Today I wanted to share a little more on meditation. I’m creating a few posts on the forms of meditation I’ve found to be the most powerful and beneficial. See this post on Metta (loving kindness) meditation that I wrote a couple of weeks ago. This time I wanted to share a little more about the simplest (yet most potent) way of meditating – focusing on the breath.
Our breath is constant and ever-flowing. It’s our constant companion throughout our life, and (obviously!) keeps us alive. One of the Sanskrit terms for the breath is prana – which also translates to life force, which I think is beautiful! So, breathing is pretty important ;)
In our modern society, it’s actually really common to not breathe to our full capacity. I know that when I’m stressed out I take really shallow breaths. Luckily I now have the knowledge and self-awareness to change this quickly – and I want you to learn how to do the same! It’s all down to the diaphragm.
Our diaphragm is the most efficient muscle of breathing. It’s a dome shaped muscle located at the base of our lungs. When we inhale, the diaphragm contracts and move downwards, which increases the space in the chest. This process is helped by our abdominal muscles (see how important the core is!). The intercostal muscles (between the ribs) also contract, pulling the rib cage both upwards and outwards when you breathe in. Both of these actions mean that the lungs can expand, and air gets sucked in through the nose or mouth.
The air travels down your trachea (windpipe), and into your lungs, making its way to the alveoli (air sacs) – tiny and delicate structures in your lungs. The alveoli have very thin walls, and are surrounded by lots of capillaries (tiny blood vessels). The oxygen passes through the alveolar walls and gets picked up by haemoglobin in the red blood cells, and transported around the body in the bloodstream. Oxygen is used by every cell in the body to create energy (in the form of ATP), keeping us alive.
At the same time, carbon dioxide (the byproduct of energy/ATP production) passes out of the blood stream and back into the lungs.
When we exhale, the diaphragm relaxes and moves upwards. The intercostal muscles also relax. Both of these actions reduce the space in the chest cavity, meaning that carbon dioxide is forced out of our lungs, again via our windpipe and either the nose or mouth.
This muscular relaxation requires no effort from the body, unless you are working out, or suffer from lung disease. When we work out, the abdominal muscles contract more often, pushing the diaphragm against our lungs even more than normal. This pushes air out of our lungs rapidly.
Why the breath is so powerful
Breathing deeply soothes the body by activating our parasympathetic nervous system (‘rest and digest’ response, rather than the ‘fight or flight’-driving sympathetic nervous system ). This helps reduce stress and anxiety, by decreasing cortisol levels. The respiratory system can function better by practicing deep breathing; reducing chronic health problems like asthma and bronchitis. We may notice better mental clarity and ability to focus. Finally, deep breathing for relaxation can influence gene expression related to inflammation, ceullular metabolism and oxidative stress. Pretty powerful indeed!
Diaphragmatic breathing technique
Lie on your back, with one hand on your upper chest, and one hand just below your rib cage (on your belly). Notice which hand predominantly rises and falls with your natural breath.
Now, breathe in slowly through your nose so that your stomach moves against your hand. Try to keep the hand on your chest as still as possible.
As you breathe out, tighten the stomach muscles so that your belly moves inwards. Again, try to keep the hand on your chest as still as possible.
Take 5-10 slow, deep breaths just like this. You may notice that you are using your core more than you would normally when breathing, and that you are able to breathe more deeply.
Meditation on the breath
We will now move into a more formal meditation practice, which can be done sitting up or lying down – whatever feels the most comfortable.
Find that connection to your deep diaphragmatic breathing once again. You are welcome to keep one hand on your heart and one on your stomach as a gentle reminder for this.
Try to channel all of your attention to your breathing. Notice the rise and fall of your belly as you inhale and exhale. Build up more awareness of the temperature and texture of your breath as you breathe in and out. Is the air warmer as you exhale? Do you notice your body relaxing and softening a little more as you breathe out?
Do not worry if thoughts arise. It is only natural! Rather than focusing on having an empty mind and getting annoyed when thoughts do appear (which they will, we are only human), instead try to not attach to the thoughts. This basically means not getting carried away by what’s going on in our minds. In other words, if the thought “I’m hungry, I want to eat” appears, don’t start planning what you’re going to eat or start conjuring up mental grocery lists! Instead, acknowledge the thought and let it go.
Think of the mind as an ocean. Ripples and waves will appear, but don’t let yourself be swept along by them and into a whirlpool of thoughts.
I like to sit like this for at least 5-10 minutes. If I’m really struggling with lack of focus that day, I will count my inhales and exhales up to 10:
Inhale – 1 – Exhale – 2 – Inhale – 3 – Exhale – 4 – Inhale – 5 – Exhale – 6 etc
When I reach 10, or if I lose track of what number I am on, I will start counting again from 1.
Pranayama, a Sanskrit term for life-force extension, is the formal practice of controlling the breath. There are countless different pranayama techniques, and I won’t go into them here. I personally think they are best taught by a teacher in person, as some can be very powerful! Get in touch if you want to learn any more about yoga or meditation in a 1:1 setting.
We will be learning some basic meditation and pranayama techniques in my workshop series which begins in just over a month! Places are starting to fill so don’t miss out!