Stress reduction related to meditation starts with calming the body and mind. One way to calm the body and mind is to sit quietly and still, and concentrate on breathing slowly and deeply – in other words, practice deep breathing.
Chronic stress can lead to a restriction of the connective and muscular tissue in the chest. Due to rapid, shallow breathing, the chest does not expand as much as it would with slower, deeper breaths, and much of the air exchange occurs at the top of the lung tissue towards the head. This results in chest breathing. To determine if you are a chest breather, place one hand on your chest and the other hand on your abdomen. As you breathe, see which hand rises first – that will tell you if you are a chest or abdominal breather.
Abdominal breathing is also known as diaphragmatic breathing. The diaphragm is a large muscle located between the chest and the abdomen. When it contracts, it is forced downward, causing the abdomen to expand.
Deep breathing leads to improved stamina, both to protect the body’s resistance to disease and in athletic activity. Remember that one of the benefits of aerobic activity is increased lung capacity, which increases oxygen consumption in the body through the blood as we inhale, and increases release of carbon dioxide through the lungs as we exhale.
Like blood, the flow of lymph, which is rich in immune cells, is improved with deep breathing. By expanding the lungs’ air pockets and improving the flow of blood and lymph, abdominal breathing also helps prevent infection of the lung and other tissues. Blood flow carries nutrients and ample amounts of oxygen into the capillaries throughout the body, whereas a healthy lymphatic system carries destructive toxins away from the body tissues. Proper breathing enhances these exchanges.
Deep breathing can eventually deliver many of the benefits of aerobic exercise, including weight loss. Though not a substitute for exercise, deep breathing enhances the benefits of any form of exercise. Deep breathing alone increases the resting metabolic rate by increasing oxygen capacity. Increased oxygen in the cells helps the body burn extra fat. Deep breathing provides more oxygen to the digestive system also, improving the absorption of nutrients in the body.
Deep breathing is an excellent tool to stimulate the relaxation response, the meditation-elicited physiological response that Harvard cardiologist Herbert Benson was the first to note. All forms of meditation, in which the mind becomes quiet and focused, initiates this innate physiological response which is the opposite of the body’s stress or fight-or-flight response. Abdominal breathing is an important part of the relaxation response, which results in less tension and an overall sense of well-being.
To begin deep breathing, first slow your breathing. Next, force out as much breath as possible from your lungs. Then, breath in deeply through the nose, expand the abdomen, hold that breath as long as possible, and finally, slowly, slowly exhale through your nose until it seems no breath is left. It is important to get out all that carbon dioxide.
Nose breathing in important when deep breathing. When we inhale through our nose, the hairs that line our nostrils filter out particles of dust and dirt that can harm our lungs. The mucous membranes prepare the air for our lungs by warming and humidifying it. Over time, this filtering and humidification process helps protect our lungs from the damage. Some researchers believe that excessive mouth breathing can cause associated hyperventilation and can result in asthma, high blood pressure, heart disease, and many other medical problems.
Deep breathing slows down the heart rate. In meditative or contemplative prayer, focusing the thoughts while deep breathing can add meaning to this exercise. Focus on “breathing in” thoughts of God with the oxygen in the air, and then “breathe out” your anxieties and problems with the carbon dioxide. Prayer is spiritual breathing. Prayers or Scripture or hymns can be recited silently while breathing. This is the basic prayer-breathing relaxation exercise.
Deep breathing and prayer, of course, can be done anywhere, not just during a quiet time. I deep breathe during church – but no one can see me under my choir robe! Deep breathing can be practiced any time we are still, like stopping at a red light, or watching TV, or commuting on the train or subway, or working at the computer. Just think deep breathe!
If you’d like to dig deeper into my journey of discovering God’s plan for health and wellness, check out my book, Made For Paradise: God’s Original Plan for Healthy Eating, Physical Activity, and Rest.