5 Ways to Practice Breath-Focused Meditation
From deep and controlled breathing to a shallow and present style, learn different techniques to help you achieve soundness of mind.
Take a deep breath — a phrase we are all too familiar with as a last resort to relieve stress and frustration. But it actually works.
Deep breathing is a form of meditation, a practice that researchers say dates back several thousand years. Research shows that meditation can reduce anxiety, sharpen memory, treat symptoms of depression, promote more restful sleep, and even improve heart health.
Here are five meditative breathing techniques and how they can help you achieve peace of mind.
1. Shamatha (Breathing as is)
Translation: “Peacefully abiding”
What It Is: Shamatha breathing is a technique centered around awareness of your breathing as it is. It’s a common practice in mindful meditation and is often referred to as the reset breath or the breath that brings you back to the present. A study published in March 2018 in the Journal of Cognitive Enhancement found that long-term meditation using shamatha techniques was associated with improvements in sustained attention and could alter the trajectory of age-related cognitive decline. Shamatha meditation “is the primary thing I teach to new meditators — simply becoming familiar with the breath as a way to become familiar with all of who you are, including your innate peaceful nature,” says Rinzler.
How to Do It: Sitting or standing, feel the weight of your body through your seat or feet on the floor. Straighten your upper body. Soften your gaze and try to gently fixate on a point on the ground in front of you. Connect to the natural cycle of your breath, feeling the rise and fall of your belly. “Tune in to the breath like a radio signal, sensing each one as a unique act,” explains Rinzler. “When your mind wanders, as it will, return to the physical sensation of the breath.”
2. Kundalini (Diaphragm breathing)
Translation: “The life force that resides at the base of the spine”
What It Is: In the practice of kundalini meditation, breathing centers around moving energy within the body through controlled breathing techniques, like diaphragmatic breathing. According to the Cleveland Clinic, the diaphragm is the most efficient muscle of breathing. It is located at the bottom of your lungs. Breathing with your diaphragm teaches you how to use it correctly and helps strengthen it. With this technique you will be able to take in more air and decrease the oxygen demand. The practice of diaphragmatic breathing is especially useful for people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease to ease shortness of breath and to help air exit the lungs.
How to Do It: While sitting down or lying on your back, place one hand on your upper chest and the other on your stomach below your rib cage. Breathe in slowly through your nose and feel your stomach move out from under your hand. Practice keeping the hand on your chest as still as possible. Concentrate on deep breaths that fill the lungs rather than shallow ones that only fill the chest. The Cleveland Clinic recommends practicing diaphragmatic breathing three or four times a day for 5 to 10 minutes each time.
3. Nadi Shodhana and Pranayama (Alternate nostril breathing)
Translation: “Channel purifying”
What It Is: Similar to kundalini, pranayama is a type of meditative practice that involves controlled breathing, turning your focus to your body and finding balance internally. Nadi shodhana, or alternate nostril yoga breathing (ANYB), is the technique of breathing through one nostril at a time while closing the other nostril manually, to alternate breathing and airflow. According to a study published in December 2017 in Medical Science Monitor Basic Research, ANYB significantly reduced blood pressure and increased alertness. The study showed that systolic blood pressure, the pressure in the blood vessels when the heart beats, dramatically decreased in participants after 18 minutes of ANYB practice. They were also able to perform a vigilance task in less time.
How to Do It: Sit comfortably and rest your right hand on your knee while using your left thumb to gently close your left nostril. Inhale slowly through the right nostril, then close it with your ring finger. Take a moment and then exhale through the left nostril. Repeat this on each nostril 5 to 10 times. Research shows that 15 to 18 minutes of alternate nostril breathing is ideal.
4. Zhuanqi (Breathing until the breath is soft)
Translation: “Unite mind and air”
What It Is: Taoist meditation emphasizes quieting the body and mind to find harmony with nature. Zhuanqi, similar to Buddhist meditation, is a meditative breathing technique in Taoism that aims to unite breath and mind by focusing on your breath until it is soft. This can be done by observing the breath until it is quiet. It utilizes the abdominal muscles to elevate the diaphragm and push out air.
How to Do It: Sit comfortably with strong posture and your eyes half closed and fixed on the point of your nose. Breathe with your abdominal muscles until the breath is soft or quiet. To effectively use your abdominal muscles, place your right hand on your stomach and your left on your chest. Breathe deeply and watch which hand moves more and in which direction. The goal is to have the hand on your abdomen move more and in an outward and inward motion.
5. Kumbhaka Pranayamas (Anatara and Bahya) (Intermittent breath retention)
Translation: “The control of prana through retention of the breath”
What It Is: Kumbhaka pranayamas are a type of breathing exercise that uses intermittent breath holding following inhaling or exhaling. The pause of breath holding should be shorter than the inhaling or exhaling period. Holding air in the lungs after inhaling is called antara (inner) kumbhaka, and momentarily holding the breath following exhaling is called bahya (outer) kumbhaka. A study in the Indian Journal of Medical Research found that short breath holding was associated with a 56 percent increase in oxygen consumed. Additionally, a study published in January 2018 in the Indian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology determined that intermittent breathing could be useful in preventing metabolism issues due to changes in the rate your body uses and burns oxygen.
How to Do It: Sitting with the spine upright, exhale all of the air in your lungs out through your mouth. Close your lips and use your nose to inhale slowly until your lungs are full. For antara, hold the air in your lungs for a count of three to five seconds and then slowly release. To practice bahya, after emptying your lungs, hold your breath for three to five seconds before inhaling.
Whether you’re an experienced meditator or looking for new ways to just take a deep breath, breathing techniques for meditation have been proven to have a wide range of short-term and long-term health benefits.
“Many people come to meditation because they want to feel less stressed out or anxious, to sleep better, or any of these other touted results of the practices,” says Rinzler. “But there’s more to it than just getting a good night’s sleep. The practices are transformational for one’s whole life if given the proper time and instruction.”