The call to meditation can be thought of as: “Let’s sit and breathe!”
At least that’s a very good place to begin. But the breathing practices in a yoga class are not what I mean by breathe. Much simpler.
Don’t think about it, don’t work at it, don’t conceptualize it. Just breathe. It’s the most natural thing we do. The most important thing we do. The one thing we must do to make it through the next few minutes alive.
But sometimes, breathing is very hard. That’s how yoga can help. Again, you don’t really need it, but it may be helpful if you have some of the modern problems with natural breathing.
We civilized, over-wrought, over-thought, under-worked modern humans have often got ourselves into such a state that we have forgotten how to breathe naturally. We have learned some bad habits, or our tensions have created some problematic patterns in us that make us breathe in unnatural ways.
When you meditate, you want to breathe in a completely unforced, relaxed and natural way without trying to control the breath at all. If you have a lot of tensions and anxieties, you may be in the habit of shallow, high breathing that almost seems natural to you, so to overcome that bad habit you may need to work with your breath some before you even try to meditate.
That’s how a yoga class could help. Not the fancy, controlled pranayama exercises, or any of that. Just the relaxing part. The part at the end of class when you lie flat of your back and relax everything for ten minutes.
Corpse pose, they call it.
That’s the kind of breathing you want to be able to do in meditation. Not too tough… so simple a dead man could do it. Well, maybe not, but….
The great thing is, you can do that at home. You don’t need a mat, you don’t need a bolster, you don’t need incense, you don’t need weird music, you don’t need an expensive yoga teacher. You just need to lie down flat of your back and relax everything. Preferably on the floor or some relatively firm surface, not the bed or the couch. Those tend to put us into sleep mode, and sleep is not meditation.
But, for a very good example of natural breathing, just watch a sleeping baby. What moves? The child’s belly. And how does it move? When the child breathes in, her belly rises slightly; as she breathes out, the belly collapses. Notice the shoulders, the chest. They don’t move. Perhaps every now and then, a little shudder and a big breath and the chest lifts a bit on the inhale. Then it’s back to the belly breathing.
That’s how you want to be breathing as you lie on your back relaxing. But don’t force it, just watch it. If you persist, if you stay relaxed and just watch – it helps to lightly place your hand on your belly so you can feel it – your breathing will return to this relaxed natural state. At various times during the day, try to notice what’s happening with your breathing. Again, don’t try to change it or control it, just notice it. Watch it and as you watch it, it will begin to fall into this pattern of its own accord.
After enough attention in this way, your breathing will begin to just stay in this natural mode most of the time. You’ll also begin to notice that one of the first indicators of stress of any kind is that the breathing changes. A single thought can change your breathing. That change can alert you to the power of the thought, and noticing it can defuse that power.
This is one of the ways meditation can help you. When you meditate, it’s very easy to notice your breathing. Noticing it during meditation helps you to notice it in the rest of your daily activities.
Paying attention to the breath is one of the best, simplest, and most practiced ways to begin to meditate. One great thing about observing the breath is that you always have it with you! So you can meditate anywhere, anytime. No special equipment required… no candles, CDs, incense, temples… you get the idea!
Once you’ve gotten comfortable with sitting upright and found your natural, unforced breath, you are ready to begin meditation.
All that is required is to put the two together: sit and breathe!
(Well, technically, sit upright and observe your breath breathing.)