Meditation Musing – Breathing

Many Ways of meditation understand and stress the importance of proper breathing. In the Way of Yoga this process is called Pranayama and can be very complex. For most of the rest of us disciplined breathing can and should be an integral part of our practice for many reasons and these reasons bear discussion.

When talking about the disciplined breathing of meditation we are referring to slow, deep, abdominal breathing that uses the diaphragm and abdominal muscles. This is the breathing of relaxation and for many reasons it is difficult, if not impossible, to be tense while breathing in this manner.

Breathing is normally an automatic process and for most of us it fulfills the function of oxygenating our blood and organs. It is believed by many that controlled breathing bridges the gap between our voluntary and involuntary body systems allowing a stronger connection between our conscious and subconscious minds. Abdominal breathing uses our lungs in a more efficient manner and the resulting muscle movement helps massage and oxygenate our organs more than chest breathing alone. Slow, deep rhythmic breathing triggers our parasympathetic nervous system and automatically stimulates our relaxation response which lowers our heart rate and causes muscle relaxation. All of these physiological changes lead to a feeling of less tension, which most of us find to be beneficial.

Many who practice martial arts as their Way believe that breathing is the key to the focus of their minds, and hence the chi or ki which is essential to their Way. Meditators also use their breathing as a focus and, when coupled with that gentle, persistent return to the Now, breathing can be the anchor that helps extend our mindfulness and helps lead the way to that place we go when we Sit.

Perhaps the most valuable aspect of our meditative breathing is that of focused awareness. By focusing on and becoming aware of our breathing we are taking the first step towards listening to ourselves and our world in real time. This is called being in the Now and is the place from which all meditation must start. Many would argue that this focus and the process of being in the Now is what separates meditation from sitting quietly and thinking. Both beneficial practices but not the same thing.

When we use breathing as a part of our meditation practice the transfer from the zendo to our daily lives becomes very valuable. With the automatic coupling of focused breathing and the calm, physical and mental state associated with meditation we can defuse our own tenseness, anxiety or fear simply by taking a few deep abdominal breaths, as we do when we start to Sit. When faced with a physically demanding situation both the meditator and the martial artist can take their deep abdominal breath and focus their energy. Children are often delighted to learn that the relaxation of their minds and bodies by the application of focused breathing can provide them with control of their minds and bodies in a time and place where they have very little control over anything else.

Namaste,
Jim – Serenity Community Member

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