Meditating on the breath is a profoundly beneficial exercise, but I think that most practitioners do not understand how the benefits are achieved and thus don’t know how to maximize them. I think that there are very specific physiological and psychological reasons for breathing meditation. In my opinion, the reason to focus on the breath is to retrain the unconscious breathing module in the brainstem and also to strengthen the diaphragmatic and intercostal muscles that power our breaths. This will allow us to breathe more slowly, more deeply, and less defensively. We all breathe defensively, some more so than others. Defensive breathing is made up of short, shallow and incomplete breaths and it contributes to stress and anxiety.I bought myself a stethoscope recently and I use it to listen to my breathing. When you put the "bell" of the stethoscope up to your mouth you can hear tiny distortions and discontinuities in the breath – desperate little gasps. It became clear to me when listening carefully that breathing deeply can be a struggle. It shouldn't be though. Some of the force generated to create the suction for a breath comes easily at first, but the breath becomes more difficult and strenuous the longer you inhale. The more slowly and fully you breathe the more you can hear and feel these points of weakness in the breath. You do not need a stethoscope to hear this or feel it. When I don't have a stethoscope sometimes I will cup both of my hands between my mouth and ear. You want to listen for brief cessations or unevenness in the "so" sound. It sounds kind of like the voice when it "cracks." Breathing is strained whenever a single inhalation slows or is impeded briefly. When someone is very stressed you can often hear them straining for more breath – the inhalation will be punctuated by multiple rapid gasps. This happens when one is continuing to inhale despite their body's inclination to "switch" from inhalation to exhalation prematurely.
These points of weakness in the breathing musculature tell us to stop taking a full breath and go back to exhaling prematurely - this is the mechanism that causes us to breathe shallowly and underlies disordered breathing. I think that there are a few ways to reprogram your breathing, but they take time and patience, because they involve retraining unconscious brain regions. Specialized centers in the brainstem automatically regulate the rate and depth of inspiration depending on the body's needs. These need to be reprogrammed but it takes discipline. The average adult human male has a total lung capacity of about 6 liters of air, but only a small amount of this capacity is used during normal breathing. Nervous breathing will often involve inhalations of less than half a liter. We rarely breathe all the way out, or all the way in, and our breaths are usually confined to a narrow range called “tidal volume.” See the diagram below. The slower and more forcefully we breathe the more we can extend our tidal volume. Most adults breathe between 12 and 20 breaths per minute. Many breathing experts recommend “belly breathing” at 6 breaths per minute, but if you don’t work up to this low rate you might end up hyperventilating and feeling light headed. The longer you can extend your exhalations the more the heart will decelerate and the more the vagus nerve will be recruited to pacify the autonomic nervous system.
When mammals are severely stressed, they assume that their respiratory needs will only be met properly by breathing marked by high rate (frequency), and low depth. Defensive breathing is a vertebrate adaptation to an adverse environment. Animals that do not trust their environment breathe shallowly in anticipation of a violent attack. They are always prepared for the rapid and shallow breathing (low tidal breathing) necessary for vigilance and emotional reactivity. This type of breathing is not well suited for periods of rest, but is used regardless because the traumatized animal does not know when it will be attacked. I know that my breathing is caught up in this defensive evolutionary strategy despite the fact that it has no benefit for me in the modern environment. We all want to shoot for low frequency and high depth, meaning that we inhale and exhale more total air volume and switch between inhalation and exhalation on longer time intervals.
To work towards this I have developed a few strategies:
1) I try to return to the breath frequently throughout the day, monitoring it and deciding if it is too shallow or fast.
2) I catch myself getting ready to switch from breathing in to breathing out before I have even taken a full breath, and instead of switching, I prolong the breath in.
2.5) I also try to catch myself on the tail end of an exhalation and try to prolong it rather than starting to inhale. Joseph Pilates saw forced exhalation as the key to full inhalation and advised that people squeezed out the lungs as if they were tightly wringing a wet towel dry;
3) I breathe in through my nose and out from my mouth - because breathing in through the nose is a slower process (the airway is more narrow) it naturally prolongs the inhalation.
4) I force myself to breathe slowly when eating and when talking to others – these are times when my breathing often becomes shallow.
