During my first breathwork session, the teacher warned us newcomers that we might experience strange movements of energy through the body. She advised that our hands might clench up awkwardly, or perhaps our faces or our toes. It wasn’t a warning to concern us; it was to prepare us for the unknown.
Despite having plenty of experience with mindfulness and meditation, I had never participated in a full hour of breathwork. The first thought that rose when I heard her advisory was a skeptical one:
‘Surely nothing strange is going to happen.’
We settled into the session with a grounding meditation, resting on our backs. Then, we began breathing in the way we had been instructed to. At first, very little moved within me, aside from the rhythmic flow of air into and out of my belly and chest. Soon, however, I began to feel it: a weightiness in my legs, the sensation of an egg cracking gently atop my head, pulses throughout various other parts of the body. Emotions, too, passed through, rising not from my conscious mind. It felt unusual, but it was nothing alarming or threatening so I continued to breathe for the rest of the session.
The session proceeded until its end, at which point I was at a loss for words. I had practiced pranayama before but never a single practice of this duration – and nothing that resulted in such powerful movements of energy and emotion.
So what was happening? Why was my breath sparking such energetic and emotional movements?
As we discussed afterwards, it seemed that much of our experiences would boil down to one major respiration muscle: the diaphragm.
The Power of the Diaphragm
I came to learn that the diaphragm – the muscle separating the thoracic and abdominal cavities – is deeply interconnected with our emotions. In Chinese Medicine, this muscle is believed to be a barrier between our conscious and unconscious emotions. Engaging this muscle (as we did during this breathwork session) can lead to a release of trapped energies, rising as both emotional currents and physical sensations within the body. As these energies are released, we are able to soften. We come back to our innate sense of inner peace and balance.
Diaphragmatic breathing is also referred to as belly breathing. A sign that we are breathing in this way is that the belly will rise and fall with each breath while the chest remains relatively still. Though the breathwork technique we used in this particular session also involved a filling of the chest, the importance was still in the diaphragm.
Unfortunately, we don’t tend to breathe this way through most of life. Instead, we tend to breathe only shallowly into the chest. Stress and difficult emotions contribute to the lack of depth in our breath. When we are tense or experiencing an emotion that makes us want to tighten up, the body’s stress response kicks in and the breath loses its depth. The diaphragm becomes rigid, storing tension and tough emotions within it. When we practice mindful belly breathing, we ease the stress response. Stored emotions then have a chance to be released and stress is enabled to soften.
The relationship between our emotions and stress levels and our diaphragm is a two-way street. Our breath influences what we feel in the mental and emotional bodies, just as our thoughts and emotions have the capacity to deepen or restrict the breath. Mindfulness of breath is the first step towards nourishing this dynamic and intimate relationship.
The Art of Mindful Breathing
Not all breathing sessions are as powerful as the one I experienced. When led by a knowledgeable and experienced facilitator, energies may certainly stir. Even in personal, at-home practices, deep, mindful breathing can bring things to the surface in healing and transformative ways. It’s certainly advised to be cautious with longer, more intense breathwork practices when practicing on one’s own, especially in cases of past trauma.
However, we can slowly and subtly delve into this work by practicing the art of breathing. So, where does that begin?
The art of breathing begins with our attention. The more attuned we are with the breath, the easier it becomes to release tension and tightness in both body and mind.
Attunement to the breath call for our open awareness, or mindfulness. Before we begin shifting the breath in any way, we are invited to simply become aware of its natural presence and innate wisdom. We can tune in through a simple mindful breathing practice:
- Find a comfortable seated or lying down position. Straighten the back and soften the shoulders as you close the eyes and draw your attention towards the breath. Take your time to arrive here.
- Without trying to change it in any way, note how the breath feels as it enters and exits the body. Without judgment, consider: how deep does it flow? What sensations are attached to its rhythm? Let your enquiry soften as you simply follow its flow, become aware of where it naturally shifts on its own.
- Spend five to ten minutes watching the breath in this way, taking your time to witness and honor its simplicity. Notice what thoughts arise, remaining compassionate towards your experience.
Mindful breathing is really that simple. However, the more we practice it, the more layers of our experience we’re able to uncover. Mindful breathing provides us with an opportunity to pay attention to the thoughts, emotions, and beliefs that rise in body and mind when our attention to the outside world softens. It is in this open awareness that powerful insights and personal transformation begin.
Deepening Through the Breath
Deepening the breath through diaphragmatic breathing is a step beyond the basic mindful breath. For beginners, it is best practiced lying down. During a seated belly breathing practice, it’s more difficult to sense the rise and fall of the belly alone.
- Come to a comfortable position resting on your back. Soften the shoulders, the arms, and the legs and then place one hand on the stomach and the other hand on the chest.
- Begin to breathe slowly and steadily, allowing the hand that rests on top of the belly to be the one that moves. If the upper hand moves slightly as well, this is okay. The majority of the movement, however, should be in the lower hand.
- Practice this for five minutes to begin with. As you become more comfortable with this breathing technique, you can begin to lengthen your practice.
Learning to deepen the breath is not just a physical practice, as we know by now. The breath and body are intricately interwoven; changes in one stir changes in the other. By engaging the diaphragm in the way it is meant to be worked, we begin to counteract our habitual ways of breathing, feeling, and thinking. As we transform the breath gently and mindfully, we begin to shift what lives in the inner world, too – one belly breath at a time.
Gillian Florence Sanger is a writer, poet, and yoga and meditation teacher. Through her work with Mindfulness Exercises, she aims to uncover ever-deeper layers of soul and psyche.
Image courtesy of Grant Richie.