Mental Health, Meditation and Breath Work

MeditateIt isn’t rocket science to appreciate the impact that our mental health/state of mind has on our physical well-being.  You just need to check in with the body when you bring to mind an emotive memory (argument,  frightening situation, pleasant meeting) and watch the tension patterns change in your body.  Then reflect on the single most common thing people give me as a reason why they don’t meditate ‘my mind is way too busy’.  Every thought we have, our body responds to it and it is continually firing up the nervous system.

I like to use this analogy.  If you think of our rested state as a water table.  Good health is a non flood zone and we can weather a few storms without the flood waters rising.   Sadly though our water tables rise over the years, sometimes through some major storms but actually more often than not by the drip drip drip of our busy lives pulling us in all directions and our busy minds kicking up thoughts about our busy lives!! Without the pumps that ship out the excess water, the water level rises faster than we can lower it!

Are you still with me here?

For most of us, unless we put conscious effort into learning how to calm and restore our nervous systems to their resting/healing state … then we start to lose the ability to switch off properly … the water table rises quicker than the pump can lower it … things start to feel a little less under control, and occasionally things that wouldn’t normally bother us feel just a bit too much.  Sometimes the pump breaks altogether and that way lies breakdowns.  Doesn’t need to be like this though, we just need to learn the skills to service the pump! (note, I didn’t say to reduce the storms or the drip drip drip … that’s just life!)

I may not have convinced you yet that it’s worth the time and effort?

You do not have to feel ‘stressed’ to be in a state of stress we become accustomed to feelings and accept more heightened states as a would be normal rested state.  We use distraction to not feel the elevated state.  An example would be watching a movie and thinking this is ‘relaxation’ … it isn’t, you are just handing over control of your nervous systems to the movie makers.  And no, I’m not saying don’t watch movies! Just know what you are or are not doing.

Ultimately the lift in the level of the water table doesn’t just impact our healing ability, it cuts off the top end of our performance too.  An obvious example,  if you don’t sleep well for a few nights, we can’t perform to our best.

Athletes among us may understand this from a more physical analogy.  When we train, we need to stimulate the systems of the body at their limits to instigate strengthening of the system we are targeting … even within a training session, if we don’t learn to recover completely we lose the ability to push to our max, sometimes without even realizing it’s happening, and therefore our bodies don’t get the stimulus necessary to improve and strengthen.  We plateau!

Are you with me yet? We can’t perform optimally until we learn to return to our rested healing state fully. And of course, performing optimally in mind and body terms means a healthy emotional feeling of being able to cope with anything and this translates well to our bodies being able to do the necessary work to build on systems that support our physical health

Stress in and off itself is not the problem, the ability to chose to switch off is the tool that balances it out is and if your mind is too busy to settle and its just a bit uncomfortable then just maybe its an indication that this really is something you need to pay attention to.

So we’ve addressed the ‘why you might want to try it’ but you still come back to the ‘my mind is way too busy’ argument.  Isn’t that the point?  What do you do if, at first, you find meditation really just too uncomfortable and the restlessness takes over.  Do you give up and quit on the mental and physical health benefits?

There are things to do to as a step towards meditation but that most of us find easier, one of which is a daily mindful breath work practice. Yes I know it’s something we all do everyday but it may surprise you to know how few of us breath efficiently at a physical level!  Breath work has been made popular thanks to the likes of Wim Hoff and James Nestor more recently, but it’s been used for millennia by warriors, yogis, monks, athletes (warriors of sort) and even the special forces use it! (you know, those fluffy cuddly individuals!!)  Breath work is accessible and effective which is why it’s at the forefront of the wellness movement currently.

Knowing where to start can be challenging though!  So below is a start point and 2 simple practices that are worth a try.  Let me know how you get on.

Check in with the breath as often as you can! 

I know. You’re busy but there are always few moments in your day where you can create a space for self care. When you’re in a queue. When you’re driving, waiting for a bus, waiting for a kettle to boil. Breathe deep, fill up completely and then expel all the air. Its a hit of fresh oxygen and benefits your whole system and it take 10 seconds. 

When you’re ready, take a deeper look!

