Breathing is the most intimate connection we have with our environment, and “conscious breathing” even more so.
“Conscious breathing” isn't mere inhalation and exhalation, it's a transformative tool to create significant shifts in our well-being.
And for meditators, it is a pathway to the balance that is essential for living a fulfilled life.
Fortunately, there are simple and effortless ways to get on this pathway.
Let’s explore some of them.
Conscious Breathing Demystified
Most of us have minimal awareness of the fundamental process of breathing. Yet, every moment, for as long as we live, we breathe.
It’s just something we do, without giving it any thought.
Unfortunately, that can mean that instead of being a calming presence, our breathing patterns are unconscious reflecting our current physical, emotional and mental imbalances.
As such, they help keep us stuck in old ways of being and decrease rather than increase our balance.
Think of a time when you felt stressed or overwhelmed.
Chances are your breathing sped up and became more shallow. You took in less oxygen, which increased your muscle tension, fatigue or other imbalances.
What if, instead, you took time out, sat quietly, and observed your breath causing you to relax and release the stress?
Imagine how much calmer and more balanced you would feel. And how much easier it would be to manage your stress.
This is why classical masters of meditation have always taught the importance of “conscious breathing” for restoring and increasing balance in our daily lives.
From yogic pranayama to Zen traditions, these masters demonstrated how to unlock serenity through breath, by making it a focal point in their meditation paractices.
Why not take time to rediscover their secrets and put them to use?
Conscious Breathing Research
Conscious breathing techniques range from simple to complex.While sitting and observing your breath may be the simplest strategy, many of us are familiar with more advanced approaches like alternate nostril breathing, taught regularly in yoga and meditation classes.
You will also find systems that require special training and/or facilitation by a teacher.
Regardless of the technique you choose, you will experience benefits, many of them backed by scientific research.
For example, in a recent paper on this topic scientists reviewed a variety of studies related to conscious breathing techniques (calling it slow breathing) and their outcomes.They looked for impacts on cardio-respiratory, central nervous system and psychological health.
Results showed that research subjects in these studies who engaged in conscious breathing experienced “increased comfort, relaxation, pleasantness, vigor and alertness, and reduced symptoms of arousal, anxiety, depression, anger, and confusion.”
Beyond Stress Reduction: Conscious Breathing & Balance
While stress reduction and relaxation are huge benefits, conscious breathing’s most important contribution is its role as a pathway to balance.
With greater balance comes improved sleep, better health, and an improved ability to focus. Our outlook becomes more positive and we feel better about ourselves and other people.
Greater balance means greater self empowerment. We can choose to observe life’s happenings with ease and curiosity rather than fear and anxiety. We become calmer and more comfortable with being fully ourselves.
Life becomes relaxed and fun and we are less prone to stress and anxiety.
And balance is also the gateway to fulfillment, opening the door to your subtle dimensions, the home of intuition and higher levels of consciousness where you transcend the limits of human experience.
Conscious Breathing Techniques
While there are many ways to practice conscious breathing they all focus on keeping you fully present with each breath. The simplest approach is just to sit quietly and watch yourself breathe.
But there are many more.
The Breath Focus
Sit comfortably in a chair, on a bed, or on a floor cushion.
If you are in a chair, it helps to sit on the edge of your seat and leave your back unsupported. If this is not possible, lean back onto a pillow.
Begin with your breath at the equilibrium point, neither all the way out, nor fully in. Your eyes may be closed or remain open.
Now, breathe in slowly while silently counting from one to seven and remain as aware as possible of the flow of your breath as it fills your lungs and chest.
When you reach seven—ideally you have timed your breathing to reach the point of maximum in-breath—exhale counting slowly from seven back to one, maintaining awareness of the flow of your breath outward.
Continue this process for about five minutes. Before you get up, take a moment to notice how you feel.
What is your “state of being?” Do you feel more balanced than before the exercise?
Practice this conscious breathing process any time you have a break.
A walking meditation focuses on breathing as a way to maintain awareness during physical activity. It helps calm your nerves and focus your mind, grounding you in the present moment.
Choose an outdoor location with fresh air and natural surroundings if possible.
Your own neighborhood will serve very well even if it does not fit that description. Now walk briskly and focus on your breath as follows.
Start with your breath at an equilibrium point—neither fully all the way out, nor all the way in. Then, as you walk, take an in-breath with each step.
Breathe in on a count of one and breathe out. Then breathe in on a count of two and breathe out. Continue until you reach seven. Then start again,
Ideally, when you reach seven, your breath is fully in.
Now slowly release your breath as you count down from seven to one in time with your steps.
Walk in this way for at least 7–10 minutes, longer if you wish. Just remember that the key is to keep your focus on your breath while you walk.
When you have come to the end of your walking meditation, find a place where you can sit down and write some notes on your experience.
How do you feel now? What is your state of being? Are you tired or energized? Are you emotionally content and uplifted, or down? Is your mind clearer and sharper or are you experiencing dullness or fatigue?
If you feel this experience was beneficial, incorporate it into your daily life. It will assist you to create a state of balanced awareness and will bring a meditative focus to your daily exercise.
The "4-7-8" Technique
The 4-7-8 technique acts as a natural sedative and is great for relaxation and helping you fall asleep.
Plus it can help tame anxiety.For example, a study of individuals who had just had bariatric surgery reported that using the 4-7-8 technique helped them to reduce their anxiety and improve their quality of life.
Practice it anytime you feel stressed, can’t fall asleep or if you wake up and can’t get back to sleep. .
Start by breathing in to a slow count of four. Then hold your breath for a count of seven, and slowly release it to a count of eight.
The best way to start a new practice is to start slow and schedule a time for it on your calendar. You can begin your conscious breathing practice by spending as little as five minutes at the beginning of every day.
Or practice conscious breathing while exercising, or during coffee breaks. (You may find you don’t miss the coffee.)
Alternatively, incorporate it into a gratitude practice at either the beginning or the end of the day.
Conscious breathing is more than a meditation practice; it's a transformative journey. By truly understanding and immersing in its depth, meditators can navigate life's challenges with unparalleled calm and clarity.
Adapted from The Meditation Toolbox Book.