WHAT IF I TOLD YOU that a single medicine could help regulate high blood pressure, food cravings, digestive complaints, hormonal imbalances, stress, poor immune function, and mental disorders would you believe me? And what if I told you that it only takes 10 minutes a day and was totally FREE?
Sounds like a miracle drug, right?
Deep breathing meditation has been used for centuries to improve physical, mental and spiritual health, as well as cultivating more confidence and happiness.
WHILE LIVING IN THAILAND FOR 8 MONTHS I attended a Vipassana meditation retreat. Picture this:
Ten days in complete silence with very little stimulus and 10 hours a day of meditation. This is where I started to learn how to sit, breath and be with silence.
When you go from sitting 10 minutes a day to 10 hours (not continuously), you learn a thing or two about what works for you. You get into a meditative state much quicker and find peace with the stillness.
But let me tell you, day 1-4 was really difficult. I was fidgety, bored, tired of waking up at 4am, and really sore. My back ached so much from sitting without back support for those 10 hours a day and from sleeping on a cement bed.
But as day 5 approached things got a bit easier. I was building a routine and strengthening my postural muscles.
In this article I’ll pass on my tips to help start you meditation practice. If you are already meditating and finding success, stick to it. For those who have never tried to meditate or think you don’t have time, this will be a great introduction for you.
Remember, your meditation is unique to you. Don’t feel disenchanted because you don’t think you’re “doing it right”. What ever comes up for you is where you need to be, even if it’s seemingly nothing.
This article will cover the following topics (feel free to jump ahead to a topic of interest by clicking on the links below):
- How can meditation help me?
- Breathing: a complex system simplified
- What is correct meditative posture?
- How to deep belly breath
- What should I be thinking about?
- When should I meditate?
- 5 steps to meditation
- Other kinds of meditation
The body is capable of enduring great amounts of stress for short periods of time, if it has a chance to rest and recover. Unfortunately, the current Western lifestyle consists of persistent low-level stressors with little chance to nourish our bodies and mind.
Your autonomic nervous system (the one you don’t consciously control) is divided into 2 systems:
- Sympathetic (fight or flight)
- Parasympathetic (rest and digest)
Your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is the one responsible for reacting to stressful situations. It’s when you are running away from a bear or have a work deadline due tomorrow and you’ve just started it.
STRESS. Can you feel your heart start beating a bit faster and your palms getting sweaty just thinking about it?
But your SNS is also engaged for smaller day-to-day concerns like: being late for work, thoughts of exercising and making dinner after a long day at work, dealing with your screaming children, and so on. All these seemingly small issues accumulate over time and with constant repetition. Your SNS needs a break. It needs to recover. And it does so by turning on your parasympathetic nervous system.
Your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is responsible for allowing you to have a deep restful sleep, digest and absorb the nutrients from your foods and beverages, and heal your body. Your PNS not only allows healing of physical injuries (ie. sore feet/back from working all day), but also mental, hormonal, neurological, cardiovascular, immune, and adrenal imbalances.
With all the stress encountered on a daily basis, no wonder so many people suffer from:
- high blood pressure
- mental disorders and illnesses
- anxiety and depression
- digestive issues and constipation
- caffeine addictions and negative habits
- diabetes, cravings and obesity
- recurrent infections, colds and flus
- hormonal imbalances (ie. thyroid, sexual, adrenal, cognitive, insulin)
Your PNS and SNS cannot be on at the same time. They oppose each other. Therefore, by turning on your PNS (ie. deep breathing meditation or walking in nature) you will calm down your stress signals and allow your body to heal and be nurtured.
Freedom of choice.
While meditation reduces stress and induces a relaxing state of mind, it also has significant effects on how the world is perceived and processed. Meditation increases your freedom to think and choose logically and not be driven by unreliable moods, desires and emotions.
For example, think about that chocolate cake sitting in the coffee shop window. Your mood and desires want that cake because it’s Friday and you’ve had a long, hard week. Now, if you took a few moments to reflect about what that piece of cake represents, you might find that:
- You haven’t been appreciated all week and you really want to reward yourself
- You feel tired because you don’t sleep well and are craving some immediate energy (ie. sugar)
- The immediate reward of sweetness is an easy distraction away from your long-term goals of health and vitality, which take a lot of consistent effort
- guilt makes you want to eat and suppress the feeling of shame
- You feel unattractive and it feels safer to hide rather than shine
- Food is comforting
- Food has been your only reliable “friend”
- You feel alone
- You feel unsupported
- You are missing physical touch and companionship
If these thoughts came out of wanting that piece of chocolate cake, you’d see that the deeper craving is for companionship and self-love. Instead of suppressing your urges for sweets, focus your energy on finding one supportive friend or partner who will help to remove the crutch that food represents.
