Inhales and exhales frame our life. During our existence we experience around a hundred million breathing cycles. This process is almost too much of a given for us to notice, let alone ponder over its huge influence on our health.
Meanwhile, breath is a fundamental thread linking our body and mind. We have no control over such processes as cortisol production, heart rhythm or the activity of our brains. However, we do have control over the pace of our inhales and exhales, which have a direct influence on all of the above. For this reason, breathing exercises are a vital tool for leading a more conscious and healthier lifestyle. By focusing on our breath, we can improve our concentration, find inner peace and harmony within ourselves.
Have you noticed that slowing down your breath is at the start of every meditation practice? The deeper and more spread out our breaths, the easier it is to achieve a state of calm, free of any judgement. “It helps to have a focus for your attention, an anchor line to tether you to the present moment and to guide you back when the mind wanders,” writes Jon Kabat-Zinn in his book on mindfulness Wherever You Go, There You Are.
Indeed, by observing our inhales and exhales, we focus our attention on the physical bodily experience of the present moment by moving away from overthinking and overanalysing to a state of mere sensations. It is for this reason that similar techniques are often recommended to those suffering with chronic stress or anxiety. They help turn off obsessive thoughts and give your mind a break.
Regular practice brings about not only improvements to our overall mood but also increase the brain’s neuroplasticity. By simply observing our breath during meditation, we help it form new neural connections and overcome stale thinking patterns. In other words, we develop our creative thinking.
Each inhale helps stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, which activates the functions of our senses. On exhale we turn on our parasympathetic nervous system which is responsible for rest. For this reason, it is important to pay attention to the duration of each inhale and exhale. If meditating in the evening, exhaling for longer would invite in calm and relaxation. If, on the contrary, you are looking to stay energised, then you would want to pursue a more intensive and longer inhale.
1/ Zazen concentration technique
In the Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness, Buddha puts forward this technique as the most basic means of leaving suffering behind and training the mind to be in the present moment. You will need a special round zafu cushion for meditation or a comfortable chair. Take your Burmese posture by sitting on the cushion cross-legged, so that one ankle is in front of the other and your knees are touching the floor. If you are comfortable doing so, you can place the ankle of one foot on top of the shin of the opposite leg.
Another variation of the pose is Seiza, a kneeling pose with the buttocks leaning against the heels. A lotus posture, where each foot is lying on the opposite thigh, can help maintain a state of stable equilibrium. Having said that, this is a demanding pose which requires a lot of flexibility. It is also not suitable for those with joint pains. When meditating on a chair, make sure to not lean back. Instead, lean forwards sightly making sure your back is upright.
- Close your eyes and relax your eyelids. Put the palms of your hands on your knees or form a Cosmic Mudra by cradling your dominant hand underneath the other palm and lightly connecting the tips of your thumbs to form an oval shape.
- Make a calm conscious inhale. Just like a glass filling up from the bottom, fill your lungs from the bottom up. Slowly exhale, gradually sucking your stomach in.
- If you are very tense, imagine calming cool air seeping through you as you inhale. Imagine the stress leaving your neck, shoulders, back and other tense areas as you exhale. Do not slow down or deepen your breath at this point, breathe normally through the nose.
- To maintain focus and deal with wandering thoughts, count each inhale and exhale in your head.
Start with five minutes a day for a week, then gradually increase the duration of your practice. By taking regular zazen exercises, you will learn to master your mind and shed tension and anxiety.
2/ Ujjayi breath
Victorious breath, or ujjayi as it is referred to in Sanskrit, balances the entire cardiorespiratory system. Before inhaling, tense your throat muscles as if you are about to swallow. Breath in calmly and deeply. Without releasing the tension, exhale with your mouth shut through the nose. Partial throat contraction will create a soft hissing sound resembling the waves, which gives this practice its other name – ocean breath.
Inhaling with tensed throat muscles is more demanding for our respiratory system. This makes it not only a calming practice, but also one that is good for our health by stimulating the work of our lungs and strengthening our respiratory system. Slowly repeat this exercise by taking 2-4 inhales a minute, at least 10 cycles overall.
3/ Dirga Pranayama
To help you execute this three-part breathing technique correctly, imagine pouring water into a glass. Use your stomach as well as your lungs to inhale from the bottom up. Inhaling slowly, fill up your stomach first, then move your attention to your belly button. Feel the air going through your chest, opening it up from the bottom, only then moving on to the throat area directly above your sternum.
Exhale from the top down. It helps starting this practice by placing your hands on each area as you move through it, to really feel the air going through your body. The technique helps to achieve a state of relaxation and can be incorporated into your evening meditation to promote a more peaceful healthier sleep.
4/ Zen walking meditation
According to Osho, it is best to start your meditation journey with active techniques first. This does contradict the commonplace concept of what a meditation should be, which usually boils down to a static lotus pose for hours on end. Indeed, zen Buddhists themselves frequently practice kinhin, a form of walking meditation. It may be even easier to master than zazen, given that movement is so much more natural for our bodies and minds than long periods of inactivity.
Kinhin will relieve tension in the muscles after long periods of work and will fill the body with energy, given two conditions. A meditative walk should be taken solo, wearing comfortable footwear. The route should be thought out in advance, to help you fully concentrate on the breath.
Start with a very slow walking pace. Make an inhale and exhale with each step taken. Repeat the breathing cycling as you transfer your body weight on the leading foot as you peel off the back one off the ground. Try to fully focus your attention on the rhythm of your breath and look directly ahead. Pause a few minutes later and start walking normally, continuing to concentrate on the air that fills your lungs. Breathe freely and finish off your meditation in a few minutes.
Use this quick and rhythmic practice in place of unhealthy snacks to get energised throughout the day. Breath of fire, as it is known, stimulates blood circulation, tones the body, and strengthens your abs. Inhales and exhales are taken continuously without any pause. Start by exhaling, rapidly pushing the air out through the nose and pressing the centre of your stomach, as if attempting to push it towards the back of your spine. The inhale is soft and long, with the muscles now relaxed.
Make another powerful and sudden exhale, followed up a calm and passive inhale. Breathe with your belly, rather than your chest, do not tense your abs. Repeat the cycle at least 36 times. Dizziness is a telling sign that you have overdone it, so consider changing the rhythm of your breaths. Sit calmly for a few minutes and return to your normal breathing. The kapalabhati technique is also not recommended for those with high blood pressure and heart conditions. Equally, it is not recommended during pregnancy and menstruation.
The main rule of breathing
It is worth noting that the purpose of a breathing meditation is to achieve inner harmony and wholeness, rather than add to your tension and stress. For this reason, it is recommended to take things slow and easy. Do not expect for it to work from the get-go. Do not be hard on yourself, if things do not work out the way you expect them to. Instead, softly direct your attention to the next breath.
Practice self-care by turning off the inner critic and stop chasing after results. In the words of Jon Kabat-Zinn, “meditation is the only intentional systematic human activity, which at not about trying to improve yourself or get anywhere else, but simply to realize where you already are”. Perhaps, that is exactly where its value lies.
Make the practice itself your goal, focusing on the pleasure of being one-on-one with yourself in a priceless moment of the here and now.