Breathing Techniques for Meditation
Pranayama means conscious breath work. It is the practice of breathing intentionally. As human beings, the breath is the most present thing that we have. It is a tool that bridges the gap between mind and body, and we always have access to it.
The breath can be used to quell anxious feelings, calm down the physical body, and slow down thoughts. It can also be used to heat up the body and energize a person. There are countless breathing techniques that are intended to achieve countless goals. Today, we will focus on a few calm breathing techniques for meditation.
Meditation is a mental practice of slowing down, letting go, and allowing oneself to simply exist. Eventually, all thoughts disappear and one can just be. For most, this is an extremely difficult state to reach. Even if you are never quite able to get there, know that the process of trying, the journey, is still considered meditation and it is still beneficial for the brain. An integral part of that journey is a strong pranayama practice.
Here are 3 different pranayama practices you can use in your meditation, starting with the simplest.
- Kaki Breath. Kaki breath is a style of pranayama that uses the shape of your lips and mouth to force your exhale to be longer in duration than your inhale. This is a common goal in many pranayama practices because it activates the parasympathetic nervous system and the brain begins to tell the body to calm down. Here’s how you do it: From either a seated or reclined position, take a deep inhale through your nose. Purse your lips as if you were whistling or blowing through a straw and exhale out of your mouth with a force that feels natural to you (i.e. do not blow very hard). Do this for as long as you’d like, attempting to make each breath a little deeper and a little slower than the one before it. You will notice that your exhales naturally become longer than your inhales because there is less surface area for the air to leave your body.
- 1:2 Ratio Breathing. Ratio breathing requires more concentration than Kaki breath because there is counting involved and the breath slowly builds. It is a process rather than a constant practice. The goal is to build the exhale so that it is twice as long as the inhale. This breath is great for the beginning of a meditation practice because it forces the brain to focus on counting, which allows the mind to let go of other thoughts. Typically, this breath isn’t used throughout the entire duration of a meditation practice because usually the goal is to not think about anything, which would include thoughts about the breath. You can start with this pranayama until you find that the 1:2, inhale:exhale ratio becomes effortless and counting is no longer required. Here’s how it works: Start by inhaling through the nose to a count of 4. Hold the breath at the top of your inhale for a count of 1, then exhale through the nose to a count of 4. Hold the breath at the bottom of your exhale for a count of 1. All counts from here on out remain the same except the exhale, which will grow 1 extra count for each breath until you get to 8. This count does not have to be in seconds. It can be any increment of time that is comfortable for you. Just make sure your increments are consistent. Once you are at a 4:8 inhale to exhale, continue with that ratio for several breaths. The process will look like this:
- Breath 1: Inhale 4, hold 1, exhale 4, hold 1
- Breath 2: Inhale 4, hold 1, exhale 5, hold 1
- Breath 3: Inhale 4, hold 1, exhale 6, hold 1
- Breath 4: Inhale 4, hold 1, exhale 7, hold 1
- Breath 5 and on: Inhale 4, hold 1, exhale 8, hold 1
- Square Breath. The square breath heavily focuses on something called kumbhaka, which refers to the spaces between inhales and exhales, where the breath is not moving. This breath is entirely through the nose and like ratio breathing, it is a building process. Square breath has an end goal of all four parts of the breath becoming equal in duration. Those four parts are 1 – the inhale, 2 – the hold at the top of the inhale, 3 – the exhale, and 4 – the hold at the bottom of the exhale. With this breath, we focus on counting the kumbhaka, starting low and gradually increasing. You can think of this breath with an image in your head of a rectangle, with each line being one of the four parts of the breath. Eventually, that rectangle morphs into a square as each line becomes the same length. It could look something like this:
- Breath 1: Inhale 4, hold 1, exhale 4, hold 1
- Breath 2: Inhale 4, hold 1, exhale 4, hold 1
- Breath 3: Inhale 4, hold 2, exhale 4, hold 2
- Breath 4: Inhale 4, hold 2, exhale 4, hold 2
- Breath 5: Inhale 4, hold 3, exhale 4, hold 3
- Breath 6: Inhale 4, hold 3, exhale 4, hold 3
- Breath 7 and on: Inhale 4, hold 4, exhale 4, hold 4 (keep going with this count)
As you practice these breathing exercises, note what happens in your body and in your mind. Try not to go into the process with any expectations of how it will effect you, but rather be open to any possibility. Allow yourself to be curious as you observe what happens internally. If you notice that you start to create judgements and assessments, try to bring it back to objective observations. Eventually, you might get into such a flow that there is no longer anything left to observe.