The next step might be to recognize all the people who are supportive to you and foster those relationships; pay attention to positive people, situations and events in your life and cultivate more everyday; take the time to show yourself love and appreciation with choices that support a vibrant and healthy you; and finally, pass along the love to those around you.
Breathing is required by every living creature. For humans, air is inhaled from the atmosphere (~ 21% oxygen), which passes down your trachea (throat), into your lungs (via left and right bronchi), through the smaller branches of the lungs (bronchioles, alveoli) and finally oxygen (O2) gets into your bloodstream and is carried by your red blood cells (RBC) to the rest of your body and brain. This process is called the respiratory or pulmonary system.
The alveoli are found at the very end branches of the lungs and is where gas exchange occurs. Each bunch of alveoli are surrounded by capillaries, which are tiny arteries and veins. Oxygen (O2) that is inhaled exchanges for carbon dioxide (CO2), which is then exhaled in the breath.
Arteries and smaller arterioles are blood vessels that move away from the heart. They carry oxygenated blood cells that move with high force from the contractions of the heart to the rest of the body and brain.
However, in the lungs, pulmonary arteries and arterioles (denoted in blue) moving away from the heart are actually de-oxygenated before picking up O2 from the capillary system surrounding the alveoli (see image below).
Veins and smaller venules carry de-oxygenated blood (high amounts of CO2 and waste products) from the body back towards the heart. Veins lay closer to the surface of the skin and are the blood vessels you can see when you look at the backs of your hands or other body parts.
As we saw with arterioles, pulmonary veins and venules are actually oxygenated (denoted in red) and will be brought back to the heart so that it can be pumped to the rest of the body, as seen below:
In the lungs, we saw that O2 is exchanged for CO2. However, as CO2 is exhaled, there is a portion of “stale air” that remains at the base of the lungs. This is called residual air. Upon the next breath, a portion of the residual air mixes with the inhaled and oxygen-dense air to repeat the cycle.
When a breath is short and shallow more residual air remains and it has the potential to be a breeding ground for infections. The loss of lung expansion and elasticity is a contributing factor to many elderly people getting pneumonia.
This is one reason that deep diaphragmatic breathing is important.
Your diaphragm is a muscular sheet that divides the heart and lungs from your abdominal organs (stomach, intestines, liver, gallbladder, spleen, etc). Stress, poor posture, pregnancy and excess abdominal fat can reduce diaphragmatic movement, leading to limited lung expansion and increase residual air.
Here’s a quick 3D video presentation of diaphragmatic breathing:
Many people can recognize the classic lotus posture:
Seated on the floor, cross-legged, straight back, eyes closed, hands on the knees with the thumb and index fingers touching and blissfully unaware of the surroundings.
However, meditation could take the form of sitting in a chair, standing, walking, chanting or even doing yoga. We’ll talk more about the various kinds of meditation later. For now we will focus on a seated breathing meditation.
The posture you take on for your practice is your preference, but there are a few guidelines to allow full, deep and expansive breaths:
- Spine: following the natural double S curve of the spine without back support (read more here)
- Head: pointing straight forward with a slight double chin for alignment
- Eyes: closed and relaxed
- Shoulders: down and away from the ears
- Body: relaxed but not enough to fall asleep
Seated positions -when starting out, feel free to change positions and sit cross-legged or with the front leg in Burmese and the other leg bent behind the body.
Supportive pillow – sitting on a pillow can help take pressure off the knees when sitting in lotus or half-lotus.
Hand positions – there are many different positions with the hands. I usually keep my hands in my lap or touch my index finger to my thumb. Some of the meanings are below:
How do I deep belly breath?
Deep belly breathing or diaphragmatic breathing starts with proper posture to allow your lungs to expand fully to take in as much O2 and to exhale fully to limit the amount of residual air left in the lungs (see above for explanation).
