8 Simple Suggestions For Beginners To Learn Breath Work
By Paul Kleiman
Years ago, I began visiting a behavioral psychologist to address anxiety and insomnia during a particularly trying period. A guided meditation was a standard part of his sessions, in which he would speak to me in gentle tones as I lay on the sofa, breathing deeply.
The meditations lasted about 20 minutes, and I wondered if they were just a way for my therapist to take a break from listening to my life crap, but I found them to be quite calming, and I felt peaceful and rejuvenated afterward, two feelings that don't come easily to me.
My therapist commended me on my breathing after just one session. He observed that I could slow my breathing and take very long, deep breaths, which helped me achieve a different state of consciousness. Is there a higher level of consciousness? Maybe. Are you calm and relaxed? At least during the meditation and for a short time afterward.
He inquired as to if I had learned this elsewhere. I told him about my years studying Kundalini Yoga with a well-known LA teacher. It wasn't regular training; instead, it was a class or two a week in a studio or the instructor's living room with a group of other students.
Breathing techniques such as "Breath of Fire" (rapid in and out breaths controlled by the diaphragm) and techniques such as filling your lungs with as much air as possible (or blowing ALL the air out of your lungs and keeping them empty - always much harder) and then doing yoga while holding the air in or out can help improve breathing technique.
There were also gong meditations, which involved lying on your back, eyes closed, and breathing deeply while the instructor struck a giant gong, which you could hear and feel (sound waves) during the meditation. My therapist then suggested that I teach people how to breathe as a massage therapist and massage therapy educator.
So, with that in mind, here are some suggestions for those who wish to include a meditation practice in their life to reap the benefits of meditation's proven benefits: When should you meditate, and how often should you meditate? Creating a conducive setting for mediation What will you require to contemplate? Is it better to have a mantra or not? Techniques for deep breathing Getting your thoughts straight (what to think about... or not) Mediation's Advantages "Mindfulness." What exactly does that imply?
1. SELECT A SUITABLE TIME AND BEGIN SMALL.
Did you know that the Buddha intended to sit under the Bodhi tree (Ficus Religiosa in Latin, which sounds like a Hermoine spell from Harry Potter) until he attained enlightenment? It's unclear how long he sat, although it may have been weeks. The good news is that you don't have to. There is no food.
Begin small. Most people who meditate "religiously" (it is spiritual, but not always religious; even the Big 3 religions refer to silent or personal prayer as "meditation") do so first thing in the morning (and some do get up at 4:30 a.m. for "Sadna," a pre-dawn meditation practiced by some Sikhs when spiritual energy is said to be especially strong), and then later in the afternoon or early evening (before or after dinner is excellent).
Before bed, deep breathing is an excellent relaxation technique, but full meditation is not recommended because it may deceive your body and brain into thinking you've already slept enough. And, while early morning meditation may appear to be ideal for some, be honest with yourself. If you despise getting up early, don't force yourself to meditate at 5 or 6 a.m. You'll be more likely to keep doing it if you do it when it's handy and easy for you.
As the Buddha did, beginners and even expert meditators should avoid meditating for a week (or longer) without food and water. Most people benefit from a session of 15-20 minutes, although even five minutes is beneficial, and some long-term practitioners may conduct lengthier meditations.
Starting with five minutes is an excellent quantity to aim for because it's simple to achieve and gives a novice a taste of the positive outcomes. Try it for a week or a few days, then increase it to 10 minutes, 15 minutes, and 20 minutes. Twenty minutes seems to be the sweet spot for me and most meditators.
2. THE BEST LOCATION FOR MEDITATION
An airport, a subway station, or a campaign rally are all excellent places for experienced meditators to meditate. However, most people prefer a quiet, dimly lit environment. Complete silence (calming music or nature noises) is ideal in every setting. Although light is not an issue, many people find a darker or dimly lit space (candlelight works well) more relaxing. Of course, the Buddha meditated outside, and many people love doing so on a stump in the woods, a rock on a mountain top, or beach sand.
