Breath-Centered Meditation

Using Your Breath as the Focus of Your Meditation

Breath-centered meditation is one of the most common forms of meditation. In this sequence below, I point out aspects of the breath to pay attention to. Focusing on these subtle sensations will pull your attention inward and help to keep you from wandering off.

Notice the sensations of breathing.

  • Notice all the places where you feel the breath moving in your body (belly, chest, throat, nose). Try not to change the natural rhythm of your breath.
  • Choose one of those places and hold your awareness there.

Pay attention to duration.

  • Pay attention to the duration of just the exhalations. Without changing the rhythm of your breath, notice how long your exhalations are.
  • Then notice the duration of your inhalations (without changing anything).

Notice the turn-around points.

  • Now focus on the turnaround point between the exhalations and inhalations. Perhaps there’s a pause here. Perhaps not. Just notice when the exhalation turns into the inhalation.
  • Then notice the turnaround point between the inhalations and exhalations. Again, maybe there’s a pause, maybe there’s not.

Focus on the entire breath cycle.

  • Then pay attention to the full breath cycle and stay with that for as long as you like.
  • When the mind wanders into thinking, just label it “thinking” and come back to the breath (no judgement, it’s normal).

Meditation is the most tried and true tool for steadying your mind, developing awareness, and cultivating equanimity.

Deep peace is waiting for you.

Photo by Allie Smith on Unsplash

Slow down, you move too fast.

One of my yoga class participants recently said that she’s never still – she’s always busy doing something, gardening, cleaning, community projects, etc.. This is all great, but it left me thinking about our cultural programming around stillness and busyness. We’re taught to value constant productivity. It’s not okay to just be still.

What I mean by stillness is really mindful being or meditation/contemplation/prayer or even just reading a book. Remember books? I suspect what she meant by stillness was the dangerous state of being a couch potato. These are two different things.

Our country thrives on do more and do it faster! And that mentality has given us some amazing gifts like outta-sight technology, for which I’m very grateful.  But that mentality has also seeped into our nervous systems, and done so to such an extent that anxiety and sleep disorders are a national epidemic. We no longer know how to slow down, to be still, to connect to ourselves.

And yes, it’s in our nervous systems. The autonomic nervous system settles into patterns at an early age. When we’re constantly looking for the next thing to do, we’re in an exteroceptive state (constant external stimulation) that’s fueling the fight or flight response (sympathetic nervous system). When we slow down and relax, especially when we let our selves feel that state of relaxation (interoception – internal awareness), we move into the rest and digest part of the nervous system (parasympathetic nervous system) where the body restores and heals itself.

So what’s a person to do? Take a mindful moment. Notice what your senses are offering you: what do you see around you – even if it’s mundane, really notice the colors, shapes and textures. Then notice what you’re hearing and smelling. Notice the textures on your skin or temperature of the air. Notice what your breath rhythm is feeling like right now. Take a moment to think about what you’re grateful for today.  Notice what if feels like to just be still for one minute. Then go for broke and try 10 minutes.

What does it feel like to do nothing, to just be? Did thoughts come up like, I don’t have time for this or is this really doing anything? What you’re practicing is mindfulness – noticing what’s really happening in this moment. And when you do it regularly you’re rewiring your brain (that’s cool). You’re teaching it to slow down, pay attention and maybe even relax.

If you’d like to get better at this come to my meditation class this fall or to any upcoming Yoga Nidra and Meditation events.

Can You Feel Your Feet? Thinking vs. Feeling

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Many people have difficulty quieting the mind when they settle into meditation or savasana, the resting period at the end of yoga class.

     What do you mean, “watch the breath?”

Really the intention is to feel the breath.

If you have a mind that is constantly in overdrive, try noticing the difference between feeling and thinking.

Feel your body. The mind is habituated to constantly thinking. It is always commenting, analyzing and judging. Your mind is a highly specialized problem-solver and this evaluative mode of the brain is its default mode.

The problem is it doesn’t know how to turn off. Especially when you are trying to sleep. It’s ready to solve all the problems in the world!

Here’s how you turn it off – FEEL YOUR BODY.

Really all you are doing is redirecting your awareness. Instead of letting the mind run willy-nilly into the land of thinking, turn your awareness toward feeling the body.

You can start with just feeling what you are in contact with – a chair, bed, or floor. Then you can move to more subtle sensations like your eyes or forehead and temples. Feel your feet, jaw or your shoulders. You could even focus on places of discomfort, but beware judgments and analyzing. Can you just feel this area with curiosity?

And then there’s the breath. The breath is always providing some sensations. You could hold your awareness on one of the sensations of breathing and stay there, getting into the finer details of those sensations. Can you feel the coolness of the inhalations in your nostrils? Or the warmth of the exhalations? Perhaps you can even feel your nostril hairs moving with the breath.

    What?! That’s crazy.

It’s true. You can if you just focus.

The next time you find yourself with an overly busy mind, try feeling your body. You may have to bring it back over and over – that pesky thinking mind is pretty strong – but every time you bring it back to the body you are strengthening your concentration muscle and that’s what you need to control those thoughts.

Be patient. Keep feeling.

For Those with Breathing Challenges

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If your lungs have been compromised by treatment or other conditions, here are a few ways I can work with you to improve your ability to breathe.

