Though there are well-known health benefits to mindfulness meditation, breathing is the aspect of meditation most impactful on the body. Meditation techniques that focus on deep breaths have been shown to reduce anxiety and stress, as well as improve other health metrics such as blood pressure and heart rate.
But even for someone skilled in meditation, breathing correctly to maximize its beneficial effects can be difficult. Below we will discuss the benefits that breathing meditation has on the body, and what you can do in your breath work to help get the most out of your meditation.
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Resonant breathing is considered the ideal breathing pattern for stress-reduction meditation. Breathing at a rate of 6 breaths per minute, on average, has been demonstrated to create a “resonant frequency” whereby heart rate and blood pressure oscillate 180 degrees out of phase with one another, while heart rate and respiration oscillate in phase with each other. The effects of these phasings include a maximal increase in heart rate variability--the gold standard of relaxation measurement--as well as decreased blood pressure and reduced heart rate.
Diaphragmatic breathing is less about how frequently you breathe and more about how you breathe. Diaphragmatic breathing uses the contraction of the diaphragm to move air downward into the body. On exhalation, the diaphragm relaxes and pushes the air out of the lungs, facilitating a more efficient exchange of carbon dioxide for oxygen. This breathing practice has been shown to help asthma patients, reduce perceived pain levels, and increase heart rate variability by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system.
One of the reasons that diaphragmatic breathing is so effective is that it increases blood oxygenation, which is believed to be responsible for the widespread hyperpolarization of cell membranes throughout the body. This increased polarization inhibits the activity of the sympathetic nervous system in the same way as cell membrane hyperpolarization does during sleep.
The practice of pranayama meditation, breathing alternately through the left and right nostril while meditating, is an incredibly old meditative exercise believed to reduce stress and anxiety. Research has found that the nasal vasculature of each nostril are connected to different hypothalamic nuclei, resulting in a strange coincidence: airflow through the right nostril activates the sympathetic nervous system, while airflow through the left nostril activates the parasympathetic nervous system. The clinical success of alternate nostril breathing in reducing stress and anxiety is thought to be the result of the balancing of these two systems.
Often encountered in meditation practices that involve chanting, resistance breathing involves the contraction of the pharyngeal muscles at the back of the nasal passage, mouth, and throat. This contraction occurs naturally in chanting, but can also be performed actively. The contraction of these muscles stimulates the vagus nerve, increasing parasympathetic activity and thus relaxing the body.
Though resonant breathing has been shown to maximize the stress-reduction health benefits of meditation, breathing at 6 breaths per minute can be difficult without an aid. In scientific studies, a breathing coach is often employed to monitor a biofeedback device and, through direction to breath faster or slower, guide the subject to the right rhythm of breath.
While there are a number of apps that help users time their breathing, many attempt to ‘gamify’ resonant breathing, directing the user to, for example, keep a line that represents their current breathing inside a given area that represents ideal breathing. However, a scientific study entitled, “The Effect of Deep and Slow Breathing on Pain Perception, Autonomic Activity, and Mood Processing” (Busch, et al., 2012Busch, et al., 2012) actually demonstrated that this kind of feedback system decreases heart rate variability rather than maximizing it. Essentially, the stress of trying to breathe at the correct pace undid all of the benefits of the breathing meditation.
Mesmerize took a different approach to signaling to the user the appropriate pace of breath. By using hypnotic visuals that breathe with the user, a regular rhythm of breath can be established without devoting attention to whether or not they are “doing it right.” Their complex patterns are easy to get lost in during breathing meditation, such that they make an excellent guide without stressing the user.
Diaphragmatic breathing is easy to learn and can be mastered in a single session. However, it will take repeated sessions to strengthen your diaphragm enough to breathe this way for extended meditations.
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