When you start talking about breathing a lot of peoples eyes start to roll back in their heads as they expect you to suddenly become some sort of mystical sage.
What people expect when you start to talk about breathing.
So instead I looked for some recent evidenced based material about good diaphragmatic breathing. I found an excellent pamphlet by Guys and St Tomas' NHS Trust that supports all of what I wanted to say about abdominal breathing.
"Breathing is one of the most important and vital acts we do. Our breathing alters in pattern and rhythm at different times of the day and in different emotional states, for example sighing in despair, panting with exhaustion, holding our breath in fear and terror. Breathing is one of the few bodily processes that can either be voluntary or involuntary. Breathing can take place automatically without thinking about it, or we can alter it consciously and at will. Because of this unique relationship between our thinking and bodily processes, our breathing pattern can play a deciding role in how much we are affected by stress."
This is so great to see in Western medical literature. The relationship between the breath and the mind is key for exactly the reason stated. That is why working with the breath is such a good preparation for working directly with the mind in seated meditation. They continue:
There are two main types of breathing: chest breathing abdominal (or diaphragmatic) breathing.
This type of breathing is characterised by an upward and outward movement of the chest and is found most commonly during vigorous exercise, or emergency situations. If we constantly use chest breathing, it can make the body tense, as if it is under stress. This is because the activated upper chest muscles increase feelings of anxiety.
Abdominal (or diaphragmatic) breathing
The diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle, which separates our chest and abdomen. When we breathe in the diaphragm tightens, flattens and moves down, sucking air into the lungs. As the diaphragm moves down, it pushes the abdominal contents down, which forces the abdominal wall out. When we breathe out the diaphragm relaxes, air passes out of the lungs and the abdominal wall flattens. This type of breathing has two important effects on the body:
A. It is in itself relaxing compared to the ‘emergency mode’ breathing of the upper chest, which is an integral part of ‘fight or flight’ response to a stressful situation (see the Stress management leaflet for more information).
B. It is typical of the regenerating processes such as when you are asleep, digesting food or the body is at peace. You can see it in the way babies and children breathe
This is just so perfectly and succinctly put that I struggle to improve on it! (hence why I quoted this section in full). We want both of these benefits, we want to be able to tap into the parasympathetic rest state to heal, de-stress and recover whilst we are standing. This is why abdominal breathing is the perfect breathing method for standing and other meditative practices.
I would also add there is a third type of breathing common in martial arts which is the reverse breath. This is the type of breathing you naturally do if you were asked to lift something heavy like push a car or pick up a sofa. More on this another time as it has uses in martial arts and in lifting big weights (two things I like).
Lets do it
Ok so know we know what type of breathing we need and why we should be doing it, now we need to practice. It is actually easier to connect with your breathing when you are lying down at first. Being in that fully yin relaxed state that we normally sleep in helps release habitual tension we tend to carry when we are standing. In the taiji classics it says:
"First separate then combine"
I like this as a general piece of training advice. Break it down, get good at each step and then build it up. So first of all we will do some breath work lying down. Then we will add it to our standing practice at a later stage.
1) Lie down somewhere warm, comfortable and flat (preferably a hard but carpeted surface).
2) Bring your knees up to about 45 degrees. Place you hands on your abdominal region. This will make sure the lower back is in contact with the floor and bring our mindful attention to this region.
3) Bring your attention to your breathing. Just notice what it is doing and do not force anything. DO NOT FORCE ANYTHING.
4) Now just bring your awareness to you abdomen and see if it expands when you inhale and relaxes when you exhale. Again dont try to force it, just bring your attention there and see what happens. Keep your breath slow, calm, even and long (but again without forcing it).
5) At first just practice 10 breaths, in your own time at your own pace.
Over time the depth and fullness of breath will increase naturally. You can add a few more repetitions each time you practice. Once you feel that the breath is deep, full, long, even and coming from the abdominal area you are ready to start the same drill again from the beginning in the standing posture. Take it slow, don't force anything and have fun breathing.