July 2, 2020

The Power of Breath in Meditation (& 3 Techniques to Help you Find your Groove).


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In meditation, there are several reasons why we focus on the breath. 

Simply put, your breath is considered to be the gateway into your mind. The mind is impacted by how we breathe and the way we breathe impacts our minds. It is a symbiotic relationship that it is worth being curious about. 

For a simple example, have you ever noticed that you have trouble catching your breath when you are experiencing anxiety or heightened stress? If you stopped and consciously paid attention, the chances are that your breath is mainly moving your upper chest with little movement in the lower abdomen. You may even be holding your breath in, and it may be jagged, with stops and starts unevenly peppering the inhale. 

Your breath is closely linked to your autonomic nervous system (ANS), and the inhale will slightly stimulate the sympathetic nervous system (the fight or flight reflex). The exhale slightly stimulates our parasympathetic nervous system (the rest and digestive reflex). 

Intentional breathing can and does directly influence our thoughts, memory, and emotional state. 

Meditation has been the realm of many eastern philosophies for centuries. From a yogic, philosophical perspective, the breath is the simplest yet most powerful thing to focus on while meditating. From the breath, we can then move into more subtle objects of meditation: sound, feelings of bliss, and finally, absorption itself—the ultimate realization of meditation. 

Meditations were passed down through lineages by those who practiced them as an experiential exercise. Specific techniques evolved over time and were often considered so powerful that they were kept locked away. They were accessible only to those who were part of a particular lineage. 

One common element through these practices was the belief that there were certain qualities within breath itself, an intelligence. These days we think of it as the air around us filled with gasses, cells, and molecules. 

But these little things are also quite busy with their own processes—all exhibiting signs of life and animated by certain energetic impulses. Ancient meditators were perceptive enough to pick up on this and called these impulses or life forces, prana

Breathing will become more and more sophisticated as you progress in your meditation practice. 

Specific impacts can be realized by changing the duration of the inhale and/or exhale, as well as retaining your breath in or out. When combined with a specific focus or kriya, we can powerfully reshape our mood, our energetic state, our future experience, and our patterns of habituation.

Here are some examples of breathwork and their impacts:

  1. Alternate nostril breathing: to balance the left and right hemispheres of the brain and clear the body’s energy channels.
  2. Ujaii: that raspy, whispered breathing that you will often hear in a yoga class. This audible breathing gives the mind a focal point and assists in excellent control of the breath flow rate.
  3. Kapalabhati: forceful and rapid exhalation of the breath is said to cleanse the body’s energy channels and invigorate the mind and body.

If you’re having trouble finding your groove when observing or shaping your breath, it can be beneficial to use some simple exercises to warm up to it. 

For example, as you breathe in, move your straightened arms out—wide from your body—and expand across your chest into a slight backbend. As you breathe out, bring your arms in front of you to touch. Soften your elbows to bend and round your spine a little. A simple rule of thumb is that when you inhale, your body opens, and when you exhale, your body closes, or curls into itself. 

Some relaxed and free movements such as this (and any other ones that come naturally to you) can help you on your journey to befriending your breathing.

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