A Balancing Act
By Rolf Sovik
For the most part, we travel the planet with confidence in our ability to breathe. Breathing difficulties certainly alarm us when they do occur, and yet more than 21,000 times a day, the respiratory system manages to get its job done right. In the process, our breath flows automatically, sustaining life with little need for attention.
The close relationship between physical activity and breathing is familiar to each of us. Climb one flight of stairs and breathing changes slightly. Climb eight flights of stairs, though, and the change is more dramatic. Take the elevator and breathing is unlikely to change at all.
Not all breathing is motivated by metabolic needs, of course. Imagine encountering a snake as you walk along a desert trail. You quickly assess the situation: Is it a dangerous snake or a friendly one? Perhaps, in your mind, all snakes are dangerous. Should you stay put, keep moving ahead, or go back the way you came? Do you even have time to ask such questions? These and similar concerns flash through your mind. But in the moments before they do, your breathing has already become more rapid. Simply seeing the snake has engaged your breath. With little conscious awareness, it has responded to the threat of the snake by preparing you for action.
How could this happen? What sorts of internal mechanisms change your breathing even before you’ve begun to exert yourself? The answer is, psychological ones. Your vision of the world, the information you take in through your senses, your emotional reactions, memories of past experience, and your imagination all have the potential to change the way you breathe.
Suppose, for example, that a letter has arrived from the bank. It looks official. Short on funds this month, you worry that it is an overdraft notice. Your breathing quickens with anxiety as you slice through the envelope. Images of repo men driving off in your car suddenly flash through your mind, and you momentarily stop breathing altogether! You open the envelope. It’s an offer for a credit card. With a sigh of relief, your breathing returns to normal, and you are soon pleasantly lost in the remaining stack of mail.
Clearly, breathing can be fraught with emotion, serving purposes only distantly related to our basic physiological needs. But just as with normal breathing, these emotionally charged respiratory changes occur largely outside our awareness. Even during periods of significant stress, breathing remains in the background—a silent partner to a drama occurring in your mind.
Meditation changes all this. During periods of meditation, metabolism slows, and the breath cycles in and out with unusual constancy. As your sitting times lengthen, your awareness of the breath increases. It becomes possible to see, analyze, and understand the process of respiration with much greater refinement.
Meditation reveals that breathing is not simply a means of staying alive. It is a process that engages every level of your being and adds its own energies to the mix, as well. By examining the subtle imbalances affecting your breath during meditation, and learning to systematically resolve them there, you can restore inner balance and quietude to your mind.
Modes of Breathing
Unlike the heart, your lungs are not pumps, and they cannot acquire air on their own. Breathing is fashioned by muscles adjacent to the lungs. The respiratory diaphragm, doming upward within the rib cage beneath the lungs, makes the largest contribution to breathing efforts. When the diaphragm contracts, its upper surface is drawn down, and air flows in. When the diaphragm relaxes, it is drawn back up by the elasticity of the lungs, and air flows out.
Like other muscles of respiration, the diaphragm is a skeletal muscle. It is enervated by the phrenic nerve, a nerve that forms the final common pathway for nerve impulses reaching the diaphragm from the brain. Traffic along the phrenic nerve is busy, merging influences from three distinct modes of respiratory functioning: involuntary breathing, which satisfies our metabolic needs; voluntary breathing, which allows us to control the breath by holding it, singing, speaking, and yogic breath training; and behavioral breathing, which reflects pain, emotions, and stress.
Scientists have known for decades that cells located in the brain stem—the most primitive part of the brain—produce the basic respiratory rhythm. These cells are found in the medulla oblongata, where rudimentary patterns of respiration are generated, and in the pons, where rhythms of breathing are smoothed out. Nerve impulses originating from these cells produce breathing that is involuntary. If an injury prevented all higher portions of the brain from functioning, the respiratory centers in the brain stem could continue to produce basic breathing.
When you meditate, you create ideal conditions for simply observing your breath without trying to change it. As you relax, your metabolism slows and your breathing becomes deeply rhythmic. Great tidal surges sweep unceasingly through your lungs—emptying and filling, cleansing and nourishing, moving from breath to breath. Breathing is a deeply emotional experience, satisfying a fundamental yearning to preserve life. As you sit, you can observe the cycling of respiration much as you might observe the slow swinging of a clock’s pendulum. Your breathing will become increasingly effortless under your quiet observation. Your nervous system will relax, bringing a sense of harmony to your body and mind.
Voluntary Control of Breathing
While basic breathing results from nerve impulses reaching the diaphragm from the brain stem, nerve impulses descending from the cerebral cortex can also influence the breath. This means that, within limits, you can start, stop, and modify your breathing at will.
Voluntary control allows you to swim underwater, blow warm air onto cold hands, sip through straws, sing, and talk. During periods of meditation, you can use voluntary control to make adjustments in your breathing.
The fact that breathing can be consciously controlled means that, with practice, you can replace unproductive breathing habits with productive ones. Yoga uses five criteria to assess the quality of breathing. Practitioners learn to make their breath deep, smooth, even, silent, and without pause. The following exercise will help you examine these criteria and make adjustments to your own breath—a process called breath training in yoga.
