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What is Mindful Breathing?

Jun 11, 2023
 

My understanding of mindful breathing is constantly deepening, growing, and evolving.

A few years ago, before receiving any formal training I would have said sit there and focus on your breathing (duh).  We all know that. We get the concept but HOW do you focus on your breathing? What does this feel like? Where is your awareness and how to do you STAY focused on it?

Anything can seem easy in concept. “How do you stand on your hands?” “Well, you bend forward, place your palms on the ground, stack your wrists over your shoulders, tuck the tail bone and engage the abs to slowly lift the legs, stacking your joints as you go.” “Great, can you show me?” “I wish!!!!!”

Yes, it is true, after many years of circus classes I still cannot hold a handstand. I also can’t get my ankles behind my head or any of the other truly awesome things you see in a circus show. I could tell you about the theory behind it, and maybe even some training tips to help you progress, but I can’t do it myself, so I don’t know what a successful attempt feels like, it’s an experience I don’t have.

There are things we have struggled to do and can’t do and there are things we have a general knowledge of but have never experienced. A good example of this for me is sky diving. I know you put on a parachute and step out of the plane, but I have never tried to do it and I wouldn’t want to!!!!

Not All Breathing is Mindful

So, what is with all these messy metaphors? The point is that just because we can logically describe a process doesn’t mean we can do it, or have even experienced it, and I believe that this is the case for mindful breathwork.

Before I began my formal training, I would try to do meditation by either listening to something produced for mass consumption (like a Wayne Dwyer CD) or simply setting a timer on my phone while I closed my eyes. I would hear instructors saying generic things such as “focus on your breathing” and “feel the air coming in and out of your nostrils”. Now in theory these sound like good helpful suggestions and I attempted to follow them for years but what actually ended up happening was I would “focus” for about 2 seconds, not really feel anything (because our society doesn’t teach us to properly connect brain and body), get bored, and then my mind would wander for the rest of the meditation. I would get up, get sucked into my day and wonder why meditation didn’t work.

I know that I am not the only one feeling that way. Some instruction was given, although vague, and because I didn’t fully grasp the concepts, I wasn’t able to grow my focus and bring these practices into the rest of my life. As a result, I had pretty much given up on having any spiritual practice by the time my acute insomnia kicked off.

The Hidden Blessing of Insomnia

Insomnia is my teacher, it showed me I had things I needed to learn and changes I must make because the way I was living wasn’t working. This is what lead me to study breathing and eventually brought me to embodied (mindful) breathing.

Although I am a certified teacher, I am also still a student with much to learn, and as such, my understanding of what, on the surface, is a simple concept is constantly growing and expanding.

Through expert instruction I have learned that mindful breathing is not just about feeling breath come into your nostrils, although that’s a start. It’s about being able to move your mind (the whole of your awareness) and put it into a part of the body of your choosing.

Can you feel your big toe for example? Feel it so completely that it becomes the whole of your existence. What about the pelvic floor (an emotionally charged area for most people)? Can you contract the muscles there at will? If yes then congratulations! Now try contracting just the left side. Do you feel your ribs expand as you breathe? If so, then can you slow your breathing to only breathe into 1 rib space at a time and really FEEL it. Can you feel the intercostal muscles (muscles between the ribs) turning on and off? Can you isolate the external intercostals at the 10th rib space and make those tiny muscles your entire world?

That friends, is mindful breathing!

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