The breath is a critical part of meditation. But because it’s also an automatic function of the body that we don’t even have to think to do, it can also be a confusing part of meditation.
You wonder why it matters how you breathe. You question if slowing or deepening your breath really makes a difference. You wonder if there’s something wrong with you if you breathe slower or faster than the instructor describes.
You wonder how you can breathe into your belly when the air goes into your lungs — especially since you’re pretty sure the two aren’t connected.
Questions about the breath are common for beginning meditators. You want to make the most of this new thing you’re doing.
So let’s go over some of the most common questions I hear about the breath when it comes to meditation.
What is a “cleansing breath?”
You’ll often hear a meditation teacher tell you to begin your meditation by taking a deep, cleansing breath? But what does that mean? Are you supposed to inhale bleach or dish soap?
Imagine this: you’ve been working outside all day. You’re hot, sweaty, covered in a layer of dirt and grime, and exhausted. You go inside, strip down, and step in the shower. You scrub your body and your hair, sending the sweat, dirt and grime swirling down the drain with the soap and shampoo suds.
How do you feel after you step out of the shower? Refreshed? Clean? A little energized?
That’s what a cleansing breath does for you. After spending hours or the whole day perhaps never taking a deep breath, a deep breath can make you feel refreshed, clean and energized.
A cleansing breath is about taking a full, deep breath all the way into your belly.
Try this: Lie down and rest your hands on your belly. Exhale fully. Now inhale as you count slowly to four. Feel your belly rise beneath your hands and your ribcage expand with the breath. Hold this breath as you count to two.
Now exhale as you count slowly to four. Feel your belly sink beneath your hands. Feel the air leave your belly, your ribs, your lungs. Breathe out all the air you can.
That is a cleansing breath.
You can do this at the beginning of a meditation. You can also do 5–10 anytime throughout the day when you’re feeling stressed, tired, or tense.
I can’t breathe through my nose, is that okay?
Breathing through the nose is good for many reasons. One, it warms the air as it enters your body. Two, it keeps your mouth from drying out with the air coming in and out. And three, there are tiny hairs inside your nose that catch things in the air and keep them out of your body.
It also tends to be quieter than breathing through your mouth.
But sometimes breathing through the nose just isn’t possible. Allergies or a cold might have you congested so you can’t breathe through your nose at all. Or one nostril might be blocked so you don’t feel you’re getting enough air if you breathe through your nose.
While it is ideal to breathe through your nose, if it’s not possible, then go ahead and breathe through your mouth.
If you’d like to breathe through your nose, but you’re dealing with allergy or illness congestion, you can try using a neti pot before your practice. This can help clear out the muck that’s blocking your air flow, at least temporarily, and help you breathe more easily through your nose.
I breathe slower/faster than the instructor! What should I do?
During some meditations, the instructor will tell you to take a deep breath in, hold, and exhale. They space their words out, maybe even count, to help you see how long you should be taking for each part of the breath.
This is one way that meditation teachers are similar to school teachers: we have to find a pace that doesn’t bore the faster students (cause fast breathers to hold their breath) while not making the slower students feel pressured (cause slower breathers to breathe too fast).
If you find that when you try to follow the instructor’s guidance, you can’t breathe at that pace without holding your breath, breathing more deeply than physically possible for you, or breathing too fast, don’t worry about it.
The guidance is meant to be just that: guidance. What we want you to take from our instruction is that you should be breathing slowly and deeply. If your slow and deep breath is faster or slower than mine, or the person next to you or behind you, that’s fine, as long as it’s slow and deep for you.
If you are working with an instructor who tries to tell you otherwise, reconsider the instructor. Remember that meditation should relax and soothe you. Being forced to breathe in a way that’s uncomfortable just to match someone else is not going to help you relax or feel soothed.
I sometimes hear I should exhale longer than I inhale. What’s the deal with that?
Sometimes you will hear a meditation teacher tell you to make your exhale longer than your inhale. It’s not just some weird thing to confuse you. There is an actual reason behind it.
Your nervous system has two parts: the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. The sympathetic nervous system is the part that handles the “fight or flight” response when you’re stressed. It helps you deal with stressful situations by shutting down parts of your body that don’t support dealing with the stressful situation at hand, such as digestion or body waste.
The parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, is your body’s “rest and digest” response, making you feel relaxed and rested. It stimulates good digestion and slows your heart rate, among other things.
When you breathe deeply, you’re signaling to your nervous system that everything is okay. You’re cuing the sympathetic nervous system to take a break and the parasympathetic nervous system to take over. When you exhale, your heart relaxes just little more. By making your exhales longer, your heart spends more time in that relaxed mode, further signaling your body to relax and rest.
If you’ve never done it because you didn’t get it, give it a try. Just exhale a couple of beats longer than you inhale. See how it makes you feel.
Alternate nostril, Bee, Victorious — what’s with all these different kinds of breaths?
You hear about these kinds of breathing more in yoga than meditation, but now and then you will hear a meditation teacher talk about them too. Breathwork, or pranayama, plays a role in both.
You can change your state of mind simply by changing your breath. If you don’t believe that, consider for a moment what your breath does when you’re in different states of mind.
If you’re angry, you’ll start to breathe fast. You might breathe through your mouth, or you might breathe through your nose loudly. If you’re nervous or stressed, you’ll breathe shallow and fast. When you’re straining to do something, you might hold your breath.
If the link exists for your mood to cause you to breathe differently, then it only makes sense that the link also allows you to consciously change how you breathe and thus, change your mood.
There are several different breathwork practices including bee and victorious, that create different energies. Bee breath, for example, can improve sleep, lower heart rate and blood pressure and reduce anxiety.
There are some breathwork practices that you do need to use caution with. For example, breath of fire should be avoided by pregnant women, and anyone with anxiety, high blood pressure and some eye conditions.
If you’re interested in exploring different breathwork practices, it’s a good idea to work with a meditation or yoga teacher to ensure that you practice them safely and correctly.
I feel like one nostril is always congested when I try to do breathwork. But any other time, I’m fine. Can I do anything about that?
Nope. That’s actually something called the nasal cycle. We tend to notice it more often when we’re congested from a cold or allergies, but as you do breathwork and get more in touch with your breath and your body, you become more familiar with it too.
The nasal cycle is both complex and simple. In simplest terms, your body trades off which nostril is dominant every so often — anywhere from every half hour to as much as 8 hours. On a normal day, when you’re feeling good and not really paying attention to your breath, you don’t notice. You feel like you’re breathing equally in both nostrils.
If you’re congested from a cold or allergies, though, you notice it because when the congested nostril is the dominant one, you feel like you can’t breathe well. When you start doing breathwork and becoming more in tune with your breath, you’ll start to have that feeling like you’re often congested in one nostril.
It’s normal and there’s nothing you can really do to change it.
Other questions? Let me know!
If you have other questions about breathwork, meditation, or self-care in any form, let me know! As a meditation teacher, my job is to encourage you to take the time to take care of yourself. Tell me what you need to know to start meditating or engaging in breathwork. I want to help.
Got a tip of your own to share? Feel free to respond! We’d all love to know.
Wendy Miller is a freelance relationship writer & meditation teacher. After years of settling for abusive and otherwise toxic relationships, she got fed up. Using meditation and other tools, she got to work on healing herself, setting boundaries, and only engaging in relationships (romantic and otherwise) that bring her joy. She wants to help other single parents find the love they seek, including and going beyond romantic love. She lives in Florida with her two sons, where she homeschools while solo parenting, while surrounded by what feels like a zooful of animals.
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