About 20 years ago I was introduced to meditation through the book – “Zen Mind, Beginner Mind.” It opened me to the idea of using my breath to control my state-of-mind. I spent 30-45 minutes, 6 days a week sitting on a zabuton (meditation cushion) and zafu (meditation pillow) for about 4 years. This was the beginning of the awareness that breath control was the key to relieving my mind of its perpetual overthinking state.
It was a tumultuous time in my life and each day of my practice took me further away from mental preoccupation and helped me to live in the present. This awareness allowed me to combat negative patterns and move forward in an open way to the experiences of the day.
How Do You Get Started?
First you need to achieve a good posture so that you provide your breath an open pathway. There are many postural positions to try depending on your flexibility. Sitting in a chair with grounded feet and a straight spine can be just as successful a position as the more extreme lotus. All six pictures to the right show a straight spine with relaxed shoulders.
Awareness Exercise: Let’s take the easiest posture – sit in a chair with feet flat on the floor. It is important to completely connect the sole of the foot to the floor feeling heel, big toe pad and pinky toe pad. When your feet are grounded on those points you should feel your body sit more upright and be able to relax your lower back against the back of the chair. When the lower back is stabilized then the shoulders can drop down.
How Do You Find the Breath?
When discussing breath with clients I find that most of them lean towards being chest breathers and not belly breathers.
Chest breathing is when the chest expands by drawing air into the chest area using the intercostal muscles rather than throughout the lungs via the diaphragm. This is an inefficient and detrimental breathing pattern to overall health. It reduces blood oxygenation and causes lymphatic stagnation. See article on chest breathing and how to change the pattern at Breathing.com .
Belly breathing or diaphragmatic breathing is done by contracting the diaphragm, a muscle located horizontally between the thoracic cavity and abdominal cavity. Air enters the lungs and the chest rises and the belly expands during this type of breathing.
Awareness Exercise: Let’s focus on belly breathing. Return to a stable, grounded chair posture. Place your hands on top of one another right below your belly button. This gives you a reference point of where to direct the breath. As you take your breath in gently allow your abdomen to expand and fill up your hands. Gently push back with the hand to have the exhale come from the lower abdomen and not the chest. This exercise can be done anywhere you are sitting. I use it when I need to be in the car for a long time.
How Do You Harness the Breath?
The mind cannot think about more than one thing at a time. There are techniques you can use to keep the thinking mind occupied while gaining the great benefits of the breath. Once you have developed breath awareness it is time to harness it in your meditation. In my early practice I found counting to 10 in sequence with each breath or chanting through the chakras the most effective at silencing thought.
Counting technique: In the meditation posture start your belly breathing. Count 1 on inhale and 1 on exhale, then 2 on inhale and 2 on exhale …. to 10, then repeat the sequence. By counting on both the inhale and exhale you combat stray thoughts from interrupting your practice. If thought intrudes while counting stop and begin at 1. Over time you can tame the brain from intruding by using the breath. For an in-depth discussion on this topic see “Breath Counting Meditation: How to Build Mental Power.”
Chakra technique: In the meditation posture start your belly breathing. Inhale and on the exhale you will chant the sound associated with the first chakra then the second and so on. On the seventh chakra there is a moment of silence and then the cycle repeats. This is an effective method if counting is difficult because the chanting of the chakras can become song like giving further distraction to the brain.
How Can You Benefit from Meditation?
Daily practice can give you both neurological and psychological benefits. The breath can lead you to an oasis of sanity when faced with any stressor.
- A study from UCLA found that long-term meditators have better preserved brains showing that meditation can be an anti-aging tool for the brain.
- A pubmed study discusses the positive effects on psychological well-being that extends beyond the meditation session. The research shows that meditation can be helpful in reducing symptoms of a number of disorders including: anxiety, depression, substance abuse, eating disorders and chronic pain.
- Since strong focus of attention (on an object, idea, or activity) is the goal of meditation practice. The immediate benefits of meditation are increased focus and concentration for every aspect of our lives. The breath can be used like a light switch to turn on awareness/psyche and tune out negativity. See blog post “The Brain and Transformation – Willpower, Enthusiasm and Synergy.”
After years of working with meditative breath I have developed a pathway easily accessed in a 10 breath count. My body and mind crave the peace that come from taking to time to JUST BREATHE. I hope you find inspiration from this blog to start your brain train journey. It can be a real life changer.