First, work with your diaphragm.
Your diaphragm is your main breathing muscle and the first area I check. What you want to notice is whether your belly expands when you inhale. If so, how far down does it expand? Is it easy to do that? If it doesn’t expand easily that tells you that there is tension in the diaphragm and you’ll want to work on releasing that. Take a minute or two to focus on your belly expanding downward and outward on your inhalations. Just relax on your exhalations. Take your time. Don’t rush to your next inhalation. Let your exhalations really complete themselves, allowing the next inhalation to happen when it its ready. The breath cycles will begin to elongate. It’s important to never strain with the breath. This is called belly breathing.

Notice if you have belly tension – if you are used to holding your belly in, you will probably have a challenging time with belly breathing. Let the abdominals soften and expand. If you are accustomed to engaging your core for support, that is great! But see if you can just do that on your exhales, or only as needed, and allow the belly to be soft for your inhalations.

Should you breath this way all the time? No. But you want to practice the belly breath often enough to allow you to unlock your diaphragm from any patterns of tension.

Next, work on lung capacity.
To look at how well your lungs fill up, you’ll use a three-part breath technique. It goes like this: as you inhale, expand the belly, then the middle ribs then the upper ribs, all in one big breath. As you exhale, reverse that order, releasing the upper ribs, middle ribs, then soften the belly. So you’re inhaling from the bottom up and exhaling from the top down. Perhaps you can use the image of a balloon inflating and deflating. You’re gently testing your lung capacity on the inhalation – remember not to strain – and again, let your exhalation fully complete itself. Give it all the time it wants. Note: your belly probably won’t expand as much as it did in the belly breathing technique. That is fine.

Many people have postural habits that prevent them from achieving their full lung capacity. For example, if your upper body has a tendency to round forward (stooped), you might find it challenging to move the breath into the upper lungs because the muscles around the shoulders and upper rib cage are not accustomed to holding the torso upright. The muscles have likely become short in the front and weak in the back. Thus the upper lobes of the lungs are compressed with diminished function. Here’s where practicing the postures and movements in yoga can really help. If you’re not sure what to do, just try squeezing your shoulder blades together and lifting your breastbone. Notice the width across the front of your chest.

If part of your lungs have been removed or damaged . . .
You’ll probably need to work with a yoga therapist, like me, to increase your breathing capacity. I have two main strategies for working with resected or damaged lungs. 1.) we work together to get the healthy parts of your lungs, including the back-side, operating at full efficiency. This means unlocking patterns of tension in the various breathing muscles and working toward the fullest range of expansion possible. 2.) For areas of damage, I coach you to gently explore the sensations at the edge of this area. In other words, don’t ignore it, but notice what that area of the lungs feels like when breathing. And yes, you CAN direct your breath into different areas of your lungs including one side more than the other. Once again, remember to never strain or push the breath. To re-pattern these muscles, it will need to feel comfortable and manageable.

Working with the breath is not a one-size-fits all program, but becoming familiar with your breathing patterns can be a great source of peace and grounding.

What to do with this Anxiety – Part I

I’ve been thinking about anxiety a lot lately and about how to deal with it – it can be so overpowering at times! The following are my thoughts and suggestions on how to get control of this troubling mental state.

Sometimes anxiety is just a big hairy beast that sits on your chest. Nothing will make it go away – it is too big and ominous. What to do? In this situation, the best you can do is to just accept it. It just is what it is. Get present in THIS moment and just acknowledge it. Okay, I’m anxious. This is anxiety. Fine, I’m anxious. Then breathe. Notice exactly what anxiety feels like in the body. Observe it like a scientist, without judgment. From there continue to investigate the present moment. Tune into your senses: look at your environment, notice the sounds, smell the smells, notices textures and temperatures. This is the present moment. Does your anxiety have to do with this exact moment? Acknowledge that you are doing the best you can. Try some diaphragmatic breathing which is good for these anxiety beasts. Know that before long, the situation will change. Everything changes.

The Diaphragmatic Breath

Of all the breathing techniques I teach the diaphragmatic breath is the most foundational and useful. I especially recommend it in times of anxiety or crisis since it slows down your breath and helps to relieve tension.

Here’s how it goes: place a hand on your belly. As you inhale, gently expand your belly outward and downward. Your hand will feel the belly expand. As you exhale you can either just soften the belly or, more actively, pull the belly in towards your spine. Minimize the movement of the rib cage with the breath and maximize the movement of the belly. Do this for about a minute then breathe normally.

The diaphragm is a dome-shaped sheet of muscle that lives just behind the low ribs. When you breathe in, the diaphragm moves downward and outward, pushing the abdominal organs out. This action is actually what causes the inhalation – the downward action creates a vacuum, causing air to rush into the lungs. As you exhale the diaphragm softens upward, back to its resting state.

For some people the diaphragm holds tension and they find it difficult to expand the belly on the inhalation. Their rib cage wants to expand on the inhalation and the belly pulls in. Know that this is okay; that you’ve gotten along just fine all these years breathing like this and you’ll probably make it a good deal longer. But it’s that tension in the diaphragm that we’d like to address. Releasing that tension has a domino effect on tension in the rest of the body. This deep, relaxing breath will encourage any unnecessary tension to release and dissipate.