Breath is life. It sounds almost comical to say that there is a correct and incorrect way to breathe, but medical science agrees with that assertion. There are indeed “efficient” as well as counterproductive ways to bring oxygen into the human body.
Years of conditioning have taught most Western people to ignore their breathing, and to use only the upper chest as the focal point of the activity. Other cultures emphasize a fuller type of breath, one that includes the entire diaphragm and a majority of the upper torso.
When it comes to meditative practices, breathing is a supremely crucial anatomical event. It acts as a central axis of attention. Many spiritual teachers from every major faith tradition tend to use “attention to the breath” as a way of entering a deep meditative state. Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and Jews turn to this simple human function as the key to inner awareness.
Even hypnosis, which can loosely be called a distant cousin of meditation, often uses deep breathing as a gateway to the subconscious.
Tips for meditative breathing
Effective meditation sessions usually begin with calming the breath. For those who have never consciously, actively tried to slow and calm their respiration, a handful of tried-and-true suggestions could help, namely:
- After a few deep breaths to begin a session, don’t try to manipulate your breathing, just let it return to the pace and depth that it finds on its own. Within a few minutes, the calming effect of those early, deep inhalations will take hold. For beginners especially, respiration is a tricky thing and the body takes its time getting used to this new way of doing things.
- Practice regularly, preferably twice per day. It seems only logical that your body and lungs “understand” the signal you send them with regular meditation sessions. Breathing brings oxygen into our lungs and thus powers the heart and pulse. Pretty much every cyclical activity within us is regulated by the breath. So, show your body that you intend to meditate consistently, and it will reward you in countless ways.
- Avoid sleep and drowsiness by focusing your eyes on something. This is a suggestion that often helps beginners keep from dozing off. And because you should try to meditate early in the morning, your body is probably still a little into the sleep mode, which makes closed-eyes meditation tough for some people. Focus on anything that offers a calming visual, but make sure it is not a photo or anything that stimulates the thoughts. A candle or simple round object like a stone or a flower petal usually does nicely.
- Don’t make too many seating adjustments. Once you decide on a comfortable position for you, it’s okay to make a few adjustments of posture. But after two or three minutes, try to remain still. It’s really best to set a time after which you will not move anymore. This tells your body that you are now “at rest.” Those first deep breaths, consistent practice, and a still body are part of the language of the subconscious. Learning to “talk” to your body this way will become a big part of your meditation practice eventually.
- Notice the entry point of the breath. Where do you feel the breath entering your body? Is it at the tip of the nostrils, inside the nose, at the back of the throat or even deeper down? Wherever that precise point is for you, bring your attention to it. You can change this focal point later on, but for now it is helpful to choose one place and stick with it. When your thoughts interrupt the meditative state, you should slowly, non-judgmentally bring your attention back to the focal point of the breath.
- If your breathing makes an audible noise, don’t try to eliminate the sound. There is no reason to breathe silently. If you hear a small whooshing noise with each breath, so be it. But, be careful not to focus on the sound. It’s the physical sensation you’ll want to bring the attention to. Treat the sound, if there is one, as just another exterior noise. Unless you are in a cave deep in the forest, there will be sounds of life going by. Just notice those incidental noises and continue bringing the attention back to the focal point of the breath.
- Yawning and sneezing are allowed! It is only natural for the human body to yawn, sneeze and cough as part of its regular activities. Don’t let these events bother you. Just notice them happen and continue with the breath. All sorts of miniscule bodily noises will become noticeable. Things like swallowing, the movement of the tongue inside the mouth, creaking of bones (especially for older folks), and the little sounds of air entering and leaving the lungs will become a part of your meditation sessions. These tiny, nearly imperceptible noises are a part of your life. They are you, and with regular meditation you begin to learn more about them.
Breathing is a central part of any serious meditation practice, and has been a way of approach for contemplative people for thousands of years. By learning to use the breath as a tool for inner knowledge, you are entering on a very ancient, well-trodden path toward enlightenment.
Participants in Japanese tea ceremony practice attentive breathing while sipping the matcha tea that is served. By attending to the breath and noticing its rise and fall, guests are able to consume the traditional matcha tea and be mindful at the same time.
For as long as humans have existed and contemplated deeper mysteries of being, the breath has played a powerful role in attainment of mystical states. Modern medicine and science are now coming to recognize the effects of breath that range beyond textbook definitions of oxygen and carbon dioxide cycles. There is truly much more to the most simple of all physical functions than one sees at first glance. Indeed, as that famous fictional investigator of all things, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, once said, “These waters run deep.” Holmes wasn’t talking about breathing when he spoke those words, but he might well have been!