Your ability to become aware of your breathing, and to sustain that awareness as you make adjustments to it, will have long-term effects. You will be able to recognize good breathing—but more importantly, you will begin to acquire a healthy breathing habit.
In addition to voluntary and involuntary styles of breathing, a third force governs respiration—one that both complicates and humanizes matters considerably. Your emotions. Simply put: how you feel affects how you breathe.
The rather clumsy phrase used to label this third mode of breathing—behavioral breathing—reminds us that not all breathing styles are directly linked to metabolic needs. How we act and how we feel play a role in how we breathe—and conversely, breathing affects our actions and feelings.
This type of breathing can seem pretty straightforward. Our behaviors influence the depth, speed, rhythm, or style of breathing in familiar ways. Touch a hot burner and you’ll quickly inhale as you pull your hand away. Lose your temper in a rage—you’ll breathe out and in sharply. A deeply discouraged mood may cause you to sigh and, in the process, communicate your feelings and low energy level to others. Reactions like these may also act to protect us from being overwhelmed by a painful experience.
Suppose, however, that you are a sales agent desperately trying to explain to your supervisor why you should keep your job despite declining sales revenues. You have recently bought a new house, and the thought of being out of work literally takes your breath away. Unfortunately, late nights with a colicky baby have left you irritable, and you are trying not to let that show in your voice. In addition, you have a painful cavity in one of your teeth. The tightness in your abdomen keeps the pain manageable, but adds a layer of tension to your breathing that makes matters worse. As the conversation with your boss continues, the stress of trying to control your thoughts, emotions, and breathing nearly overwhelms you. Your presentation is convincing, but you leave on the verge of tears.
Behavioral breathing is reactive and frequently involves, as this example shows, many layers of emotion, stress, and pain. The strength of your reaction generally indicates something about the level of threat you perceive in your environment. Snakes and lost jobs trigger strong reactions—causing breath holding and major changes in your breathing style. Getting a window seat instead of an aisle—less so.
The complexity of the human brain and the difficulty of exploring subtle interconnections within it make research on behavioral breathing technically challenging. “The investigation of respiration in relation to psychological phenomena remains one of the truly neglected areas of psychophysiology, behavioral medicine, and neurophysiology,” P. Grossman and C. J. Wientjes wrote in “How Breathing Adjusts to Mental and Physical Demands” (Respiration and Emotion, Springer, 2001).
More recent endeavors have shown promise, however. One study in 2008 examined an area of the brain called the periaqueductal gray. Cells in this part of the brain are located in proximity to mid-brain structures involved in the processing of emotion. Researchers discovered that stimulating various periaqueductal gray regions produced significant changes in the breath, causing it to deepen, change speed, start and stop, and act as if under stress. Thus, a broad range of stress-related respiratory experience appears to be modulated by these cells.
Breathing as a Healing Tool
Meditation makes it possible to recognize emotional influences on breathing directly and provides a strategy for relieving underlying pain. In carrying out this inner work, however, you need to resist the impulse to seize control of your breath and make heavy-handed changes to it. Acceptance is the key to working with emotional dimensions of breathing. In order to deepen your capacity to witness the breath, you must truly accept it as it is. It is this nonjudgmental openness that transforms breath awareness into an instrument of self-understanding and healing.
During meditation, emotional reactions register in the breath in subtle ways. They can speed your breath or slow it down, alter its depth, change its style, or manifest as minor interruptions in its flow. Becoming conscious of your breath allows you to witness these changes, recognize their importance, and slowly quiet them. The process is not unlike the practices you have already tried, but it contains differences as well. In particular, accepting disturbances in your breathing implies actively accepting the sources of stress, pain, and negative emotion in your life.
The process of opening to emotional experience and its sources lends gravity to the meditation process. In meditation, we do not simply observe thoughts and feelings passing through us like ghostly images, pushed away by a shift in attention. The substance and content of worldly life is grounded in us. Events that spawn our reactions—pain, stress, and emotionally charged incidents—enter into the stream of inner life as actual presences. Anger is anger. Sorrow is sorrow. Changes in breathing arising from these emotions are real as well.
Emotional threads in your life are subtly entwined with your breathing. Anger, frustration, anxiety, jealousy, sadness, and depression transform your breath. These transformations are not simply reactions—they become part of your emotional experience, part of your stress and pain. They often occur even before you are aware of the source of your discomfort.
In meditation, however, the subtle disturbances and imbalances we experience in breathing are simply allowed to be. They pass through us precisely because we witness them and give them room within us. When distortions in breathing are witnessed in this way, deeper forces of breathing are awakened and breathing acts as a healing power, gradually returning to its natural flow.
The process outlined above can be used with physical pain as well. Suppose you have a horrible headache and wish you could make it disappear. No doubt your pain, combined with your reaction to it, is affecting your breathing. Perhaps your abdominal muscles have tightened, and, as a result, your breaths have become shallow; or maybe you have artificially slowed your breathing by overcontrolling it.
