Breathing can be considered one of the most important functions in keeping us alive and healthy. Oxygen comes in through the nose or mouth and travels down to our lungs. Here it spreads through the lungs, down to the alveoli where it enters the blood stream. The oxygen then spreads through the body feeding all the cells.
It’s no wonder why breath is such an important aspect to meditation, and I recommend that mastering your breath should be the first skill you obtain when practicing meditation or any type of stress reduction program. Although Im sure there are various breathing practices, I am going to focus on diaphragmatic breathing and meditation on breathing.
Diaphragmatic breathing is extremely effective in battling stress/anxiety/hyper-arousal because when done properly, it forces the body into a more relaxed state. This type of breathing moves the diaphragm up and down to draw in long, deep breaths. In contrast, one typically breaths by moving their chest up and down, resulting in shallow breathing. For the most part, we function just fine with this type of breath, but during states of hyperarousal, breathing that involves moving your chest leads to more rapid and shallow breathing. This type of breathing is associated with activation of the sympathetic nervous system. It increases blood flow through the body, bringing more oxygen to the muscles to prepare for fight or flight.
When one uses their diaphragm to breath, their breath slows, becomes deeper and results in activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. Prolonged breathing with this method can lead to a light headed feeling. Until you learn how this breathing will affect you, I’d recommend that you practice while seated or laying down. Once in a comfortable position, place one hand on your chest, and the other on your abdomen. This practice draws attention to how you are breathing. Begin by stilling your chest, and moving your abdomen with each breath. Breathe in through your nose, and exhale through your mouth. For those who are visual learners, I have included a tutorial on diaphragmatic breathing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kgTL5G1ibIo
Diaphragmatic breathing can be used to help achieve a relaxed state when meditating, although this is not the preferred method of breathing for everyone. During meditation, breath is often used as a grounding tool to focus one’s mind on. This is done through sitting comfortably, closing one’s eyes, and focusing their attention onto their breath. This practice does not control the breath; primarily it focuses on noticing it. Noting the length of each breath, noting the depth, and rate of breathing. Focusing on one’s breath will naturally slow the breathing, and bring on a more relaxed state of being.
Both of these techniques require dedication, and practice to achieve an effective level. I often have seen patients and clients give up quickly, or fail to practice daily and say they don’t see any progress. Learning to breathe and achieve the benefits of it is similar to learning a new skill. One doesn’t wake up knowing expert culinary skills. They can throw together enough food to get by, but developing the skill set necessary to create savory dishes takes time, knowledge, skill, and practice. Be patient with yourself.
Basic instructions for breathing meditation:
1. Sit in a comfortable position, or lay in a supine position.
2. Feel yourself breathing and count your breaths.
3. Let your thoughts pass through your mind, observing them and not reacting to them. Sit in observation.
4. Enjoy the relaxation.
Meditation Part III: How Meditation Can Heal
Harrison, E. (2006). How Meditation Heals: Scientific Evidence and Practical Application. Ulysses Press. Berkley, C.A.