I was first officially introduced to mindfulness when I did an 8-week course at the Oxford Centre of Mindfulness in 2018. At the time, I was about to start my yoga teacher training and was incredibly interested in how calming our minds can have an effect on our bodies and how calming our bodies can have an effect on our minds.
I went on to write my master thesis in psychology about yoga, breathing, and meditation. Mindfulness is a practical skill. But the theory-driven science behind it is absolutely fascinating as well.
The breath as a tool in meditation
Have you ever wondered why guided meditations often make us focus on our breath? The first couple of times that I meditated, I found this a bit unexciting. I don’t know what I expected from meditation. An absolute feeling of highness, an out of body experience? I’m not sure. While these things can happen, it would be rare for them to happen every single time that we meditate.
In the beginning, I preferred dream-journey-like meditations, as well as gratitude practices and positive imagery. All this is great. But the breath is the easiest and probably most ground-breaking tool that we have. The good news? We have access to it all the time, wherever we are.
Breathing is a lot more than bringing oxygen into the body with inhalation and flushing out carbon dioxide with exhalation. Actually, breathing is closely linked to what our heart does. On every inhale, the frequency of our heart rate increases and on every exhale, it decreases. This is due to the pressure change that comes with oxygen intake at inhalation.
When the lungs are filled, there is less space for the blood to flow, which is why the heart pumps more frequently in order to compensate. When the lungs are emptied, the blood can flow more easily and the heart rate decreases. If you want the fancy term for this happening in our bodies, it’s called respiratory sinus arrhythmia. Sounds more complicated than it is, right?
What does that mean for our state of mind? It means that breathing in is associated with a state of alertness, wakefulness, and energy, while breathing out is more associated with relaxation and resting. When we know this about our bodies, it suddenly makes all the sense in the world that calm breathing relaxes us, cools us down and gets us to rest.
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The science behind why slow breathing is so good for us
But how does this come about? Well, you might have heard of our bodies’ autonomic nervous system. It is divided into a sympathetic and a parasympathetic branch. The sympathetic part of the nervous system is what we call the fight-or-flight part. It energizes us in case we have to, well, fight or flight.
In our modern society, this might not necessarily mean engaging in an actual fight. Our bodies perceive all kinds of things as stressful. You might be late for a meeting and run up a flight of stairs. You might present in front of your team and realize half-way through that you forgot to add the final slides of the presentation. You might be in a job interview.
All these situations can increase your heart rate, they might make you sweat and adrenaline might rush through your body. If you have ever been in any of the above situations or in a similar one, then you know that when we are stressed, we breathe quite fast. You can think of inhalation as a miniature version of this stress: When we breathe in, our bodies do all this in just a split second and our heart rate increases.
The good news is that when we breathe out, the whole process is reversed: our bodies relax a bit and our heart rate decreases.
Exhalation is associated with the other part of our nervous system, the parasympathetic branch. This one is the complement to our fight-or-flight system. Parasympathetic activity is also called rest-and-digest-activity. This is because when we are very relaxed, our bodies take the time to carry out tasks that are non-essential for survival: They prioritize things like digestion while this is a function that is rather suppressed when we fight and run.
When we sit on the couch and have nothing to worry about, we breathe calmly and evenly. Our heart rate is slow and steady. This is the state that we tend to feel most comfortable in.
The autonomous nervous system is a tricky one insofar as that most of its functions cannot be controlled manually: We cannot intentionally make our stomach digest food and we cannot intentionally produce fewer or greater amounts of stress hormones. Our bodies do this all by themselves.
How can we put this into practice?
Luckily, breathing is one of the few functions of the autonomous nervous system that we can actually control quite well, if we want to: We can hold our breath, extend or shorten or breath and we can perform all kinds of breathing exercises. You might see where this is going: Practices like prolonged exhalation can have an enormous effect on our state of relaxation, shifting us more and more into a feeling of peace and rest.
By breathing slowly, we basically tell our bodies “It’s all good! There is no stressor around the corner. Don’t worry. Let’s just sit here for a bit.” And that’s exactly what happens in meditation. We don’t even need to practice any super-fancy breathing exercises to get these effects. Most people breathe slower and deeper, when they simply focus on their breathing.
For some, it can have the opposite effect: When we focus on our breath, we sometimes try to control it extra hard. We want to be relaxed so badly, that we stress and strain about it. We feel our heart beating in our chest and that might make us anxious. In that case, it might make sense to step back from focusing on the breath in order not to control it.
Mindfulness meditation offers other useful tools for moments like this. You could focus on noises in the environment or on another anchor inside of your body. Maybe your hands or your feet. You could do a body-scan. More advanced practitioners might consider focusing on their thoughts and emotions.
When you feel calm again, you might want to try coming back to the breath. This time, try not to control it and just let it be. It will probably deepen automatically.
Become aware of how deeply you breathe
When we are stressed, we tend not to use up our full lung capacity. Our breathing remains shallow. Our bodies do this in order to make sure that enough oxygen comes in, so we breath quickly and forget to breathe deeply. We might even open our mouths in order to get as much air in as possible.
In yoga and meditation, we often breathe through the nose. There are many benefits of breathing through the nose rather than through the mouth. Nasal breathing (which is just a fancy way of saying breathing through the nose) is known to filter, warm, and humidify the air before it gets into the lungs. We also tend to get a better sense of our environment through smells when we breathe through the nose.
Most importantly, nasal breathing slows the breathing rate and improves lung volumes. As explained above, a slow breathing rate is the main drive for relaxation and calmness. Also, deeper breathing mostly means slower breathing as it takes longer for the air to travel all the way into the lungs and back out.
Many people describe nasal breathing as a more conscious practice rather than breathing through the mouth. Have you ever observed the inflow of cold air into your nostrils and noticed how the air is a tiny bit warmer when it flows back out? When you notice details like this, it’s a good sign that you’re really in the here and now.
We intuitively do what’s good for us
Something that I particularly like about science is that we often back up facts by science which intuitively we already knew about. I am sure that without this blog post, very few or none of you ever would have tried to relax yourselves by practicing hyperventilation. It just does not feel good in our bodies!
Many of us come to meditation because all we want to do sometimes is sit and focus on our breath for a while. We don’t know why – but we know that it seems to be good for us. We know intuitively that a calm and steady breath is the mode that we want to be in.
Having said that, there are breathing exercises out there that seem quite counter-intuitive. One of them is called kapalabathi. In yoga, this breathing exercise is often referred to as the breath of fire. Kapalabathi entails very fast-paced breathing almost resembling hyperventilation.
While breathing exercises like these are contraindicated for conditions like anxiety or pregnancy, they can have an uplifting and positive effect. When releasing kapalabathi and shifting back to a normal breathing pace, individuals often experience emotional calming because the contrast between fast- and normal-paced breathing is so extreme.
Breathing is great – and so is gratitude
If there is one thing that I would like for you to take away from this blog post, then it’s as simple as this: Breathing is great. We don’t have to worry about it, when we are busy. Our bodies do it automatically. And they are doing a great job at it. I am 100% convinced that I would have died a million times by now if I actually had to control my breathing manually!
But when we do take some time out of our busy schedules, it can make all the difference in the world to breath slower and deeper.
In the last year, I have often combined breathing exercises with gratitude. We live in a time where easy breathing is a real privilege. Being able to breathe deeply means that you are probably not acutely affected by COVID-19. To me, this is a great chance to practice gratitude each and every day.
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About the author
Natascha is a volunteer at Medito. She is also a certified yoga teacher and a psychologist working for the University of Oxford.
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