Turn toward your headache as you meditate, open to its presence, and you will discover that breath awareness is a tool that reveals new ways of being. It generates a willingness to coexist with your headache, to approach it with a fundamental optimism. It allows you to soften the way in which you unintentionally grip your discomfort, to unwrap the stranglehold you have on your headache, and slowly let the pain move through.
Using this approach, you can let breath awareness return breathing to its steady automatic rhythm. You’ll recover involuntary patterns of breathing, minus the scuffle. And once this has happened, headache or no, you can find rest within yourself.
Three in One
The key to working with breathing is just that: work with it. The three practices here will help you. Although they have been presented as distinct exercises, each addressing one aspect of breathing, they are considerably more integrated in intent. In one daily session, you can explore themes from all three. Lie down, rest, and tune your awareness to your breathing. Strengthen the diaphragm, then soften the rib cage; make your breaths even, then relax your effort; be the breather, and then be the witness. Practicing 10 to 15 minutes every day will lead to mastery.
You will soon find that most of the snakes that bother your breathing are not in the desert. They wait on pathways in your mind. They may very well rattle your breathing, sometimes before you’re fully aware of their presence, but they are not as dangerous as you might fear. By becoming conscious of your breathing, your unconscious reactions can soften. You may be left with some realistic challenges, but fewer ghosts and shadows. Your breath is free to serve, not only the needs of your body, but those of your mind and spirit as well.
Watching Your Body Breathe
Read through the following. Then, when you are ready, either lie down or sit in a comfortable position, close your eyes, and begin to practice.
1. Start by feeling the rhythmic flow of your breathing. Focus on the sensations of your breath—the experience of emptying and filling…cleansing and nourishing. Soften the muscles in the abdomen and between the ribs.
2. After a number of minutes have passed, begin to pay attention to the transitions between breaths. Weave each breath smoothly and effortlessly into the next, gradually relaxing more deeply.
3. Let the breath flow at just the right pace for you—not too fast, not too slow. This will help you let go of the need to control your breathing in some way.
4. Maintain your awareness of breathing and relax your mental effort.
5. Gradually begin to sense that “I am not the breather.” Your body breathes…effortlessly. You are merely a witness, observing the gentle and automatic flow of your breath.
6. Continue for a number of minutes, softening your mental effort and allowing your nervous system to become deeply relaxed. Then, when you are ready, slowly bring your attention outward.
Adjusting Your Breathing
Lie comfortably on your back on a firm flat surface. Support your neck and head with a thin cushion. Observe the flow of your breathing, sensing each exhalation and inhalation and making smooth transitions from breath to breath. Continue for a number of minutes, allowing your body to rest. Then begin to shape your breathing in the following way:
1. If your breathing is shallow, gently deepen it. To do this, deepen the contractions of the diaphragm and increase the expansion of the abdomen with each breath.
2. Soften muscle tensions that create jerks or otherwise restrict your breathing. Look especially for tension in the abdomen or in the muscles between the ribs.
3. If your breaths are of unequal lengths, make adjustments to equalize them. This will relax your nervous system.
4. Quiet the breath. Let it flow silently.
5. Weave each breath into the next, smoothing out pauses in your breath that interrupt its unbroken flow.
6. Finally, relax your mental effort as you did in exercise 1. Observe your breathing as a relaxed witness and let your body breathe.
Lie on a firm flat surface or sit in a meditation posture. Shift your attention to your breathing and soften your abdomen and rib cage, letting your breath flow freely. Feel the breath flow out and in, cleansing and nourishing you, and anchor your awareness in these sensations. Soften the transitions between breaths, weaving one breath into the next. Then simply rest, feeling your body breathe.
1. As you settle into your breath, allow yourself to sense how your emotional life is reflected there. Feel the way in which your discomforts, stresses, and emotional reactions dwell in the streams of your breath.
2. It is not necessary to fully identify or analyze all the sources of your respiratory reactions. Their causes may lie behind the veil of your awareness. But notice any shifts in your breathing, sensing their very real presence.
3. Having observed these emotional elements in the breath, now do the unexpected. Accept them. Approach your breathing with openness. Recognize that your distresses are already in your breath, lodged for a time there in the rhythms of your respiration, yet working their way through.
4. Although there are many approaches to restoring inner balance, for now stay with the breath, even in the midst of your pain or negative emotion. Breath by breath, sense that you can be with discomfort and use your breath to cleanse and nourish yourself.
5. Gradually, let the steady stream of your breathing wash away the imbalances that have disturbed it. With that awareness, let each breath help restore you; by quietly mending your breath you can transform your inner experience.
6. As you continue, relax your mental effort as you did in exercises 1 and 2. Observe your breathing as a relaxed witness, and let your body rest
7. Finally, when you are ready, slowly bring your attention outward, grateful for the experience of relaxed breathing.
Rolf Sovik, PsyD, is the president of the Himalayan Institute and the author of Moving Inward: The Journey to Meditation.