To the amusement of the locals, Thich Nhat Hanh famously claims to practice walking meditations in airports and on crowded city streets. Try it out for yourself. Keep your eyes slightly open and focus on a space a few inches before your eyes, according to specific meditation techniques. I'm of the "eyes closed" school of thought.
3. MEDITATION EQUIPMENT
There is no need for any specific equipment. You'll only need yourself and a spot to sit or lay down. There's nothing wrong with taking a nap. Most people meditate while sitting up straight and in a stable position. It's OK to lie down. However, it's easy to fall asleep this way, and napping isn't the same as meditating. Deep breathing is not the same as taking a nap.
You might want to sit on a pillow. Some people prefer to meditate sitting up straight with proper posture, while others prefer to lean against a wall or a cushion behind them or even meditate on a chair or couch. Some Buddhists place a flat, cushioned mat on top of a pillow shaped like a chocolate layer cake, about 8-10 inches across. Sitting on this cushion with your legs crossed on the mat or kneeling might feel incredibly secure and comfortable.
Some people sit in lotus or half-lotus positions (cross-legged with one ankle on the opposite knee for half-lotus or both ankles on the opposite knee for full lotus). This is difficult for many people, and even those who can sit in this position will discover that their foot becomes painful or falls asleep after a few minutes. Comfort, so you are not distracted by discomfort, and proper posture is essential in a sitting position. It's OK to perform this in any pose that enables it, including lying down.
Meditation can be enhanced by using candles, incense, and music. If you want to listen to music, try non-melodic noises like chimes or bells, random flutes, and natural sounds. Music's words, melody, and rhythm are distracting and should be avoided. It's either that or nothing.
Nature sounds, such as the ocean, a stream, or rain, can be soothing, especially if you live in an urban region with traffic noises, sirens, people's music, garbage trucks, and other environmental aural clutter.
A kitchen timer is an excellent investment. You can also use a timer on your smartphone (or if you don't have one, your dumb phone). I have a kitchen timer that I purchased before smartphones were popular. I set the timer for the time I want to meditate (typically 20 minutes, but I add a minute to give myself time to settle in), and that's it.
What's the point of using a timer? Then there's no need to look at the time. And you'll want to check the clock a lot when you first start, and when you do, after feeling like you've meditated for a half-hour and seeing that it's only been four minutes, you'll know why a timer is so helpful.
4. DO YOU WANT A MANTRA, OR DON'T YOU WANT A MANTRA?
That is an excellent question. I've experimented with both. "Ong Namo Gurudev Namo," which means "I bow to the instructor inside me," is one of the mantras used by Kundalini practitioners. That appeals to me since it is non-religious. There is a slew of others as well.
You don't need to understand what they imply because the mantra is about saying or thinking about it. The noise. The monotony. It aids in getting you in the appropriate frame of mind. It's probably best if you don't know what it means. Those who were taught to pray in Hebrew or Latin may agree.
Mantras are not prayers if you are a religious person who feels uncomfortable participating in religious rites other than your own. However, some of them sound like prayers. If this is a problem, try finding a secular mantra or repeating a short prayer from your religious practice.
Some organized meditation movements or groups have existed for decades and are expensive. One was almost $2,500 (for your personalized mantra and training), but it's now closer to $1000. People I know who have been doing this for 40 years swear by it.
Howard Stern, the King of All Media, has been a lifelong practitioner (following in his parent's footsteps) and claims it is one of the best things he has ever done, which he does every day. Please don't let on that I told you this. If you have the financial means to do so, go for it. If not, I'm sure a Google search will turn up a mantra technique you can use for free.
I've never purchased a mantra. I've chanted alongside members of the Buddhist Church of America (affiliated with the Buddhist Churches of Japan), and they continue to chant throughout the meditation (the well-known "Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo").
It was a pleasant experience to be in a room with 20 other people chanting in someone's home, but it wasn't my cup of green tea. I found it too challenging to keep up with the chanting, and it didn't help me focus as well as I would have liked. So, even though the individuals were friendly and the post-meditation snacks were great, I never returned.
