One thing you’ll see a lot of people talk about first is breathing. On one hand, that seems sort of odd. After all, we’re all breathing, right, or we wouldn’t be sitting here reading this. On the other hand, there’s a good reason for that.
How we breathe has a lot to do with the ways our bodies work. And it turns out that by breathing in certain ways, we can encourage certain specific physical responses in our bodies that are helpful when we’re looking at focusing and directing energy (in ritual, or for magical workings). Or for things like meditation.
Why focus on breathing?
- It’s a simple practice that is easy for most people to learn.
- It gives you a chance to develop the habit and discipline of regular attention and practice (handy when we start adding more things into your daily practice time.)
- It’s a good first step for a number of other practices (meditation, ritual, energy work.)
- You can learn how to pay attention to yourself and give yourself feedback.
- There are a lot of health benefits to taking 10 minutes a day to breathe.
Step one: basic breathing.
Even though we all breathe (lots!) every day, many people take very shallow breaths by habit. This first exercise is meant to help you explore some parts of your body that can help you breathe better, and get in the habit of breathing deeply more often.
Lie down on your back (bend your knees if it will be more comfortable) A bed is fine. A small pillow or a book under your head is fine, but make sure your chin isn’t pushed towards your chest.
- Place one hand on your chest, and one hand on your abdomen.
- Slowly inhale through your nose (to slow down the intake of breath)
- As you inhale, feel your stomach expand with your hand, then your chest.
- If only your chest expands, focus on breathing deeper in your body, down to where your lower hand is.
- Feel your chest expand in all directions as you inhale (not just up, but down into the floor or bed, and even out to the sides.)
- Slowly exhale through slightly pursed lips to regulate the flow of air.
- Pause. Repeat.
Practice for 3-5 minutes every day. Pay attention to how you feel. Is there a place that feels tense or tight? Try breathing into that space and filling it. Does your head move? Which direction? How does it feel if you try moving (small and gentle movements!) the other way?
Once you are comfortable with it, make it a practice to pause and take 5 deep breaths during the day. (at natural pause points in your day). Once you are comfortable with this, move on to counted breaths. Singing in the shower can also be fun, when you’re playing with breathing deeply.
Step two: counted breaths
This is where we get to the actual techniques more useful in meditation.
As with the above exercise (diaphragmatic breathing) with a few additions. Once you are lying down, touch the tip of your tongue to the back of your teeth/hard palette. (This forms a particular energy circuit within your body.)
- Instead of breathing freely, pick a count – inhale for that count, hold for that count, exhale for that count, hold for that count.
- The most comfortable count for most people is between 3 and 6 (4 and 6 are most common in our experience). Experiment with different ones to see what suits you best.
- So, for example, if your count is 4, you would inhale for the count of four, hold for the count of four, exhale for the count of four, hold for the count of four.
This is a particular breathing pattern that helps induce a trance state or deeper meditative experience. It’s also good practice in focusing your concentration and attention: focus on your count, rather than trying to hold an image in your mind. Some people count to a specific number and start over. Again, this helps build focus and discipline, just like physical exercise helps build muscles.
Start by practicing for 5 minutes a day, and work up to 10 minutes (and try to do a bit longer from time to time: many people, including me, find a big shift in the body somewhere around the 10-12 minute mark)
Cautions and notes:
If you are not used to breathing deeply, you may feel a little lightheaded after these breathing exercises. As your body gets used to getting more oxygen deeper in your lungs, this should pass. Spend a few minutes sitting and breathing normally after you finish, and you should be fine.
That said, there are a couple of other possible cautions. Stop trying these exercises if:
- you feel any kind of pain or discomfort breathing (especially if you have anything in your medical history that might have created scar tissue in your chest or abdomen.)
- any lightheadedness continues for more than a few minutes, or interferes with your regular daily life in any way.
- you feel anything else that worries or concerns you.
Many times, your body just needs a little time to adjust – but if you’re having these problems, you should get some additional advice from your doctor or from a teacher who can help you in person (could be a music teacher or yoga instructor, not just a Pagan teacher) first.
There are tools you can use to help you here:
A simple strand of beads: Get some larger beads from the art store, and thread them on strong string or embroidery floss. (You’ll want 20 or so) so that you can easily feel each bead with your eyes closed. (That’s why bigger beads are better: you can often get larger wooden ones, but anything around a centimeter wide should be fine.)
Once they’re strung, hold them in your hand as you breathe, and move down one bead each time you lose concentration. This can be a really good way to see progress: sometimes we do this for weeks, and don’t think we’ve gotten any better at holding our focus. This way, we can say “Hey, last week, I had 10 distractions, and this week, I’m down to an average of 6. Go me!”
Music: Putting on quiet music can help you tune out distracting noises. I pick music that either doesn’t have words, or has words in a language I absolutely don’t know (it’s much less distracting.)
You can also use music to time what you’re doing: pick a track or combination of tracks that is the length of time you want to meditate. When the music stops or changes, you stop your practice. This is much less harsh than an alarm.
Techie tools: The advent of apps for handheld gadgets has some great benefits for this kind of practice – there are tons of meditation and breathing exercise tools out there. I use a program called BreathPacer for my iPod. (I’m just a satisfied user…)
Look for a program that:
- Lets you set how long each inhale, pause, exhale, and pause is.
- Has a timer to help you time how long you practice for.
- Has some kind of cue to help you stay in rhythm.
BreathPacer does all of these, but there are plenty of other options out there too.
Both Thea Sabin’s Wicca for Beginners and Diana Paxson’s Trance-portation have excellent sections on breathing and other basic techniques. Highly recommended, and you can learn more in the Suggested Reading section.
Many introductory yoga books (and classes) include clear instruction on breathing techniques. (Note that yoga uses breathing in a variety of ways, so read carefully about what the different patterns do.)
If you liked this: the next article you might want to read is centering.
[last edited January 3, 2011]