Steps to deep belly breathing:
- Sit up tall with a comfortable posture (avoid slouching or leaning against a back rest, see above)
- Relax your muscles and close your eyes
- Slowly inhaling through your nose and feel your lungs expand outward
- Feel your diaphragm shift down and your belly will expand (you can place your hands on your belly for reference)
- Hold the inhale for a moment
- Begin a slow exhale through your nostrils or mouth
- Feel the air escape from your belly
- As your diaphragm shifts upwards you can feel your lungs deflate
- Force the last bits of residual air out of your lungs (tighten your belly and diaphragm) before starting the next inhalation
Meditation is about lack of thinking and more about awareness. It’s the same concept as hearing vs listening.
When I was living in South America, I could hear people speaking Spanish, but I couldn’t understand what they were saying and so I wasn’t listening to the meaning behind the words.
Awareness is about recognizing thoughts that pass in and out of your mind, without analyzing, critiquing, judging or trying to make sense of it. There are many things to begin focusing your attention on, but as a beginner the breath is first.
The most common forms of meditation are:
- Focused attention meditation (FAM)
- Open monitoring meditation (OMM)
- Loving kindness (or compassion) meditation (LKM)
FAM is typically the starting point for any novice meditator, in which the focus is on a chosen object or event (ie. breathing or a candle flame). Constant monitoring of concentration is required to avoid mind wandering .
Some common objects or events to focus on include:
- Visualizing the pathway of air while deep belly breathing (I’ll share with you my secret 5×5 method a little later on)
- Counting the seconds of each inhale and exhale and trying to lengthen each breath
- The sensation of air passing tip of your nose
- The sounds around you starting from closest proximity to farthest
- Visualizing the exchange of O2 and CO2 with the plants and trees beside you
- Visualizing colors or chakras within you
- A specific intention that you’d like to manifest (ie. love and compassion for yourself). Remember, we aren’t day dreaming here, so it’s best to create a short mantra to repeat.
Once practitioners are familiar with FAM and can easily sustain focused attention on an object for a considerable amount of time (ie. 30 min), they often progress to OMM. During OMM the focus becomes monitoring of awareness itself. In contrast to FAM, there is no object or event. The aim is rather to remain in the monitoring state, being attentive to any experience that might arise, without selecting, judging, or focusing on any particular object .
Loving-kindness meditation (LKM) incorporates elements of both FAM and OMM, whereby meditators develop love and compassion for themselves first and then gradually extend this love to ever more “unlikeable” others (e.g., from self to a friend, to someone one does not know, to all living beings). Any negative associations that might arise are to be replaced by positive ones .
It’s important to build a routine when first starting your meditation practice. I have to admit that my meditation practices have been on and off, but the times when I am most consistent is always when I build a structured routine.
I prefer a specific time of the day or associating it with an activity (ie. eating).
The ideal times to meditate are at the beginning and end of your day. It’s important to start your day grounded, calm and with purpose. At the end of my morning meditation I set a specific intention for the day (ie. I will have focus and clarity while I write). If I find myself getting off track while working, I will usually get up and take a short lap around the room, sit back down and repeat my mantra before starting up again.
Today’s morning mantra: “I will have focus and clarity while I write.“
The end of the day is a wonderful time to meditate and show gratitude. I will sometimes write in my gratitude journal or my partner (Jon) and I will share the things we are grateful for from the day, recent events or about each other.
As well, meditation is important to practice as times when your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) needs to function for ideal health. For example:
- Before you eat each meal. Take at least 3 deep, slow and purposeful breaths before you start eating any meal.
- While on the toilet. Practice sitting up tall and belly breathing, especially if you’re constipated instead of reading your Twitter messages
- Before you go to bed. And if you have trouble falling asleep, try putting on some ocean waves sounds.
- Before a stressful event. Anxiety and pressure can overtake even the most prepared athlete, speaker, student, manager or even groom. Practice your meditation to cultivate confidence and success.
- During stressful or traumatic events. This is the most challenging but also most beneficial time to take a few breaths to meditate and get clarity about your situation. Under SNS stress, there is no “thinking outside the box” or creative processes occurring and so self-destructive and negative thoughts are all that flood your mind. Taking a few deep breaths can allow you to formulate a plan and overcome the event with more clarity and logic.
- After a stressful or traumatic event. Meditating and reflecting just after a traumatic episode is important, but it is also wise to seek a counselor to discuss intense events as shock and PTSD can have long-term effects.
- When you’re out in nature. What better time to soak in all the fresh air, fragrances, sounds and sunlight than in nature.