However, you don't have to be Buddhist to meditate, and many Buddhist organizations welcome people of all religions. If you're looking for a mantra, Thich Nhat Hanh's books are filled with what he refers to as "Gathas," or short poems that are effective. Although most of them were written in Vietnamese, he translated them into French and English. While I occasionally begin with a mantra, my primary mantra is my breath, which I shall discuss next. My fave involves breathing as well:
My body relaxes as I take a deep breath in.
I smile as I exhale.
I take a deep breath and focus on the current moment.
I know it's a lovely moment as I exhale.
Isn't it lovely? This isn't a prayer. For a few minutes, do this with in-breath and out-breath. There's no need to repeat this throughout the meditation. You can eventually condense it to "in-calm, out-smile, in-present now, out-wonderful moment." And as you say it, follow your breath and grin.
Thich Nhat Hanh points out that most depictions of the Buddha in meditation show him smiling and that you should smile whenever you meditate. This not only relaxes your facial muscles but also makes you feel fantastic. Yes, smiling makes you feel better even when in a foul mood. He also suggests that you smile because meditation is lovely. When can you smile, if not while meditating?
5. TECHNIQUE FOR BREATHING
This takes us to the most crucial aspect of the process: breathing. Breathing is meditation, and meditation is breathing. Breathing is inhaling and exhaling air—your diaphragm contracts when you live in. When your diaphragm relaxes, you will exhale. The elasticity of your lungs and diaphragm returns them to a resting posture, allowing the air to escape.
In meditation or deep breathing, we strive to slow down the breath and take in as much air as possible without straining. Your body performs this independently (so you can breathe while sleeping), but you can influence it to some extent. You want to take a deep breath, not a forced one.
Maintain a calm attitude. Take steady, lengthy breaths comfortably while sitting (or resting), but don't force it. Only inhale and exhale via your nose (of course, if you have a cold, mouth-breathing is fine, and some meditation techniques call for exhalation through the mouth).
To begin, take a regular breath and gradually increase the length of each breath by inhaling a little deeper with each inhale. Exhale in the same way. Exhale slowly, letting out the majority of your air before inhaling again. Remember not to push, strain, or exert control. Take a few deep and long breaths.
If you're using a mantra, you can do this while breathing in and out the mantra or just thinking about the mantra, or Gatha, in your mind. After a while, you'll live without thinking about the chant or anything else.
Focus on two things: your abdomen pushing out with each inhale and pulling in with each exhale (right around and just under your navel, which also happens to be the anatomical center of the body) and the incredible feeling of air entering your nostrils near the tip of your nose (which also helps clear the mind).
Keeping your attention on these two physical sensations will prevent you from being too attached to the fleeting thoughts that arise throughout the meditation. "Did I remember to get milk" (or soy milk if you're Vegan) comes to mind? And, on the subject of ideas...
6. MINDFUL MINDFUL MINDFUL MINDFUL MINDFUL
We are thought creatures. We are constantly thinking. Even when we're sleeping or engrossed in anything else (such as watching a movie or conversing with a buddy), we may forget we left the stove on. Being human entails this.
Contrary to popular belief, meditation and deep breathing do not necessitate a clear mind. While meditating, ideas and thoughts will come to you. Some of them may even be motivational. You might have an inspiration for a hit song, so you should stop meditating, write down the tune, and resume your meditation. Don't sacrifice a top-40 hit song because you're a dedicated meditator!
It's acceptable if you have thoughts like "maybe I'll have Chinese food tonight" or "my coworker Michael is such an a-hole." Recognize the notion, hold it close to your heart, and then release it. Return your attention to your breathing. The chilly air enters your nostrils, the feeling of your abdomen rising and sinking.
