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Learn To Breathe Before Learning To Meditate

One of the most common forms of mindfulness meditation, and one you're likely to be taught if you go to a mindfulness class, is mindfulness of breathing, in which you direct your focus to the experience of the breath, and try to maintain it there, and keep returning there when the mind wanders.

Traditionally, you're not instructed to change the breathing, or to breathe in any particular way, but just to be aware of the breath as it is.

I teach my clients how to breathe well – and that means in a particular way, though not one singular way (at least not all the time). As part of this breathing training, I teach clients mindfulness, and even suggest they practise mindfulness of breathing on a regular basis. What's going on here? Am I breaking some cardinal principle of mindfulness?

Not surprisingly I'm going to answer no, but first I'll explain why it could be very useful to bring optimal breathing skills to mindfulness practice.

The simple answer is that optimal breathing can make mindfulness more effective, in the sense of more effectively meeting the purpose of mindfulness practice, which is to develop certain qualities of mind, such as calm, steady focus, clarity, stillness, openness, equanimity and positivity.

Yes, mindfulness really does have a purpose, even if some people lose sight of this because it appears to conflict with mindfulness being non-judgemental or non-goal-oriented. Actually the spirit of mindfulness is to hang loose to your goals, not minding whether you achieve them or not – and that's a little different from forgetting about the goal altogether.

The mind-body connection is the idea that how you think, feel, act and pay attention, is reflected in your body physiology, and vice versa. This implies there is a physiology that supports mindfulness, and a different physiology that hinders effective practice. Optimal breathing will support calm, clear awareness, while over-breathing (which is the most common form of breathing dysregulation, and which I wrote about in an earlier article on why optimal breathing is key in stress management.

Why does traditional teaching say not to change the breathing? I think there are two main reasons.

  1. Changing the breathing would encourage a grasping or judgemental state of mind where we reject our current experience as “not right” and chase after some other experience that we don't have.
  2. Deliberately changing the breathing is in practice as likely to take your physiology in the wrong direction, e.g. towards over-breathing.

Both these points have some validity, but not enough to negate my main point which is that favourable physiology supports mindfulness practice.

It's not that the breathing shouldn't change during meditation. Breathing reflects mental state. If your state of mind changes, your breathing is likely to change. It's just that mostly this change happens naturally, “organically”, rather than deliberately. (There's some evidence that experienced meditators do breathe a certain way, e.g. see this paper (page 27) which suggests they breathe with greater heart coherence.

I would say, it's not the conscious, deliberate mind that knows how to breathe optimally – it comes from a deeper level of the mind, which I sometimes call “body intelligence”. When I teach clients optimal breathing I emphasise allowing body intelligence to do it for you. When the change comes from the conscious, thinking mind, it's likely to be unhelpful (an example of the “quicksand trap”, which I've referred to in other articles).

Some researchers and writers have pointed out that mindfulness meditation can have negative side effects (e.g. see this article.)

I've wondered if negative experiences in meditation are related to a shift away from favourable physiology – I think this can easily happen when you focus on breathing, especially if you haven't received the right breathing training first. 

Conclusion

I believe a very useful strategy in mindfulness practice is to guide yourself towards favourable body states – physiological conditions that make calm, clear, stable focus more accessible. This is why I think it's useful to bring optimal breathing skills to meditation, with these two provisos:

  1. Effective optimal breathing training means allowing the body to find its own way, with a little guidance about the direction to go in. 
  2. Don't lose sight of the spirit of mindfulness, which is to treat the practice as play – it doesn't matter so much whether you achieve your purpose or not, but remain open to both whatever is happening right now, and the possibility that things could change, even imagining that things could change.

Biofeedback is an ideal tool for facilitating optimal breathing training for stress and anxiety, but it needs to be done with these two principles in mind.

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