As mentioned earlier, people with limited lung expansion, experiencing daily stress or have a health imbalance should especially practice deep belly breathing meditation on a daily basis:
- overweight, obese, strong cravings or diabetics
- with hormonal disregulation
- high blood pressure or history of stroke
- pregnant women
- lung infections or conditions, and smokers
- people with poor posture and weak back muscles
- mental disorders and illnesses, anxiety or depression
- digestive issues and constipation
- caffeine dependencies or negative habits and addictions
- recurrent infections, colds and flus
Below are my 5 most important steps to having success with your meditation. They are the tools that I use when I fall off of my practice. In addition, #5 lays out my 5×5 visualization technique that is easy to remember and apply in any situation. Just remember the #5!
5 Steps to the 5x5 Meditation Method
- Build a routine - use cues to help build your meditation habit (for example morning, meals, on the toilet and/or before bed).
- Start small - begin with taking 3 deep breaths before each meal, then build a time to practice your longer sittings. Set a timer and start with 10 minutes, then progress from there.
- Let go of expectations - one session may feel easy then the next difficult. Don't judge yourself. With consistent practice it will get easier, but depending on what is going on in your life (or in your head) different challenges will arise.
- Create your safe space - find or create a space to do your longer sittings. Get some comfortable pillows, fresh flowers or paint a room. It might be the corner of your bedroom, in a garden or even your bathroom. Find a quiet and comfortable place where you won't be distracted.
- Count your breathes with the 5x5 method - inhale for a count of 5 then exhale for a count of 5; continue counting and begin to- slow down, the counts. I like using visual imagery to help with my meditation, and to make things easy for you, the breath will follow the pattern of... you guessed it, #5.
Visualize each count as you draw out the #5 within your body using your breath:
- the breath passes your nostrils into the back of your throat (larynx).
- air passes down your throat and into your lungs.
- the breath begins to fill your belly with a focus at the belly button.
- the path follows under your naval towards your spine.
- finally hold the breath for a moment, while your core becomes strong and fills your back and sides.
Exhalation – the reverse pathway
- the breath concentrates from the sides to your spine.
- air flows up and forward to the front of the body and belly button.
- it continues to wrap over your abdomen towards the diaphragm.
- the breath makes it way up your throat.
- and finally out of the nose
I mentioned previously that meditation can take many different forms. It isn’t always focusing on breathing or even in a seated posture. I recommend trying various practices to see which one is most helpful and appealing for you. I enjoy doing a combination of seated 5×5 breathing meditation, elongated exhalations, walking meditation, yoga, setting intentions in the mornings, and gratitude reflections at night.
Here are some examples of the endless forms of meditation:
Alternating nostril breaths
Elongated exhalation – try inhaling for 2 seconds then exhale for a count of 4. Then increase the inhale by 1 second (3 sec) and exhale for 6. Continue increasing the length of your inhale and doubling your exhale.
This is one of my most frequently used breathing techniques, especially before going into a stressful event (ie. competition, exam or meeting) and falling asleep.
Laughing meditation – read more here.
Walking meditation – the image below is the 5-step walking meditation with the mantra I say to myself with each breath.
Gratitude reflections – try using a guided meditation or gratitude journal (learn more here)
Chanting – learn more about what the various Buddhist chanting and Indian Yoga chanting.
Yoga – there are many forms of yoga, here are the 8 main categories:
- Anusara yoga in a newer yoga practice that combines physically challenging poses with a playful spirit.
- Ashtanga yoga follows the same sequence of poses that are physically challenging and demanding.
- Bikram or hot yoga uses an artificially heated room to make you sweat through the series of 26 poses.
- Hatha yoga is a good introduction to the basic postures in yoga.
- Lyengar yoga is a meticulous form of yoga focusing on absolutely perfect form. This is as much mentally challenging as physically.
- Restorative yoga is relaxing and rejuvenating for the mind and body. The relaxing poses allows for the benefits of yoga without adding more stress to your day.
- Vinyasa “flow” yoga is known for it’s fluid, movement-intensive practices that add a bit of variation to each class.
Doing yoga with a group of people is a powerful meditative practice. However, consistency is more important. Do Yoga With Me is a great site that offers free yoga videos for all levels.
Guided meditations- some examples:
- Beginner deep belly breathing with basic stretches and relaxation – Emily Gia George
- Yoga Nidra – Thailand Yoga
- Kundalini 7 Chakras – How Far Can You See
- Deep Sleep Meditation (floating) – Jason Stephenson
Other websites and resources to check out:
- Health Journeys – guided meditation music to purchase for various situations and conditions
- Calm – free nature meditation sounds
- Mindfulness -Andy Puddicombe (Head Space)