Breathing and Meditation.
“Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts. Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as the means to take hold of your mind again” - Thich Nhat Hanh
Breathing is one of the few things that we can’t go without, still we do not realise the importance of breathing as it accompanies us all the time and it happens so naturally and effortlessly that we do not consider it as something of any importance. Yet often in the hospital physiotherapist are focusing on breathing as one of the most important tools to quick recovery from any kind of surgery. Also, if we watch ourselves – every time we are stressed our breath shortens and speeds up; when we get frustrated we repeat to ourselves – just take a deep breath – in order to calm down; when we get out of trouble we release a long, even audible breath; when we are calm we barely notice we are breathing at all…
From the moment we were born until the time we die, the breath is our companion, it is always there with us and it affects our body and mind functions. Every system in the body requires oxygen. Effective breathing can not only provide us with a greater sense of mental clarity, it can also help us sleep better, digest food more efficiently, improve our body's immune response, reduce stress levels, regulate heart rate, stabilize blood pressure and many more. Then should we not look into breathing itself more closely? Should we perhaps ask ourselves if we do breathe correctly?
An emphasis on breath concentration is present in meditation regardless of its tradition or technique. In meditation we are applying some mindfulness techniques to ground ourselves, to become present in a moment, and as an anchor into it we often use breath – there is a big reason for it – you can’t breathe in the past or in the future. Breath always offers an opportunity to establish a real connection with what is happening right here and right now. If your mind is occupied by observing your breathing it is unlikely it will engage another activity.
Meditation is a universal practice, and the breath is a universal language. There is no coincidence that almost every spiritual tradition around the world has something to say about the importance of breathing. Many religions and practices see breathing as being a symbol of life itself, finding inhaling as bringing light and life into your body and exhaling as an act of surrender, an act of letting go.
When we meditate, we like to bring our mind into a conscious place but without engaging in anything that it can attract mind’s activity. Breathing is the only exception as it is the tool that we can use to bring the mind back from its experience. When you sit in meditation and suddenly you realise that you engaged in a thought (it happens to all of us) use your breath as the focus point to disengage from the thought that attracted your mind. Keep focusing on breathing until your mind gets back to its witness position, then let it go and let your body to breath naturally.
But what is natural breathing? Most of us move our upper chest when breathing not our belly. For meditation, the best is diaphragmatic breathing, which oxygenates the blood better and calms the mind. Diaphragmatic breathing will also help you to keep your position correct during the meditation as it involves holding your spine straight yet comfortable. Since our early age we are thought the ‘soldier pose’ where the back is firmly held straight, chest is out and stomach pulled in, in effect we start breathing through the chest making sure that the belly stays flat all the time. We stop using our diaphragm correctly and we develop the habit of incorrect breathing.
How to check if you breathe correctly? Diaphragm is a muscle allocated horizontally across the base of the rib cage. Lie on the floor, bed, or mat. Bend your knees and place your feet on the ground. Relax your shoulders. Put one hand on your chest and second hand on your stomach – just right under your rib cage. Breathe in deeply through your nose. You should experience the air moving through your nostrils into your abdomen, making your stomach expand and not the chest. The hand placed on your chest should remain still. You might put a pillow under your head to help you to observe the movement. This way is the most effective way of breathing, if you just realised that you are not doing it this way you should perhaps work on changing it. Personally, it took me awhile to get use to diaphragmatic breathing and correcting an old habit of the shallow chest breath and stop holding my stomach in. But I can assure that if you learn breathing using your diaphragm and then try to go back to ‘chest breathing’ you will see the difference it makes. While at the beginning you might find it much easier to control it while you are lying down, with a regular practice and constant correction you will be able to introduce and use the correct way of breathing all the time. As much as breathing deepness varies in the different meditation schools and techniques the diaphragmatic breathing is always recommended in meditation and in yoga.
Thousands of years ago ancient yogis learned to harness the power of the breath and developed an entire way of yogic breathing as they found the breath to be so important, they called it one of the main components of yoga and they have formulated Pranayama. The term Pranayama is made of two Sanskrit words. The first word is ‘prana’, meaning life force and the second is ‘yama’, meaning to restraint or to control. Pranayama is typically defined as a set of practices used to control the prana (life force) by means of your breathing patterns, such as to hold your breath or to practice deep breathing. I will soon write a post about Pranayama that will include few of my favourite breathing exercises, today I will only mention one that I find easy but very beneficial to start with. This Pranayama can be used before your meditation practice, it will help to calm your mind and settle into the practice.
Sama Vritti Pranayama for Reducing Stress, this is a very easy technique, one of the most basic forms of pranayama. It can be done almost anywhere; it reduces stress and anxiety quite quickly. Throughout the practice, the body should feel at ease and relaxed.
1. Sit in a comfortable, cross-legged position such as easy pose, you can sit on a cushion or on a chair.
2. Close your eyes and notice your natural breath, not changing anything at first. Take a good five breaths.
3. Begin to slowly count to four as you inhale. Take a moment (about two counts) at the top of your inhalation with the belly and lungs full of air. Then also count to four as you exhale. Again, take a moment to feel empty. Then inhale again to another count of four. The exercise is to match the lengths of your inhales and exhales.
4. Experiment with changing the number you count to; just make sure your inhale and exhale are the same lengths.
5. Continue breathing this way for several minutes.
Often, holding our breath initiates a stressful response so stay mindful when breathing and encourage the body to release tension as you get used to holding your breath for longer periods of time. Be mindful in your practice, conscious breathing can calm your emotions, bring peace to your mind, and create the space from where you will be able to take the right actions. Relax, enjoy, just breathe…