How breathwork can supercharge your meditation practice


Here at MindOwl, we know the very real and transformative benefits of meditation. Meditation is proven to lower blood pressure, improve sleep and help us cope with feelings of anxiety and depression – but it is not the only thing we should be focussing on in our search for real and lasting happiness. The incorporation of breathwork into our meditation routines is essential for those of us wanting to experience a sense of inner calm and peace in our bodies, as well as our minds. The style of breathing most of us have been engaging with since the day we were born is very useful in keeping us alive, but it hasn’t gone much further than that. The truth is, the breath is one of our greatest assets for finding inner calm – and most of us don’t even realise this! As breathwork becomes a more popular topic of research amongst Western science there have been some bold claims that it can give the same results as meditation, and with fewer frustrations. However, we see it as the first step to getting in touch with our bodies and our minds, and a vital addition to our meditation routines.

What is breathwork?

You may never have given much thought to the way you breathe, after all, it is a function of the body that we have little say over. Our breath continues instinctively whether we are awake or asleep, and reacts reliably to our changes in emotions. For example, if we are feeling calm and relaxed our breathing will reflect this by remaining slow and steady, whereas if we are feeling anxious or overwhelmed our breath might become faster and shallower. As I said, these changes in our breathing are something we can all relate to – although we may never have realised that we could reverse the cause and effect and actually use our breath to change our emotions. Specially designed breathwork exercises can affect huge changes in our mood, as well as coming with loads of health benefits.

What you’re looking to do with breathwork is one of three things, either you can practise exercises that will calm us down, energise us or work to balance us. Each type works closely with the autonomic nervous system to either engage our parasympathetic nervous system (which will calm us down), the sympathetic nervous system (which will energies us), or find that balance between both systems. There are two elements of the respiratory functions that we need to take advantage of to achieve any one of these results – the Vagus nerve and our CO2 tolerance. In a moment we’ll discuss these two features a little bit further, but first I’ll explain a little bit about why breathwork is so important to your meditation routine.

Why do you need breathwork as part of your meditation routine?

Meditation does wonders for your mental and physical health, but it can often be frustrating. Our minds wander, our bodies get tired of sitting with perfect posture and we can often be led to believe that meditation just isn’t for us. If this sounds like you, starting out with breathwork could be the answer to all your meditation problems. The breath is a big part of meditation, but when we isolate it and work solely on breathwork until we feel comfortable with our progress, this control can revolutionise our meditation routine. We will discuss the exact science behind our breath and how we can physically change our mental state through control of the breath next, but first let’s talk a little bit about why breathwork is so important as part of meditation.

By controlling your breath you can calm your body, energise it, or help it find balance. When this skill is applied to meditation it can be very helpful in easing you into your routine. By using the breath to calm your body and your mind you will be far more prepared to practise meditation with fewer distracting thoughts, and a greater connection to your thoughts and emotions. It isn’t that you can’t achieve a sense of calm and peace in meditation without first mastering your breath, but the likelihood is that you will struggle to start your practice and therefore be more likely to give up on it.

The goal with breathwork is to ultimately combine it with your meditation routine. However, if you are currently struggling to do this, or to meditate in general it might be a good idea to focus solely on breathwork for a while until you start to feel confident in this practise, and then try developing a combined routine.

CO2 and the Vagus nerve

Automatically when we start discussing the breath, many of your minds will go directly to oxygen. Of course, we all know that when we inhale we are taking in oxygen, whereas when we exhale we are expelling CO2. You might have assumed then, that as a waste product of this system CO2 is not something that has any real effect on how our breathing might change our emotions. I wouldn’t blame you, and yet that assumption would be entirely wrong The importance of CO2 is very rarely discussed. That’s why we’re really going to explore its importance here and help you to understand how breathwork uses CO2 to improve our emotions and supercharge our meditation routine.

CO2 works by dilating our blood vessels, relaxing and dilating the respiratory passages and increasing our O2 absorption – it is just as important a part of our breathing as oxygen. Quite often when we breathe we are removing too much CO2, this is caused mainly by the busy and stressful lives we live; on average we breathe in and out 10-12 times a minute, whereas studies have identified that 5.5 times (rounded up to 6) is the ideal number of breaths per minute. So when we are feeling anxious and begin to hyperventilate, although we feel breathless we are actually drawing in too much oxygen and expelling too much carbon dioxide. The outcome of this is the shrinkage of our blood vessels and the resulting lack of blood reaching our extremities (this is why you might experiences tingling fingers or toes if you are stressed) and our brains (which is why we can feel light-headed when we are stressed). This draws us to the conflicting conclusion that when we begin to feel stressed and panicked our bodies response is to breathe in a way that will actually increase our feelings of panic further, whereas what we are actually in need of is more CO2.

In our courses, we introduce you to a number of exercises that can build your CO2 tolerance, and help to calm you down when you start to feel panicked or stressed. These exercises are better demonstrated than described so we won’t discuss the details of them any further here; the important thing to note is that our understanding of the relationship between our emotions and CO2 is often misrepresentative of the importance CO2 holds in our respiratory system, as well as our meditation practise.

The Vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve in our bodies, it interacts with the respiratory system, as well as the digestive system and our hearts. By stimulating the Vagus nerve we are sending a signal to our brains that we are safe. This signal is then communicated to the rest of our body and our parasympathetic nervous system can continue in the ‘rest and digest’ mode.

Some techniques of stimulating the Vagus nerve include:

·       Laughing.

·       Reciting words or phrases in a high resonance( like a mantra)

·       Diaphragm breathing.

·       Holding your breath.

·       Nasal breathing.

·       Slow, relaxed exhalations.

Conclusion

Breathwork exercises a very beneficial to our health and wellbeing, however, they should only be attempted under proper instruction. There are many options on where you can take these instructions; videos on YouTube and breathwork apps are two examples that come to mind immediately. Like so many things in our modern world, the enormous variety of options may actually be hindering our best intentions as we don’t know what will work best for us, or who is trustworthy. At MindOwl we have spent over seven years exploring the relationship between meditation and breathwork, and have designed a course that will teach you how to bring the two together in a way that is compatible with your current lifestyle. In our courses, we talk you through a number of different breathwork exercises, alongside the benefits and how you can use them so that you have a choice of practices that will complement your needs.  

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Filipe Bastos

About the author

Through my personal experiences, I have always held a strong interest in human suffering and satisfaction; this greatly influenced my career path. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy before completing a master’s degree in psychology at Regent’s University London. I then completed a postgraduate diploma in philosophical counselling before being trained in ACT(Acceptance and commitment therapy). I've spent the last seven years studying the encounter of meditative practices with modern psychology. I've found that besides the known benefits meditation can bring to our lives, such as reduced stress and anxiety, improved quality of sleep, decreased blood pressure; the greatest benefit of meditation is the possibility to feel at peace, despite the external circumstances of our lives.

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