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On Training the Breath

Reflexive Abdominal Breathing (RAB)

Reflexive Abdominal Breathing is a fancy way of saying natural belly breathing.  But it’s quite important in our pursuit of meditative calm and insight.  It is true that when we breathe in through the abdomen, not only is there more surface area for the oxygen to fill, but it’s dispersed to the body tissues more efficiently.  So even if you’re a chest breather, and have been your whole life, this can be trained, and it can be invaluable in terms of your concentration and insight meditations.

RAB can be learned.  If you’re already a belly breather, then you’re good to go!  Let’s do an experiment anyway.  Go ahead and sit comfortably and place a hand on your chest and place a hand on your belly.  When you’re ready, close your eyes for 2 full cycles of inhales and exhales.  And make note of which hand is moving.  If the hand on your chest was mostly moving, then you know that you have a habit of breathing through the chest.  The way one can work with this is simple.  Find your meditative position, place a hand on the chest and a hand on the belly.  Breathe normally.  But then, on an inhale, really stick out your gut, try to push the hand on your belly out as far as you can.  And on the exhale just watch the hand fall downward as the oxygen leaves the lungs.  And this is a completely abnormal feeling to people who aren’t accustomed to breathing through the abdomen.  But its importance can’t be overstated in the practice of mindfulness.  So, practice placing the hand on the belly, and just mindfully feel the belly as the hand rises and falls.

There are several basic components to the practice.  One breathes through the nostrils, allowing the breath to fill the belly.  One sustains focus on the belly, witnessing the rising and falling with each inhale and exhale.  As attention is sustained, distractions will arise in the form of thoughts, sounds, feelings, or sensations.  This is not a problem.  When one finds oneself distracted, one simply labels the distraction as, “thinking,” for example, and returns to the breath.  Training in this way will foster a present-time, non-judgmental awareness that is quite helpful when one is experiencing symptoms.  Efficiency of the allocation of attentional resources, along with a non-judgmental and kind awareness can foster a transformative relationship to one’s mind.

When learning this new skill, one may be faced with multiple challenges.  It is often challenging or even frustrating to begin the process of training sustained attention.  One quickly becomes aware of the easily distracted and quick-to-judge mind.  Though mindfulness of breathing is simple, it can be quite challenging as one continues to be distracted.  When distractions arise, it is important to return to the object of attention with a sense of kindness.  This training requires patience and tolerance of one’s process as uncomfortable images, thoughts, or emotions may present themselves.  These can be considered good opportunities to gain insight into one’s symptoms, and to experience them non-judgmentally.   

Reflexive abdominal breathing provides a great deal of benefits in the treatment of many clinical and non-clinical mental health issues.  Firstly, learning to reflexively engage in abdominal breathing provides training in non-judgmental awareness.  Practicing giving up control to the breath in the moment allows for a more flexible relationship to whatever is present.  One learns to settle one’s mind by sustaining attention on and awareness of the sensations of the rising and falling of the abdomen.  This sustained attention facilitates an efficient use of one’s attentional resources, thus settling the mind.  When one’s mind is settled, the self-management of the distressing posttraumatic or anxiety symptoms can more easily be regulated. 

With Love,

Dr. Zack Bein

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