You may or may not know this, but I am a big fan of meditation.
Big fan. Sure, it can be challenging at times – to calm the mind chatter; to find the time; or even just the motivation. But, it is one of the most powerful and transformative activities we can undertake for the health of our mind, body and spirit.
If I had to choose one thing, it would be …. Breathing… PROPERLY!!!! Sorry, for shouting, but this is important!!! “Yeah, yeah – breathing – wow! I do it like, a million times a day Kathryn” (more like c. 23,000!) “I don’t need you to tell me how!” But maybe you do…
I am in the process of completing my Meditation Teacher Diploma* (more on that coming soon…), and I was intrigued to learn that the average person breathes predominantly from their chest – quick and shallow – taking approximately 16-20 breaths per minute.
Ideally, I like to aim for about 5 breaths per minute during meditation and I’m working on slowing down my everyday normal breathing to around 8. (This is not medical advice! If you have respiratory problems or health issues – see a doctor – I’m not one!).
Stress, anxiety and general modern living have all had an effect on the way we breathe and we seem to have forgotten how to breathe from our diaphragm (diaphragmatic breathing) – how to use that muscle to ‘whoosh’ (technical term) the air into our lungs. Instead, we tend to use our chest muscles (thoracic breathing) to ‘drag’ the air in – much less efficient for our muscles and for getting oxygen into our bodies. And then, the vicious circle begins – shallow breathing sends stress messages to our brain, which in turn causes us to take shallow breaths! No wonder so many of us are living with some level of anxiety every day.
Lots of meditation techniques and styles use the breath as a foundation of the practice. Our ‘current’ understanding of ‘mindfulness’ is loosely based around Buddhist meditation, where the key is to observe and witness without judgement or reaction.
All the areas of mindfulness described in Buddhist meditation are underpinned by the practice of ‘Anapanasati’ – The Mindfulness of Breathing. Which basically means – you start with observing and adjusting your breath before anything else. If you calm the body, the mind will follow.
In Zen (Chinese Buddhism) meditation, you can use counting to keep and focus the attention on the breath and provide an anchor to when attention wanders (it always does!!!). Lengthening the inhale and exhale is also a feature of some of these types of meditation.
There are many other wonderful meditation techniques which use different ways of breathing to enhance them (breath length, regularity – even holding it completely for long periods) and I look forward to discussing them with you at some point in the future! But, for now, I thought I would share how I focus on and use my breath during silent meditation and some tips to make it all a bit easier!
I love this app! (IOS only). It’s free and it plays in the background even if you’re listening to something else! I like to listen to music or partially guided meditations (after my Chakra balancing obvs!!) and if I set the app to 60 beats per minute to play quietly in the background, I can count my breaths on the beat of each second – no more thinking about how long a second is, saying ‘elephant’ between each count – all of that is just so distracting!
Many authorities on these things recommend you breathe in for six seconds and out for six seconds as the optimal breathing arc – 12 seconds, five breaths per minute. I struggle with this sometimes and end up holding my breath on the exhale to wait for the time to catch up! This is not good – not having oxygen in your body (even for a second or so, if you’re not used to it) can send your body into a panic – not very Zen! So, you can start with fewer seconds on each inhale and build up to six.
This is a great one, especially if you experience anxiety or panic attacks (whole new blog coming on that topic btw!). As humans, we are unique in that we can choose to override our automatic breathing response – hold our breath, slow it down, speed it up – animals don’t ever consciously do this! This means we can actually alter our brain by choosing to alter our breathing!
When we inhale, we engage our ‘Sympathetic Nervous System’ which is the ‘action centre’ of our brain (this is the area of our brain which prepares the body for fight or flight). While our exhale engages the ‘Para-Sympathetic Nervous System’ or ‘relaxing centre’ (this part of the brain restores our body to a relaxed state and calm after the expected activity… aaahhhhhhh).
So… increasing the amount of time we spend exhaling, keeps us in the relaxed part of our brain for longer! On the advice of my most excellent Hypnotherapist, I now breathe in for four and out for eight in a smooth arc (don’t hold it!!) – a total of 12 seconds and voila – the optimal five breaths per minute! If four is too difficult at first, try three and build up.
And there you have it, a few ideas for using your breath to supercharge your meditation practice and improve your everyday breathing! Changing the way you breathe does take practice, so go slowly and be kind to yourself.
I’d love to hear if you try any of these techniques or if you have any tips on improving breathing – during meditation or every day! Pop into the Facebook Group and let us know there.
If you’re interested in just how powerful breathing can be, check out Wim Hof – mind blown!
If you’re interested in finding out more about how I live My Chakra Life, the Chakra System and the tools we can use to leverage its awesome power to create more balance; live a better life; and even manage specific issues like anxiety, sadness, loss, poor body image (and lots more), pop over to our Facebook Group and join the conversation there.
Or download our My Chakra Life Wheel to understand more about your own Chakras and get started on your journey to Chakra Health.
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* Meditation Teacher Diploma Accredited by the CMA (Complementary Medical Association)