We use breathing techniques in meditation as a way to practice focus, awareness and mindfulness.
In Yoga and Sanskrit, our breath is known as ‘Prana’ which directly translates to ‘vital life force energy’. Pranayama, therefore, refers to a practice of breath-regulation.
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Pranayama Breathing techniques:
- Alternate nostril breathing (Nadi Sodhana Pranayama)
- The 3 part breath (Dirga Pranayama)
- Cooling Breath (Shitali Pranayama)
- Ocean Breath (Ujahi Pranayama)
- Humming Bee Breath (Bhramari Pranayama)
- Bellows Breath (Bhastrika Pranayama)
- Against the Wave Breath (Viloma Pranayama)
- Fire or Shining Skull Breath (Kapalabhati Pranayama)
Many deep breathing techniques can be used to help from Insomnia to anxiety and relieve stress. In meditation our breath acts as our guide – a point to always come back to and focus on when our mind tends to wonders or overthink.
Other breathing methods:
- Diaphragmatic breathing or belly breathing
- 2-to-1 breathing
- Lion’s Breath
- Mindful Breathing
- Resonance Breathing
- Pursed-Lip breathing
Our breath is also the only automatic bodily process that we can control and therefore results in us being able to control the state our body is in – that being a stressed tense state or a calm relaxed state. It does not matter which type of meditation you practice, ‘breathing’ is the pillar.
How would this affect the rest of our bodily systems?
By practicing deep breathing techniques the following changes in the body happen:
- we access our parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) and deactivate our fight or flight stress response.
- This slows our heart rate down as our breathing rate slows down too.
- It activates our Vagus Nerve, which is the biggest nerve in our body, and affects many things including our digestion. By stimulating the vagus nerve, you can send a message to your body that it’s time to relax and de-stress, which leads to long-term improvements in mood, wellbeing, and resilience. The increased vagal tone could lead to overcoming anxiety and depression and better managing them.
- Our digestive system functions more optimally as our gut is very sensitive to stressors (internal or external) and general feelings of unease or dysregulation.
What can deep breathing practices help for?
Shallow breathing usually occurs when one is anxious and contributes to the feeling of a panic attack or anxiety attack. These are rapid breaths that come directly from the chest. This is known as chest or thoracic breathing.
When we breathe rapidly it results in shortness of breath, our oxygen and carbon dioxide levels are imbalanced, which can increase heart rate, feeling dizzy or faint, tense muscles, or panic attacks.
Deep breathing exercises or slower breathing exercises are an effective way to reduce anxiety because they help the brain get more oxygen into its bloodstream. This is known as Diaphragmatic breathing or abdominal breathing.
There is a reason why performers practice breath control before stepping onto the stage to combat nerves or stage fright. It releases fear which our mind might be perceiving as a threat.
Try this: Belly Breathing
Place one hand on your heart and one hand on your belly
Seal off the lips and close your eyes
Inhale by sending the breath into your belly – expand your belly like you would when blowing up a balloon. It can also help to place a pillow on your belly to help direct the breath down.
Hold it slightly at the top
Exhale all the air out and pull your naval towards your spine – deflate the balloon
Repeat this for a few minutes or at least 10 breath cycles
Sleep is highly important for us to function optimally both on a physical and mental plane. You might have trouble falling asleep at bedtime because of stress, anxiety, worry about your health, or other problems. Or maybe you’re having difficulty staying asleep during the day because of work pressures, family responsibilities, or another reason.
Lack of sleep also could result in increased irritability, fatigue, concentration issues, low energy, low work performance, increase in appetite, increased levels of cortisol.
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms then deep breathing might be beneficial to you as it counteracts this and aids in improved sleep cycles.
Breathing Techniques for Sleep
Try This: The 4-7-8 Breathing Exercise
Start by sitting with your back straight.
Place the tip of your tongue on the tissue just behind your upper front teeth. Keep your tongue there throughout the exercise.
Breathe out through your mouth.
Close your mouth. Breathe in through your nose while counting to 4.
Hold your breath and count to 7.
Breathe out through your mouth and count to 8.
Repeat these steps three more times. Practice this exercise at least twice a day.
The ratio of 4:7:8 is important. Keep to this ratio throughout the exercise. Count faster if you can’t hold your breath for the full spans.
3. Stress Management
As mentioned before deep breathing leads to parasympathetic nerve activation. The sympathetic nervous system which controls our stress response and reactions of ‘fight or flight’ as a result of our stress levels, gets bypassed and lets the body know that it is okay – there is no danger. This is specifically enhanced when lengthening the time of the exhale while breathing.
