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Here are some ways that we can use our breath in meditation and in daily life:
1) To destress - When we’re feeling stressed, often our intuition is best: pause and take a deep breath. Why not trying sighing? It’s a great tension release. Take an inhale through your nose that’s 2x a normal inhale and let it go passively by exhaling through the mouth. Really enjoy the “letting go” part of the exhale. Don’t rush it by forcing the air out. You can ad a vocalization like a moan if it feels good.
2) As an object of meditation. The breath is handy because it’s always there, acting like a our own built in metronome to stabilize our focus. There are options for using your breath as an object of attention. The first is to appreciate and soak into the physical sensations of the breath. You can zoom out and evenly cover the whole breath in it’s totality, or zoom into different parts of the breath. The nose, chest, belly movements, etc. Become absorbed by whatever you feel in that area. We can also use the breath as a source of contact with flow, the dynamic force of change. Observe the movement, vibrations, expansion and contraction of the forces of breathing. Soak into that.
3) To stay grounded or balanced. If meditation is making you feel spacey, out of touch, overwhelmed or anxious, you can always come back to breathing to find balance. We can also do this routinely in daily life to send feedback to your nervous system to stay balanced, both relaxed and alert.
The autonomic nervous system (the part that we don’t consciously control) is made up of two parts, the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches.
Breath offers us direct control of the autonomic nervous system. Emphasizing the inhale stimulates the sympathetic, or ‘flight or flight’ branch while emphasizing the exhale stimulates the parasympathetic or ‘rest and digest” branch. They should be working together to keep us both relaxed and alert, adjusting one way or the other with our needs like gas and brake pedals. Chronic overstimulation of the up-regulated ‘fight or flight’ system is unhealthy.
Resonant (Coherent, Rhythmic) breathing brings our nervous system into a state of balance. Use a timer with a chime or a metronome to time your in and out breaths. This one is popular:
Try to get the length to one inhale or exhale every 5-6 seconds. Start out faster if you need, and work up to slowing down. Play with it a bit, everybody is a little different. Try this just for a few minutes a couple times a day, and if you like it, do it as much as you want.
4) Combine with a meditation practice. You can use both of the techniques we’ve tried, sighing and coherent breathing for a few minutes before meditation. You can use these breathing techniques in the middle of a long sit as well.
Another way of bringing breath work into your meditation practice is to “check in” with your breath when you’re settling into a meditation posture.
Looking at the animation above, here are some things to compare to your own breath:
Is your posture ready to allow a full, complete breath?
Is your belly moving as a result of diaphragm breathing?
Is the belly expanding on inhale/contracting on exhale?
Are the ribs expanding when you inhale, contracting on inhale?
Are you breathing out and not up? Your shoulders shouldn’t be elevating, at least not very much.
If any of these things don’t seem right, do your best to make even subtle improvements. Over time, the adjustments you make will become habits.
Here’s one of the many great ways to strengthen you diaphragm. This one also feel great. Try just doing five minutes a day of this for awhile.
5) Controlling you nervous system. Most breathing techniques play around with some variation on the In/Out cycle, maximizing control of the nervous system.
Remember that the up-regulating ‘fight or flight’ nervous system is influenced by the inhale and down-regulating ‘rest or digest’ is influenced by the exhale. Experiment with controlling their timing to see if anything changes for you. You’ll probably want to extend the exhale as this will induce relaxation, however there may be times when you want to emphasize the inhale to give yourself some energy, when you’re falling asleep on the mediation cushion or in daily life when you’re feeling a bit sluggish.
A good goal to aim for is 4-2-6-2: inhale for a count of 4, pause for 2, exhale for 6 and pause for two. Repeat and enjoy! If you don’t like counting, then once you get the timing roughly down, stop counting. Try lengthening the exhale without counting. That’s good too.