Start by finding a comfortable place to sit,  and have a relaxed but upright spine (use the natural balance in the bone structure of the body)
Try a little experiment.  Set a timer and count how many full cycles of breath you take in a minute! (average adult breathing rate is between 12 and 16)
Notice what moves when you breath in. Does it feel more like you chest is expanding and rising or does it feel like your abdomen moves and the air sinks low in the lungs.  If you can’t ‘feel’ it then rest your hands on your belly and chest. Get curious!
Do you breathe through your nose or mouth? (It’s estimated that up to 50% adults don’t breath through their noses especially earlier in the day)

Now you know where you are starting …

When you breathe in allow you body to relax (it may take a few breathes for you to start to feel yourself relaxing and the ease with which you breathe will change over the course of your practice). 

Understand that the diaphragm, a big dome like muscle under the rib cage, is your primary breathing muscle and when you breath in it engages and flattens. Like any muscle, the diaphragm can lose it’s optimal condition and sometimes releasing it through breath work may take several sessions.  Engage in the breath, let the lower ribs open outwards, let the belly, waist and back relax so they can expand outwards allowing space for the diaphragm to drop down.  You don’t have to think hard about this,  the practice will help do the work for you.

Breath through the nose, at least on the inhale. We are designed to breath through out noses to breathe safely and efficiently, filtering foreign particles, humidity control and nasal breathing produces nitric oxide which helps widen blood vessels … among other benefits.  If at first it feels hard to exhale through the nose then try pursing the lips and exhale as if blowing out through a straw!

If you’ve got here, that may be enough for your first practice.  Set yourself a challenge,  try to do a 5 minute breathing practice daily building to 10 minutes.  There really are no hard and fast rules.  If 5 minutes feels too long in one sitting, then do 2 mins but try and do that 3 times a day.  Keep in mind that this is a gift for your mental and physical health.  In a world where we’ve become hooked on immediate results … slow it down, results may be slow in coming and they accumulate over time.  It’s free, what do you have to lose!

Box Breathing : 4-4-4-4 Count  *
One of the favorite focal points for meditation is the breath.  It’s always with us wherever we are, simple to find and it’s embodied (brings our awareness into the body instead of where it normally is … out there somewhere!!)  But asking you to simply sit and experience, feel, explore the breath isn’t easy to start with.  Counted breathing techniques have the advantage of helping us to remain in contact with the breath.  It gives us a handle and helps us let go of other thoughts that arise.  Evidence suggests that different types of counted breath have different effect on our central nervous systems.  This one is a simple box breath, effective and easy to learn and do anywhere.

1. Sit comfortably, preferably with you spine relaxed but straight.  (If you want with this one you can also do it lying down,  it is a good way of calming yourself ready for sleep)
2. Breath in for 4 counts
3. Hold for 4 counts
4. Breath out for 4 counts
5. Hold for 4 counts

Simple as that!  If you find 4 a little too long to begin with then reduce it down to 2-2-2-2 and work up from there over the period of weeks.

Sometimes a visual aid helps … try this one.  Breath in as the inner circle expands, hold as it pauses,  breath out as the inner circle shrinks, hold again as it pauses.

This gif was taken from a great little website  If you are new to meditation and want to give it a go, this website is the simplest guide I could find for you. You may like to have a look.  Word of warning though, you need to like the sound of rainstorms if you do the guided meditations!

Alternate Nostril (Nadi Sodhana) *
Another good technique to help us to calm down quickly but also balances the sides of the brain and helps us focus on the breathing when we are struggling to focus.
1. With the right hand, index and middle fingers resting between the eyebrows, thumb resting on the right nostril and other two fingers resting on the left nostril, gently (you don’t need to bend your nose off) close the right nostril with the thumb and inhale through the left.
2. At the top of the inhale, release the right nostril, close the left and exhale then inhale completely through the right nostril
3. At the top of the inhale, switch nostrils again and keep repeating this
4. To finish the practice always exhale through the left nostril and take a few rounds of normal deep breathing through both nostrils.
why nose breathing

* With any techniques, if you feel light headed or uncomfortable in any way or if you have respiratory conditions that make breathing difficult for you please first consult medical professionals or feel free to be in touch with me if you are unsure or have any questions.
Practices that involve you holding your breath are not recommended during pregnancy.