5) While meditating, I will focus on breath volume exclusively for several minutes - focusing on my unconscious "switching" proclivities.
6) Experience disordered breathing first hand. Before my normal breathing exercises I like to remind myself of what not to do. I breathe very shallowly and very quickly for a full minute. After about 30 seconds it becomes very apparent how uncomfortable this is.
7) I listen to my heart with a stethoscope while breathing deeply. The heart actually starts to speed up at both low and high lung volumes because the breathing musculature is straining. The mere act of noticing your heart panic during deep breathing, helps to calm your heart because you can notice that it is overreacting.
8) My favorite breathing exercise: I take a very full breath and then continue breathing, but while remaining at a very high lung capacity. In other words, I hold a good deal of air in, only taking shallow exhalations and large inhalations. Then I do the opposite. I breathe all of my air out and then only take very shallow inhalations and large exhalations. Forcing your breathing muscles to work outside of the normal “tidal volume” and instead in the “reserve volumes” is a quick way to strengthen them, enhance their capacity and extend the normal tidal volume.
Most meditation practices merely ask practitioners to turn attention to the breath. They do this in hopes that the person will notice that their breath is defensive and think to themselves: “Wait, my current environment is not upsetting, so why am I breathing like I have something at stake.” Listening to my heart through a stethoscope produces the same questioning: “Wait, why is my heart beating this fast? ” Just hoping that you will notice the desperation in your breath is not enough. I sit and focus on my tendency to prematurely arrest the inspiratory or expiratory flow. I try to notice this tendency and consciously override it again and again until I find that the muscles begin to prolong breathing on their own. I also try to associate a type of satisfaction, satiety, pleasure or fulfillment with the sensation of taking a full breath - almost like each full breath is a relief and some form of sustenance that rejuvenates me. Unfortunately, when the body can tell that you are overriding its preferred breathing style, you feel small bursts of panic and a strong impulse to switch - we have to resist this and try to stay relaxed without switching. If we can get past this initial discomfort early in the meditation, then we should be able to really "get in to" and reprogram our breathing. I plan to keep monitoring my breathing pattern and regulating it so that it goes from being defensive to being empowering.
I think that the discomfort from shallow breathing "ramps up" many addictive behaviors by making us feel desperation. For example, I think that our breathing becomes more shallow when we are hungry and the discomfort of it makes us feel that we are desperate for food. People use the phrase: “I am starving” when they notice that their hunger is affecting their breathing. Similarly, people turn to cigarettes, alcohol and anger when they can tell that negative life circumstances are affecting their breathing. People can transform disordered breathing into healthy breathing in minutes using some recreational drugs but of course this is short lived and the inevitable withdrawal symptoms actually accentuate disordered breathing.Anytime we are anxious, during social stress, public speaking or hardship – we become short of breath. If you are an anxious person, small stressors quickly lead to very shallow breathing. We can consciously tell when our breath becomes more shallow, but we normally don't use this as a cue to better regulate our breathing as we should. Instead we simply take the sensation to indicate that something is very wrong with our outer world. This causes us to ruminate about negative things, when it is our inner world that we should attend to. When my breathing was at its shortest I could not stop myself from playing out the most socially awkward and socially upsetting events in my head. After only a few days of breathing exercises I noticed that the best way to end negative cyclical thinking was just to focus on breathing more deeply. There is a direct relationship between negative thinking and shortness of breath partially because you cannot have genuinely positive thoughts when you feel like you are suffocating.
When I breathe easily and freely, I have fewer neurotic and anxious thoughts. In fact, the neural pathways for breathing are tied to the pathways for conscious thought through the amygdala. I have become convinced that every time a full inhalation is arrested prematurely, a subtle, panic signal (from the brainstem to the hypothalamus to the amygdala to the cortex) is sent to consciousness. I think that the best way to stop this is to use conscious practice to reprogram the neural systems responsible for breathing and to strengthen the breathing muscles for deeper, more prolonged breaths. I think that one of the best times to practice this is during a guided meditation. The more you practice extending your breaths, the easier regulating the breath becomes. I think that we should never stop attending to the breath.
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For more information about diaphragmatic breathing click here:
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