With so much going on around us and inside us—from the busy pace of life, to political turmoil, to changes in our own bodies as we age—it often seems like there’s hardly any time to just sit, breathe and empty our minds of worry.
But that’s where meditation and breathing practice come in, which in addition to the opportunity to slow down and rest also offer numerous health benefits.
Madeline Ebelini, a stress reduction educator and teacher of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program in Bonita Springs, Florida, lists benefits that include improved sleep, reduced hypertension and blood pressure, a strengthened immune system and reduced anxiety.
If you choose to meditate, there are many different practices to choose from, some with religious roots and some that are entirely secular. No matter which you choose, it’s important to remember that “mindfulness is not about trying to ‘get’ anywhere other than where you are,” Ebelini says. “It’s about ‘being,’ not ‘doing.’”
Meditation for Uncertain Times
Because meditation is inwardly focused, it can make you more aware of what’s happening inside the body and mind. This allows you a time of pause before you react in the midst of a stressful experience.
“Pay attention to how your body is responding,” Ebelini says. “Notice if there is an emotion present that you can name and name it: anger, anxiety, hopelessness, fear. Notice what is going on in your mind. What is the mind doing with this information?”
Oftentimes, our default response to stress is to find a quick solution and take immediate action. While this might work if we’re confronted with a tiger charging at us, it’s less useful if stress is caused by something more abstract like politics or workplace deadlines.
“You may discover that your mind is in search of immediate answers and solutions, when none may be readily available,” Ebelini says. Instead, breathe slowly while paying attention to the “inner landscape” of your body, heart and mind. “Learning how to just ‘be with’ your experience in those moments builds resiliency and interrupts patterns of automatic reactivity which often increase our stress,” she says.
It’s Best to Just Breathe
Sometimes the best cure for stress can be to focus on our breathing. “It’s the ultimate natural cure for stress. We’re all going about things to cure our stress and we’re missing our cornerstone, the pivotal factor,” says Belisa Vranich, a clinical psychologist with more than 20 years of experience who has spent the last decade dedicating herself to the study of breathing. Vranich is the founder of the Breathing Class, and author of the book “Breathe,” a 14-day program to improve mental and physical health through better control of breathing.
“We’ve started to breathe in a way that puts us into perpetual low-grade stress, and we think that it’s normal,” she says. Vranich points out that 9 out of 10 adults breathe “vertically,” raising their shoulders and expanding their chests when inhaling, and then lowering the shoulders and contracting their chests when exhaling.
“That’s completely anatomically incongruous and completely out of sync with how our bodies are designed,” she says. Instead, Vranich teaches her students to think of breathing with their hips and stomachs instead. To inhale, relax and expand the belly. Then compress your stomach on the exhale so that your bellow button comes closer to your spine. “You actually use your abs,” she says.
When her students breathe horizontally, “a lot of wonderful things happen,” Vranich says. “You’re using the densest most oxygen rich part of your body.” (That would be the lower part of your lungs.) Your nervous system realizes that you’re breathing deeply, and causes the body to relax.
“The vertical breath causes a fight or flight response,” Vranich says, because of the tension it puts on the body. Horizontal breathing causes the opposite. “A lot of us know fight or flight, but the opposite is not on the tip of the tongue,” she says. Instead of fight or flight, the horizontal breath is a “rest and digest” breath.
Vranich explains that this type of breathing decreases anxiety and lowers blood pressure. “If you start breathing with your diaphragm, most of that gets better right away,” she says. “It’s incredibly self-reinforcing. Just the knowledge that you’re supposed to inhale and expand and exhale contract.”
How to Start in Five Minutes
Ebelini offers these tips: “Practice at the time of day when you feel most alert,” she says. She adds that you should select a place in your home where you will be undisturbed and that’s free of distractions.
Seat yourself comfortably in a chair or on a cushion and set a timer for five minutes. Ebelini uses a free app called Insight Timer. “Either close your eyes or keep them at a half-gaze,” she says. “Briefly scan through your body and just notice the feeling of your body sitting. Locate where in your body you feel the sensations of breathing most vividly and simply feel the experience of your inhales and exhales.”
If you find your mind is starting to wander, that’s okay. Just bring your attention back to your breathing again. “Don’t judge yourself because your attention wandered—that’s normal,” she says. “Meditation is about the coming back.”
When the timer rings, you can go on about your day. “The benefits of meditation build subtly, so it takes some discipline and consistency, especially at first,” she says. As you practice, you can gradually increase the time you spend in meditation. “Over time you will begin to notice amazing changes in your ability to respond skillfully in stressful situations,” she says.