“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way:
on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
– Jon Kabat-Zinn
Each of us averages 20,000 breaths per day. Yet only a tiny percentage of those breaths are conscious, in the sense that we are not aware of each individual breath. Breathing is involuntary until we place our attention upon it. Focusing the attention on the breath is a meditative practice designed to calm the mind, improve concentration, and promote grounding and centering.
The breath has several things to recommend as a meditative practice. Your breath is:
- Portable and complete—always with you.
- Free of charge.
- 100% natural and organic.
- Effortless (in the sense that it’s involuntary).
Meditation and mindfulness techniques, with their focus on the breath, have been the subject of extensive research that has demonstrated numerous physical and psychological benefits.
Styles of Breathing
We have two basic styles of breathing: Relaxed Abdominal Breathing and Stressed Chest Breathing.
Relaxed Abdominal (Diaphragmatic) Breathing
Your breathing affects your heart rate: as you breathe in, your heart rate naturally speeds up. As you exhale, your heart rate naturally slows down. Slow, relaxed breathing which compresses the diaphragm creates slow, smooth heart rate changes. The diaphragm is compressed as we focus on filling the bottom of the lungs, which also causes the belly to rise. During exhalation, your heart rate decelerates and during that period of deceleration the vagus nerve in the diaphragm becomes more active (the vagus nerve is the principal nerve involved in the “relaxation response”). By slowing and deepening your breathing you create more vagal activity, accentuating its relaxing and regenerating effects. Studies have shown that practicing this style of diaphragmatic breathing reduces muscle tension and anxiety levels within 60 seconds.
Stressed Chest (Thoracic) Breathing
In this style of breathing, it is mainly the chest that moves when we inhale/exhale while there is very little movement in the abdomen, and the breathing is shallow and fast. Chest breathing stimulates the Sympathetic (the fight or flight) branch of the Autonomic Nervous System.
Fortunately, although breathing is controlled mainly by the Autonomic Nervous System, we can voluntarily influence our breathing and help to switch off the fight/flight response by changing our breathing style from fast, shallow chest breathing to breathing at a slower rate. By doing this we send signals to the brain that the threat is over and the Autonomic Nervous system starts to reverse the physiological changes brought about by the fight/flight response. However, it must be remembered that diaphragmatic breathing is a skill that takes time to learn, but it is effective because it is impossible to be relaxed and stressed at the same time.
Guidelines for Relaxation Breathing
Learning diaphragmatic breathing does not take long, but like any other skill it takes practice. Practice several times a day for a few minutes at a time. You can practice it at any time in any place and nobody will be aware that you are doing so. Practice in your car, at the doctor’s office, on your work break, at the dentist, during commercials, while waiting in line, or while dropping the kids off at school.
Now, take a few moments to tune into your breath and bring yourself into a mindful state where you are paying attention to the present moment, without judgment.
Lucretia Hurley-Browning, MDiv, MS, is a guest writer whose recent background includes Chaplain of Abramson Cancer Center at Pennsylvania Hospital and the Director of Juniper Tree Counseling Center. She is a therapist and ordained United Methodist Minister. Currently she is a writer by day, a reader by night, and is passionate about living life meaningfully with a good dose of fun.