Breathing meditations are often seen as a great catalyst to deeper relaxation. This deeper relaxation assists us in experiencing a deeper and sometimes more meaningful meditation. One of the reasons why breathing is such an important factor in achieving relaxation is from the energy content being exchanged with each breath.
It's not just the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide, there is another layer. Seen from an eastern perspective each breath also contains Qi or universal energy, which is essential to our life. This energy supports us in many ways.
In addition, breathing is a great indicator of how body and mind are feeling at any given moment. Are we stressed, upset, happy, nervous, or putting in too much effort, just notice your breathing and you will get a clearer idea.
On the other side of that is the ability to counter balance those states through the use of different breathing exercises. These exercises can usually be done anytime or anywhere and regardless of circumstances most of the time.
Another advantage to doing breathing meditation exercises is improving our breathing in everyday life. There is a carryover effect. It's like we are training our breathing 'muscles' during our meditation and that muscle memory also improves our breathing in the rest of our life.
In this post we will take a closer look at the different aspects of breathing and how to breath more effectively as well as a couple techniques to improve breathing.
How Does Our Breathing work?
With every breath, we provide the body with oxygen which is passed into the blood by the lungs. Through the blood, the oxygen reaches the rest of the body where the oxygen is transformed into energy. In reverse order, waste products are transported back to our lungs where they are breathed out, mainly in the form of carbon dioxide.
In general, we can breathe in two ways. In the first place, we can breathe through our diaphragm and abdomen. Secondly, we can breathe through our chest, also known as chest breathing. Normally speaking, our breathing is a combination of the two. In actual practice, we see that many people use chest breathing more often than not. This breathing is relatively superficial, uneven, and also often a bit tight. When we are tense, it is often recommended to breathe from the abdomen.
The diaphragm is a thin muscular partition between the chest and the abdomen. The diaphragm is sensitive to tension and strongly reacts to psychological disturbances. A cramped abdomen results in a cramped and compromised way of breathing.
When we use abdominal breathing, the diaphragm contracts and moves down, which results in air being pulled into our lungs. The deeper the diaphragm is pushed down during breathing, the more air that will enter our lungs. It is the same for breathing out; the diaphragm relaxes, moves up, and maximum discharge of the air contents in the lungs is the result.
A combination of chest and abdominal breathing enables us to breathe in a maximum amount of air and breathe the used air out again. It is obvious that when you only use chest breathing, you can inhale less oxygen and transport less used air.
Breathing is a continuous, vital function that works automatically and with which, in principle, we need not occupy ourselves with. At the same time, it is also a function that we can actually control consciously and gain benefit from that.
It is, however, true that many people get confused when trying to follow or change their breathing. This is normal and with some exercise and patience, almost everybody succeeds in learning to breathe actively and consciously. This is good news because, in general, our breathing changes according to circumstances.
When angry or upset, the frequency and power of our breathing will increase. When sleeping or in a very deep state of relaxation, we will, most of the time, breathe more slowly and exhale longer. This makes sense because when the body needs more energy because of, for instance danger, breathing will increase. When needing only little energy, breathing will decrease.
Our breathing tells us much about the state of our mind at this particular moment. When breathing quietly, deeply, and evenly most of the time, we really are in a relaxed state of mind. When the breathing is unquiet, superficial, and uneven, we are often irritable, tense, and we find it difficult to concentrate.
To check how your breathing is going at this very moment, just sit down and put a hand on your belly. Put your other hand on your chest where your breastbone is. Which parts of your belly and chest are moving when you breathe?
When you breathe optimally, you feel your stomach muscles expand first, then the chest and finally the upper part of your chest. Don't worry if you notice that you are only breathing from your chest, you are not alone. Just realize that there is still progress to be made and that you will get better at it with each passing moment or attempt.
Is There a Right Way To Breathe?
The idea of having to spend time learning how to breathe properly probably sounds strange. After all, you have known how to breathe since the moment you were born.
It is something that your nervous system does for you automatically, no matter what you are thinking about – and it is something that you (literally) do in your sleep.
So what is there to learn?
The fact is that learning how to breathe properly is a good investment of your time. Once you learn how to breathe, you will find that you have more energy, can focus better, and generally feel better because you are taking deeper breaths and your body is getting more oxygen.
Once you practice it for a little while, it will become second nature – just like having good posture is – and you will find that the benefits impact your whole life.
Breathing improperly can have a negative impact on your digestion, your focus, your ability to sleep, your mood, and your heart rate.
Once you figure out how to breathe, you will find that you put less stress on all of those systems, and you feel much better.
Most people either breathe too much, take breaths that are too shallow, or keep holding their breath without realizing that they are doing it.
This has several impacts on your body. Improper breathing leaves you feeling stressed and tense.
