the part of the mind that yogis often call “the witness.” In Western psychology, this part of the mind is sometimes called “the observing ego.” The “witness” is the part of the self that can be present with experience without being blown away by it. This is the part of the self that stands at the center of the storms of experience, the part that sees and knows without judging. As we become absorbed in “the witness,” we are free both to participate in and to stand apart from our experience. We begin to loosen our identification with the experience, to hold it more lightly, and to let it be exactly as it is. Our attention is focused on “How is it?” rather than “Why is it?” or “Do I like it or dislike it?” It’s important to remember that the watcher, the seer, the observer, is also the coach of the entire experience, the part of us that remains unidentified with “the problem” and remains able to coach us to stay on the wave of energy. It is the abiding voice that’s constantly repeating the mantra, “Breathe, relax, feel, watch, allow!”

Step Five: Allow. In the final phase of the process, we coach ourselves to allow the process to happen. To let it wash through us. We let go into it. We let go of control. When we don’t try to control our experience, we’re free to surrender to the waves of sensation, of feeling, and of energy—just exactly as they are. And we discover we can trust and relax into them. In these remarkable, exhilarating moments of freedom, we relinquish our resistance and allow ourselves to surrender, to let go of our tight hold on life and allow change to happen. We plunge into the river of life, and let it carry us exactly where it wants us to go.

As we become more experienced with the BRFWA process, we learn to trust that all we need to do is support the process through simple and consistent self-coaching—and the process itself moves us to full integration. Breathe, relax, feel, watch, allow. Breathe, relax, feel, watch, allow.

The next time you’re confronted with a difficult emotional moment in your life, give this technique a try. If you can, find a quiet place to sit—a place where you feel safe and won’t be disturbed. Then launch in, gently. Breathe. Relax. Feel. Watch. Allow.

I’ll bet that once you’ve tried it, you’ll find yourself using it more and more. You’ll become more and more accustomed to coming home to yourself, and you’ll find that being away from home for too long becomes an increasingly uncomfortable experience. BRFWA is a trustworthy companion on the road of life, a way to return to our true home at any moment, no matter where we are.

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