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Guide: Breath

A Guide to Breath and Meditation

Do you know how to breathe really well, whether for meditation or other parts of your life? If not, this guide may help you start breathing better.

Breathing well is a foundation of health and thought in general, and meditation in particular. While you may find it possible to meditate in some ways without considering breathing, usually even then you will automatically fall into a state of breathing that is conducive to meditation. This may be true especially in the quieter forms of mental concentration, whether you are standing, sitting, or lying down.

However, when you use meditation to work on feelings of stress or emotional or physical discomfort–or if you are in physical movement–then proper breathing becomes especially important. When your brain and body receive plenty of oxygen, your meditation–and many other mental, emotional, and physical processes–work better.

Good breathing is recommended not only by meditation experts and hatha (physical) yoga teachers, but also by physical therapists and by some exercise coaches. Good breathing can change one’s life for the better not just in exercise and meditation but also in normal daily activities, providing more energy and balance and more of a feeling of good health.

Many of us tend to hold our breath, or breathe only in shallow ways. Good breathing, in the most general sense, means taking breaths that use more lung capacity than just shallow breathing.

This means, for most of us, changing our tendency to breathe shallowly throughout the day. Good breathing also means breathing at a rate, whether slow or fast, that makes one alert but not faint or light headed. The breathing process should not become a compulsion or center of all awareness, except perhaps when setting a breathing pattern for a short session, or for practicing such breathing: such breathing meditations, especially at the beginning of meditation, may be useful for months or even years. However, generally speaking, good breathing should be learned for different situations so that it becomes an automatic habit in each situation.

In general, breathing through the nose is better in daily life and in quiet meditation, with the mouth lightly closed and jaw relaxed, as such breathing is healthier for the mouth, teeth, ear canals, and sinuses. Learning to avoid mouth breathing can be done in the day through practice and in the night through help from a jaw or cheek supporter such as a small pillow, especially a comfortable one with beads, seeds, or loose foam in it, or a lightly rolled or quadruple-folded hand towel.

However, when exertion requires that breathing become faster, then inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth is a common way of breathing. With extreme exertion, breathing through your mouth alone is acceptable when necessary.

Breathing through your mouth alone also is acceptable when your nasal passages are partly or completely blocked. It is far better for you to exercise and meditate while breathing through your mouth – or even remaining unaware of your breathing – than to not exercise or meditate at all.  

When you are breathing during exercise or stretches, your best time to exhale usually is when your lungs are tighter or more constricted, whether by upper-body movement or by contraction of the stomach muscles. Your best time to inhale is, usually, when your lungs are looser or less constricted.

The number of your breaths and your timing of them depends on how much your body needs a breath and how gentle or strenuous your exercise or stretch may be. Several long, relaxed breathing cycles (a cycle being a breath in and a breath out, or the reverse) may even work best especially during long, slow stretches.

More rapid exercise may require you to breathe faster: short, partly controlled intakes and releases (or the reverse) are acceptable if you let the body help determine how deep and frequently your breathing is. Even in such fast breathing, you should try to relax the chest and stomach muscles enough to let the body produce deeper breaths. It also is acceptable, sometimes especially useful, to contract your stomach muscles on each exhale to force more air out of your lungs.

In particularly fast exercises, a person may choose to take only one deep breathing cycle–or even one short breathing cycle–per every two or three repetitions of the exercise. If you feel yourself becoming faint, then likely you are either breathing much too little, or much too much. (It also is possible that you have not had enough food recently, in which case you should eat.)

Your mindfulness of the breathing process–how it feels and what it does–also is important in meditation and exercise. The more you can practice mindful breathing, the better it will work.

In deeper breathing that you purposely start, you may either first inhale deeply, and then let it out (even pushing it out, if you wish, by tightening your stomach). Or you may first exhale deeply, and then relax your chest and stomach to let the air fully come back in.  

You do best to learn to let such deep breathing happen naturally, with some little purposeful assists and reminders from you. It is not necessary or even always wise to forcibly inhale deeply and then forcibly exhale deeply, as this often causes a rigidity of the lungs and upper body. However, if–in your beginning breathing exercises–this is the only way you can breathe deeply, then using control for deeper breathing is better than not using deeper breathing. However, again, your best goal is to gradually learn to let your body do its own deep breathing with small reminders and assists from you.

Some special meditation and yoga practices, as well as some exercises, may require special breathing patterns. If they are taught by experts, in person or through written, oral, or visual guides–and if they are grounded in longstanding tradition or science–they also usually are acceptable.

As you learn to breathe better, you may find yourself surprised or frustrated at how little you breathe well throughout exercise or your entire day. Don’t worry. Many people, perhaps a significant majority, breathe poorly most of the time. Simply have patience and gradually learn to breathe more deeply, more thoroughly, and in more parts of your day.



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Text © 2017-2020 by Richard Jewell

Images © 1994-2018 by Gabriel R. Jewell

First edition: 1 Sept. 2018. Second edition: 1 Sept. 2019. Free Use Policy

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