Breathing meditation: why it's a must have tool and how to infuse it into your day
We do it all day and all night. We do it from the moment we're born to the last gasp before we die. Breathing. We don't think much about it but it happens to be one of the most powerful tools we can have for altering our mind states. Remember a time when you were scared or anxious? Maybe you were breathing fast or holding your breath. Remember when you were cuddling a puppy or your baby? Perhaps, you can remember how calm and slow your breath was. Breathing is special in that it can be conscious and unconscious.
Why should you have a breathing practice?
By changing the rate and depth of breathing, you can change your oxygen and carbon dioxide levels, activate your sympathetic (if you want to wake up) or parasympathetic (if you want to calm down) systems. In this way, you have a direct dial to your emotional state. Amazingly simple, costs nothing, and you always have it with you!
Exercising your breathing muscles also benefits parts of your lungs that don't normally get as much attention; like the apices (tip top of our lungs) and our costophrenic angles (back lower part of the lungs tucked in behind our liver and spleen (breathing deeply in down-dog is great for this part of the lung). The costophrenic angles is the first place that collapses when patients in the hospital lie on their backs for long periods of time.
The intercostal muscles between the ribs and the diaphragm, a tent-like muscle that separates the lungs from the abdominal organs and moves to fill the lungs with air get a workout. Even your abdominal muscles and the neck muscles (accessory breathing muscles) get a workout.
It's meditative and it strengthens your ability to focus. When you focus your attention on your breath, the sensations of your breath, and your chest, or abdomen rising and falling with your breath, it's mindful breathing that can break the train of everyday thought to elicit the relaxation response, opposite of the stress response.
How can you incorporate a practice into your day?
Try the exercises below as you need them. Breathe only through your nose.
To wake up or lift your mood:
Try Bhastrika (bellows breath) or panting like a dog for 20 seconds. Last inhale, hold it for as long as it's comfortable, then release in a slow exhale through the nose: these shallow fast in and out breaths will get you warmed up and then feeling calm after.
- Throw your navel to your spine exhaling forcefully. Passive inhale. Continue to contract your abdominal muscles forcefully inward to exhale.
- Try 1-2 breaths per second. Try to do 20 or more, ending with two normal breaths.
- This is great for waking up and exercising your diaphragm
To calm down:
- Breathe in through both nostrils for 4 counts, hold for 2 counts, then exhale for 4 counts.
- The rhythm should be regular and even. Since this looks like you're breathing normally, you can use this anytime, anywhere. Try to do at least 12 cycles. Maximum 20 minutes.
Alternate Nostril Breathing:
- Thumb to right nostril, ring finger to left nostril.
- Index and middle finger folded down.
- Left hand in lap with thumb and index finger touching.
- Breathe in through the left nostril to a count of 6, hold for 4, and exhale through the right for 6 counts.
- Inhale through the right nostril for 6 counts, hold for 4 and exhale through the left nostril.
- Step 4 & 5 is one cycle. Continue for 12 cycles while focusing your attention at the space between your eyebrows.