When I first started practicing meditation, my teacher taught me that the breath—ever-present and unconditional—is the link between body and mind. When we place our full attention on the breath, we pull ourselves out of the past, away from the future, and directly into the present moment. Or at least that’s how the common instruction goes. But using the breath to enter the proverbial here-and-now is easier said than done.
The first few times I sat to meditate, I tried to focus on the steady rise and fall of the chest and the sensation of the air passing in and out through the nostrils. When my mind wandered away, I noted the distraction and returned my attention back to the breath. It didn’t take long for me to notice that my inhalations felt short and shallow, like I wasn’t taking in very much air. I also experienced tightness and congestion in my chest and throat. These sensations weren’t surprising—my breathing had been fraught since I was a kid. Growing up, I often experienced scary bouts of shortness of breath and wheezing. I managed these breathing issues by distracting myself and avoiding the activities that aggravated them. As I got older, I hoped they would go away on their own.
Related: Receiving the Breath
Alas, as I progressed with my meditation practice, the distressed breathing remained right there to greet me. Coming face-to-face with my breathing did not bring me into the coveted present moment; it dredged up memories of coughing during soccer practice and waking up in the middle of the night gasping for air. I began to lose faith in my ability to meditate. With my breath causing so much anxiety, how could I ever use it to deepen my practice?
Around this time I began to study pranayama, a yogic discipline that offers many different techniques for steadying and controlling the breath. I discovered two very useful practices to prepare for meditation. These techniques are especially helpful for those who feel anxious or feel tightness in their chests and air passages. Both practices can bring equanimity to the breath and a sensation of expansiveness to the chest, preparing one to sit in a steady and composed manner.
Related: Working and Playing with the Breath
Stabilize the Breath with Equal-Part Breathing
Prolonged anxiety and stress can cause irregular breathing patterns like sighing, yawning, and huffing. As these disruptive habits find their way into our meditation practice, we may discover it very difficult to steady the mind. To reestablish balanced breathing prior to meditation, try the following modified practice of sama vrtti, or equal-part breathing.
In sama vrtti, we produce inhalations that last the same duration as exhalations. To begin, sit up very tall in order to lengthen your torso as much as possible. Take a deep breath in through the nose and exhale, also entirely through the nose. Then start to inhale through the nose as you count up to four, stretching your inhalation all the way to the end of the count at a pace that feels comfortable to you. As you exhale through the nose, count to four again at the same pace, stretching your exhalation all the way to the end. Repeat this cycle several times or for as long as you need until you begin to feel the breath evening out.
Create Space with a Three-Part Breath
I’ve found that the practice of viloma, sometimes described as a three-part breath, can alleviate sensations of restriction in the chest and torso. In viloma, a practitioner alternately deepens and pauses her inhalation for short periods of time, which encourages the chest and rib cage to gradually expand.
To begin, either sit very upright or recline on your back. Take a few deep, even, and steady breaths. Then slowly inhale over a count of three, drawing in your breath so much that the lower abdomen expands. After the third count, hold the breath for two counts. Then, inhale into the lungs and lower chest for another three counts, feeling the rib cage expand outward. Hold the breath for another two counts. Now, inhale for another three counts, filling the very upper region of the chest just below the collarbone. Hold the breath for five counts. Then, over a ten-count exhalation, slowly and evenly release the breath through the nose. Repeat this cycle several more times, continuing at a pace that feels comfortable to you.
After many cycles of this practice, the breath gets deeper and the chest feels more open. That sensation of spaciousness in the body produces a similar effect on the mind: thoughts will seem less congested and tangled than they did prior to the exercise.
When we’re trying to meditate, the breath—especially if it’s labored or irregular—can feel like yet another hurdle to clear. After much practice, I’ve learned that difficulty in breathing isn’t reason to move away from the practice or to give up. It is, rather, the best opportunity to become more intimate with the breath. It’s also a reminder for us to take the time we need to prepare the body for meditation. By doing so, we invite the breath to become our closest ally—one we can rely on to inform us about and eventually lead us back to the spaciousness right here and now.
[This story was first published in 2015.]