This increases your cortisol levels, tightens your muscles, and increases fatigue as well. It also makes the airways tighter, which means that it is harder for air to get to the lungs – you then have to work harder to breathe, which makes your breathing even less efficient, creating a vicious cycle.
You will end up getting less oxygen in your body, and this will leave you feeling tired and foggy (your brain uses about 20 percent of the oxygen that you take in).
Your heart will have to work harder, and you may find you suffer from cold hands and feet because it cannot pump blood to the extremities as efficiently as it used to be able to.
Oxygen shortages make your muscles stiff and make you tire faster – and this is one reason why athletes tend to put so much effort into learning good breathing techniques – but the fact is that everyone can benefit from these techniques, not just athletes.
How to Breathe
You take 25,000 breaths per day, so learning how to breathe more effectively is a skill that you will get a lot of benefit from. It is easy to breathe well, once you get the hang of it.
Firstly, make sure that you are breathing through your nose – treat your nose like a filter that will process the air you take in – removing impurities, and warming it before it hits the lungs. Your lungs do not want to take in air that is dry and cold, and full of pollutants, so let your nose clean the air before it gets there!
Try to spend a day or two practicing breathing through your nose. After a couple of days, your nose will relax and your nostrils should open again, so you will find breathing through the nose more natural.
Focus on Using Your Diaphragm
Breathe in through your nose and let the air go all the way towards your belly. Use your diaphragm when you are breathing – this will help you to get deep, high quality breaths.
Using the diaphragm helps with gas exchange – since you get more air into your lungs and the lower lungs are very effective. In addition, the movement of the diaphragm helps to massage the liver, stomach and intestines, thereby promoting better digestion.
The lymphatic system gets help to get rid of waste, and the pressure in your chest and belly is briefly reduced, meaning that the heart is not forced to work as hard.
You will find that you don’t have to recruit as many muscles to breathe well, so you won’t tire as quickly, and you will find that your chest relaxes – reducing neck and shoulder pain.
At first, while you are thinking about breathing you will feel pretty tense. Try to focus on relaxing. If you are tense, your breath will be stilted and shallow, and this will make you feel more stressed.
Focus on taking a few long, slow breaths and then falling into a rhythm with your breathing, then forget about it for a while. Re-assess every now and then until breathing well becomes second nature.
Everyone will most likely have a slightly different rhythm when they are breathing. Find your rhythm, and then stick to it. If you are talking, slow down and take a breath every now and then.
If you are stressed and panicking, remind yourself to take a nice deep breath.
Three Breathing Techniques for Quick Relaxation
When we end up in a fight-or-flight situation, the sympathetic nervous system will make sure that the metabolism, breathing, and blood pressure will increase, several hormones will be released (for example adrenaline) and that muscle tension increases.
Fortunately, nature has seen to it that we still use another part of our nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system, which mainly deals with relaxation. This system works best when we are relaxed and is mainly responsible for the recovery and growth of our body cells, assimilation, and building up our reserves.
When these two aspects of the nervous system are in sync and communicating they will help bring the body to balance. Through our breathing and meditation we can generally speaking activate a relaxation response that helps our body to return to the proper balance and to relax again.
We can use our breathing to relax quickly and to get more control over the situation:
1.) Deep and regular breathing
When under heavy pressure, this will help to change your tight, superficial, and often short breathing into a deep, even, and constant breathing. Start your inhalation from your belly, to your ribs and diaphragm, and finally up to the upper part of your chest. For breathing out, do the same in reverse - from your chest to your belly again.
This type of breathing makes sure that the energy that you need to get things under control again flows into you. Your breathing is not superficial, high, and uneven anymore. While you may still be in a state of agitation, you are still in control.
2.) Long exhalations
Often only a few deep, long exhalations are needed to relax. The exhalations must be longer than the inhalations. Through this type of breathing, we trigger the relaxation response that should slowly take us back to the balance in which normally, we are relaxed. Do not get alarmed when sometimes emotions are released or we start to feel tired when we start to relax. This is a transitional phase.
3.) Natural, relaxed breathing
Here, we let the breathing have its way to do whatever it likes. We observe without controlling it. There should be no tension and everything goes nice and smooth.
You can use this routine throughout the day as often as you like. When you feel your breathing is superficial and tense, just perform step's 1,2, and/or 3 and this should help to reduce or eliminate stress in no time!
As you can see, learning how to breathe is something that will benefit anyone – whether you are an athlete, an office worker, young, or old.
It is unfortunate that most people don’t learn good breathing techniques at a young age, because bad habits are hard to break, and many people aren’t willing to put in the time to break the habits by re-assessing how they breathe regularly over a period of several weeks or months. However, it is well worth doing.
You can concentrate so much better when your brain is getting the oxygen and energy that it needs, and your body doesn’t feel tense and tired all the time.