Our bodies decode stress as something that puts our survival in danger and it is difficult for the brain to distinguish between physical stress and mental stress. A deadline at the office could be perceived the same way as being chased by a lion so to speak. Although breathing techniques might not be the first line of action when chased by a lion (this is where the fight or flight response kicks in and saves the day) breathing techniques might help the stressful situation of meeting a deadline.
Stress reduction through a calmer and more relaxed mind makes for better focus, improved attention. concentration, more efficiency, and therefore better work performance and this can all be achieved by simply just taking a few deep breaths!
Try it: 2-to-1 breath
Start in a comfortable position, either sitting with your back straight or lying down
Close your eyes and seal off the lips
Inhale through the nose, while counting to 4, send the breath into your belly rather than your chest
Hold at the top of the inhale for a count of 4
Exhale all the stale air out for a count of 8
Hold at the bottom for a count of 4
Repeat for at least 10 rounds of breathing cycles
The inhale-exhale ratio of 1:2 is important so any counts can be chosen as long as the exhale is doubled for the count chosen for the inhale
4. Cultivates Mindfulness
Since breathing techniques focus the mind and attention solely on the breath it is seen as a form of mindfulness/meditation practice.
When practiced regularly it enhances our mindfulness in other areas of our lives too as we can implement the ideas and concepts of this practice in our daily routine or lifestyles.
Experts believe a regular practice of mindful breathing can make it easier to do it in difficult situations.
It teaches us to be kind to our wandering minds and self.
It teaches us to be intentional with our thoughts, words, and actions.
It teaches us to regulate our feelings and emotions and approach this with less reactivity and more neutrality.
It teaches us to simply be and not just do which leads us to live a slower-paced life and further reduce stress.
It, therefore, creates a positive reduced stress cycle – as the practice of deep breathing itself leads to lower stress but the concept of practicing mindfulness often also impacts how we live and choose to handle stress over the long term.
5. Relaxation of mind and body
As we have already read how intentional breathing relaxes our minds and our mental state this directly impacts our physical body too.
When we reach a relaxed mental state our bodies release and let go of muscle tension which causes a full body relaxation experience.
Through this, we also become more in tune with our mind-body connection and our natural relaxation response. We can start to realize when our body is stressed by listening to bodily sensations and physical cues that our physical body might be showing. Usually, physical stress is more easily recognized than mental stress, and recognizing the one earlier practices that implement a calmer state of both can be implemented sooner.
This is also fundamental in noticing stress triggers. Asking: “Why do I feel like this?” after something that you might deem stressful can help to eliminate or avoid that stress in the future.
Try it: Full Body Scan Relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation techniques(PMR)
Progressive muscle relaxation, also known as deep muscle relaxation, helps you unwind.
The premise is to tense but not strain your muscles and relax to release the tension. This movement promotes tranquility throughout your body. It’s a trick recommended to help with insomnia Before you start, try practicing the 4-7-8 method while imagining the tension leaving your body as you exhale.
Raise your eyebrows as high as possible for 5 seconds. This will tighten your forehead muscles.
Relax your muscles immediately and feel the tension drop. Wait 10 seconds.
Smile widely to create tension in your cheeks. Hold for 5 seconds. Relax.
Pause 10 seconds.
Squint with your eyes shut. Hold 5 seconds. Relax.
Pause 10 seconds.
Tilt your head slightly back so you’re comfortably looking at the ceiling. Hold 5 seconds. Relax as your neck sinks back into the pillow.
Pause 10 seconds.
Keep moving down the rest of the body, from your triceps to chest, thighs to feet.
Let yourself fall asleep, even if you don’t finish tensing and relaxing the rest of your body.
As you do this, focus on how relaxed and heavy your body feels when it’s relaxed and in a comfortable state.
Now take a full body scan
Starting from the toes all the way to the top of the head
How does your body feel?
How does your breath feel?
How does your mind feel?
Gently open your eyes and enjoy this deeply relaxed and calm state of mind and body
In summary, there are many benefits to using meditation including improved concentration, memory recall, emotional stability, self-awareness, and overall well-being. The most important thing about any form of meditation is consistency. If you want to reap these rewards then make sure you meditate regularly.
You may find that some forms of meditation work better for you than others depending on what works best for you.
Breathing techniques however play a vital role in not only your meditation practice but a way to approach a mindful way of living.