The thought will go as quickly as it appeared. Another will come in to be recognized and released. This is a standard component of the procedure. Return to your breath if you become stuck on a notion. If you're having trouble, try counting your breaths from 1 to 10 and then going backward. That's fantastic. You'll never reach number ten if you're doing a decent job. Start over.
After a while, you'll notice that your mind clears, and those thoughts occur less frequently and for shorter periods. You might be able to have that "leave the body" sensation, where you feel as if you're outside of yourself, gazing down from above or across the room at yourself, meditating.
Another sensation is to reach deep within yourself and feel your mind's core. It's almost like a command center for your consciousness, located deep within the brain. Is this an actual location? Most likely not. But it has the appearance of being so. It's like traveling across the universe of your consciousness in a spaceship. Whoa.
7. MEDITATION AND DEEP BREATHING BENEFITS
Meditation and deep breathing are very effective in most research conducted worldwide. As the practice progresses, the effects and advantages become more pronounced and significant. Just be aware that the benefits have been demonstrated to aid in the treatment of hypertension, sleeplessness, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, pain management, and even cancer treatment side effects, as well as addiction and rehabilitation. And that's the end of the list.
Some meditation masters, such as Thich Nhat Hanh, advise people to join a Sangha or a small group of people who can meditate together. Meditation classes with a guide are available all around the world. Many schools and houses of worship, as well as yoga studios, provide classes or guided sessions. For novices, meditating in a group can be more informative, pleasurable, and straightforward than doing it alone.
YouTube has a lot of good (instructive and guided) videos. One example can be seen in the Resources section below. Another option is driven meditation apps, mp3s, DVDs, or downloads.
Remember that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to meditation. Make the decision that feels right to you. You'll do it regularly if it makes sense and feels good. Go with your instincts and feelings no matter where you do it: alone or with others, during the day or evening, with or without music, mantra or no mantra, sitting or lying down. It's best to do what works best.
"Mindfulness" is currently the most over-used term in the "whole being" world. From shopping to uncoupling, everything these days is conscious. Is that a conscious decision? It doesn't matter. It's a little excessive. There's even a website dedicated to "mindful eating." Aaaauuugghhh! I first heard the term in Thich Nhat Hanh's writings (many years ago), which is my true meaning. It entails being fully present. Here. Now. Aware. You're entirely focused on what you're doing.
When eating an orange, pay attention to the skin as you peel it, the texture of the fruit, the juiciness, the sweetness as you bite, and the sensation of the little juice sacs on your tongue. Before ingesting, chew carefully and thoroughly to pulverize the fruit and taste it properly.
According to Thich Nhat Hanh, DO THE DISHES if you're doing the dishes. Concentrate on what you're doing, how it feels, and how well you're doing it. Wash the dishes afterward and ponder about what's on TV. Simply clean the dishes. This is what mindfulness is all about. You may even meditate while doing the dishes or eating the orange if you are observant enough. The fundamental definition of mindfulness is this.
This isn't going to work. It's intended to be a pleasurable experience. It's supposed to make you feel fantastic. It is not drudgery. It's not as if we're told, "Oh, I better work out today, or I'll get fat," or that it's something we have to do rather than something we want to do. So remember to grin when you do it, and try to do it once or twice a day.
You don't have to put in a lot of effort. And you'll find that it's simple to do and that you don't want to miss it after a short time (it varies with the individual, but I'd estimate within a month). When that happens, you'll see why so many people around the world have made meditation a part of their daily routine and why so many doctors, therapists, and others involved in physical and emotional health believe that meditation is one of the most effective ways to achieve true wellness and peace.
Take a deep breath and inhale serenity, health, and pleasure. Exhale any feelings of anxiety, illness, or melancholy. And take care of yourself!
The author has practiced meditation for many years, starting with Kundalini yoga. He learned more from the writings of Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh and has participated in retreats at the Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, CA.
Paul is not a Buddhist by faith, nor is he affiliated with Deer Park or Plum Village. Nonetheless, Paul has found the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh to be the best source of information on these topics. Please try this guided mediation if you are interested, although many more are available online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AW66B_aGuiA