The breath is an important ally for connecting and integrating mind and body.
Our breath has the dual nature of being regulated by both voluntary and involuntary mechanisms. We really take the involuntary, automatic quality of the breath for granted. Thank goodness we don’t have to remember to breathe each breath. Breathing happens automatically while we are busy doing and thinking about other things, from physical activity to sleep. We usually think “I am breathing” but in a very real sense, we are being breathed by our own automatic, involuntary physiology. We can also exert voluntary control over the breath, allowing us to whistle, blow out birthday candles or stop a panic attack.
Our breath, thoughts and emotions are deeply interconnected. Calm and peaceful thoughts and emotions are usually reflected in calm, peaceful breathing. Agitation, anxiety, fear, worry and panic are sometimes associated with irregular, rapid or shallow breathing. This can develop into a full-blown ‘hyperventilation’ attack. Being helped to slow down one’s breathing and breathe more deeply and regularly not only returns the breathing to normal but also relieves some of the distressful thoughts and emotions that triggered the episode. The breath influences our thoughts and emotions. Our thoughts and emotions influence the breath.
Due to the interconnectedness of thoughts, emotions and breathing, we can intentionally and skillfully use the breath to cultivate calmness and peacefulness. No wonder that awareness of the breath is one of the world’s oldest forms of meditation and contemplative practice. Wherever we go, the breath is always with us. It is free. It doesn’t require special equipment to use the breath for meditation.
There are many ways in which the breath is used in meditation. A particularly relaxing and simple, meditative use of the breath is diaphragmatic breathing or abdominal breathing- also known as ‘soft belly’. Most of us have little experience breathing with a soft abdomen as our society sends a message to both men and women that a big belly is undesirable. Yet a soft belly was our normal condition when we were babies and is also our normal condition as adults when we are calm, peaceful and rested.
Here’s how to practice ‘soft belly’ meditation-
Closing the eyes is recommended for more focused attention on the practice. You use less energy breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth. Breathing out through the mouth also seems to help soften the abdomen.
If the abdomen is soft, with each deep in-breath your lungs fill with air, your diaphragm moves down and your abdomen expands. With each out-breath, the lungs empty themselves of air, your diaphragm rises and your abdomen contracts. Breathing this way helps to more fully expand the lungs, mobilize the diaphragm and stimulate the vagus nerve, causing a shift of your nervous system from the stress-related, sympathetic, fight-or-flight mode to the restorative, parasympathetic mode. Not everyone can easily soften the abdomen. It can help to place your hands over your abdomen and notice the movements described here. Usually very quickly, the hands are no longer needed as an aide.
This practice improves expansion and oxygenation of the lungs and relaxes tense muscles all over your body. If you find it helpful, you might say to yourself “soft” as you breathe in and “belly” as you breathe out. When you find your attention distracted by thoughts, emotions, sounds or physical sensations, simply bring your attention back to the belly.
Even 1 minute of ‘soft belly’ breathing can help calm a busy mind. Devoting five or ten minutes without interruption helps develop skillful practice. Over time, you can extend the practice to suit your schedule and your needs, aiming for two or three times a day.
Traditionally, these practices are recommended for 15-20 minutes before the morning and evening meals. Using a timer with a very quiet alarm may help you manage your time. Practicing ‘soft belly’ at bedtime can help you fall asleep. With regular practice, you will have a new self care tool for use in times of stress- breathing in ‘soft’, breathing out ‘belly.’
Practiced regularly, ‘soft belly’ can help manage stress-related chronic disease symptoms, improve immune functioning, decrease pain and anxiety, improve mood, and cultivate a friendlier relationship with your thoughts and emotions. Techniques such as ‘soft belly’ meditation can help you see every aspect of your life more clearly and calmly and feel more in control. Practicing these techniques when you are not feeling overwhelmed can help you better master your physical, mental and emotional responses at difficult times.
Remember- to master any skill requires practice, practice, practice.
About the Author-
Dr Patterson is past president of the Kentucky Academy of Family Physicians and is board certified in family medicine and integrative holistic medicine. He is on the family practice faculty at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine and the University of Louisville School of Medicine, Saybrook University’s School of Mind Body Medicine (San Francisco) and the Center for Mind Body Medicine (Washington, DC). He operates the Mind Body Studio in Lexington, where he offers integrative medicine consultations. He can be reached through his website at www.mindbodystudio.org.