Oh come on! How to breathe? These titles are getting downright insulting.
Not to mention annoying to write – I just spent the first five minutes of this morning’s “writing session” Googling and triple-checking the difference between “breathe” (verb) and “breath” (noun). Fair warning, WordPress doesn’t appear to be catching these. So if a few sentences sneak in there about “how to breath” or “watching your breathe” then apologies in advance – doing my best here.
And why even write about something as simple as breathing? It’s something we just do naturally without thinking about it, right?
Well, sort of.
Let’s compare breathing to, say, your heartbeat. Thankfully, your heart normally keeps beat without any conscious effort. Breathing is similar – if you’re not thinking about it, it just sort of happens on its own. We’ll call this process passive breathing. But, unlike your heart, you can actually exercise a lot of control over your breath. You can hold it (at least for a little while) and otherwise change it’s character (ex. breathing deeper or breathing faster). We’ll call this active breathing.
(If you can’t already tell, I haven’t really done a scientific deep dive here.)
My point is this – breathing is something that you don’t have to think about, but you can if you want to. And when I was first introduced to meditation, I was told to breathe normally. And I got tripped up on this advice. Because the instructions made me feel like I should be doing something consciously, that I should be actively breathing. And I had trouble figuring out what normal actually was.
I mean, how do I actually breathe when I’m not thinking about it? I wasn’t totally sure. And so I tried a couple of different things, eventually landing on a slow rhythm of pretty deep breaths. Deep breaths seemed more healthy, more “zen.” But after a while, it felt like something was wrong. My rhythm felt off, and I felt like I wasn’t getting enough oxygen with each breath. I started to panic. Wait – how do I breathe again? I stood from my seat gasping for air, it felt like I was hyperventilating. Eventually things got back to normal but wow… that was weird.
Weird perhaps, but also common. Turns out lots of people experience the same thing when they first get started.
One thing that helped me get over this was encountering meditating “breathing instructions” which were worded slightly differently, a way that I found much more helpful and which I still think about now. I don’t think about “breathing normally” – I think about “watching my breath.”
Now when I sit down to meditate I try to just look at my passive breathing without interfering with it. I observe it as something outside of myself, and I just try to watch it without expectation or judgement. One thing I noticed is that my normal breathing patters are more shallow and faster than I expected. I started to focus less on the actual function of breathing (the air coming in and out of my lungs) and more on observable signs of the breath (ex. my chest rising). And I found that the more specific the sign, the more helpful it was as a point of focus – so instead of focusing just on the idea of my chest rising, I might focus on the feeling of the fibers of my shirt stretching around my torso. Instead of focusing on the air coming into my nose, I might focus on the feeling of my nostrils flaring slightly.
It does take practice. The breath is a great anchor for meditating because it’s always with you, but if you’re struggling with it there are other options. One in particular that I enjoy is focusing on the rhythm of my footsteps during a walking meditation, which has the added benefits of getting you outside and active (keep your eyes open for that one, though).
Anyway, this is something I struggled with early on, so I wanted to make sure I covered it in case you ran into the same issue. And if you’re starting to get into meditation and having trouble remembering how to breathe, don’t sweat it… you’re not alone!