The Calming Breath is one of the first practical aspects of training, taught both as an aid to mindfulness and for the benefits it provides in enabling the student to obtain a clear mind, pushing away the turmoil of emotions and allowing a return to clarity. Inevitably, it requires focus in both the physical and psychological sense, using both in order to still the mind and allow serenity to be adopted.
Primarily, the technique is useful in situations where various environmental stimuli threaten the equanimity of a student’s mind, either through the provocation of particular emotions, or by pushing them towards a state of mental activity that is rushed or pressurised – workplace stressors are a good example. You have a deadline to meet, various obstacles have arisen, and you are experiencing frustration and anxiety because you can’t be certain you can finish the work on time to meet the deadline. This stress inevitably affects your ability to do the job efficiently, so it becomes necessary to centre yourself and return to a state of calm, so that you can complete your tasks quickly and efficiently, without wasting energy to frustration. This is where the Calming Breath comes into play.
Step One - Preparation
To begin with, this technique needs to be practised somewhere quiet, preferably wherein your equanimity has not been disrupted by various stressors – hence, in a calm, relaxed environment. Although the technique itself is normally never used under these circumstances, if you are unable to first obtain the technique in tranquil settings, it seems unlikely that you will be able to apply it in an environment where the potential for agitation is far higher.
So, find somewhere you feel comfortable and are unlikely to be disturbed – even if only for a few minutes. The technique itself doesn’t take long to practice; it simply takes a while before it becomes second nature to you, applied reflexively in the presence of stress. Ideally, you should wear something comfortable, and seek to minimise potential distraction as much as possible to allow you to concentrate. As you get better, this can be toned down more, so you can allow for some distractions, to see how you react to such things during your practice of the technique.
It is also essential that you be able to breathe clearly, since the exercise relies upon this ability simply by the very nature of the exercise. Hence, if you have a cold or sinus issues, wait for them to clear up before practising this. That said, there’s absolutely no reason why you can’t learn to obtain the psychological aspect of the technique – the physical aspect that helps with this can easily be picked up later.
Step Two – Starting the Exercise
You can do this exercise standing up or sitting down, depending on your preferences, although ideally, you want to be lying down the first time you try the exercise, since this will help with the physical aspects of the technique, as you’ll see momentarily.
Firstly, place one hand on your chest and one on your stomach. It is important that you breathe correctly: inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth. Inhale so that your stomach rises while your chest remains flat. Generally speaking, shallow breaths will produce this effect, so don’t try to inhale for too long while doing this. Once this is done, gently exhale so that your stomach falls to the normal resting position.
Psychologically, you should have your full concentration centred upon the act of breathing – most people incorrectly inhale with their mouths more often than not, so if you inhale through your nose, you will be forced to concentrate. In addition to this, it helps to count inwardly as you breathe – for shallow breaths, you should expect to inhale for a count of two seconds, then exhale for a count of two. Less than that is fine, so long as the correct effect is produced, although two seconds is nonetheless recommended. Repeat this exercise five times.
Now inhale so that your chest rises, while your stomach remains flat. Generally, this works better if you take longer breaths – as a rule, use a four second count, so that you inhale for four seconds, then exhale for four seconds. You might find that your stomach does move involuntarily as you breathe, but the main thing is that your chest rises, and that you can distinguish between the two movements. Indeed, if this does happen naturally, you may very well find you’ve already moved on to the next step.
Step Three – The Calming Breath
Step three requires that you combine the two forms of breathing, so that you use both stomach and chest motions to breathe properly. Inhale first through your stomach, so that it rises while your chest remains flat, then continue inhaling until your chest moves, indicating that your lungs are filled with air. Ideally, you want to keep both movements to two seconds each, combining to form the four second count for inhalation.
As you inhale, focus all your tension and stress towards the centre of your body – gather it up, as though compressing it all into a ball. You can achieve this by consciously realising that you are being affected by stress and understanding the effects. Regardless of the method you use to achieve this, use those four seconds to gather all the energy of that emotional tension. Then, as you exhale, keeping to the four-second count, release all that tension from your body and mind. You may find that your body tenses as you gather the anxiety, so as you exhale, allow your body to let go – let your shoulders drop, your muscles relax etc. I, personally, find that it is sometimes helpful to close my eyes as I do this, so all of my mental energies can focus on simply letting go of the tension, but you don’t have to do this if you feel uncomfortable with it. Simply do whatever comes naturally.
I should reiterate that it is imperative that you maintain a four second count, but you may find that you need to repeat the exercise in order for you to feel calm. You should never need more than five breaths with a four-second count to relax – if you do, either you’ve allowed the tension to build up and have failed to release it, or you simply haven’t got the technique. Either way, return to the first step and try again.
Some people do tend to feel physical effects when using this breathing technique. You might feel a little cooler for a moment, as though a shiver has run down your spine. Alternatively, you might experience a sudden rush of heat. There are various different physical effects that might be generated by this, but don’t be worried by them. They are simply natural sensations brought on by the technique itself.
It might be useful to explain some more of the philosophy behind the technique. We tend to believe that Life Energy, such as it is, is best sensed when the mind is both calm and clear, thus, impressionable to the energy that exists both within you and outside of yourself. Anyone familiar with the practice of touching energy, through such things as Tai Chi and Reiki, will recognise the sensations I described a moment ago as being felt at times when you touch energy. Sometimes your skin might tingle, at other times you’ll experience a momentary change in temperature. This is the natural result of coming into contact with an energy field.
When we use the calming breath, we do so to push our mind into a state of tranquillity, partly in order to allow us to feel that energy more strongly, partly to clear our minds and allow us to think and act objectively and partly to stop things disturbing our equanimity. Although we do use this technique as a method of relieving ourselves of internal tension (physical and psychological), it is also useful as a pre-emptive technique, used prior to entering a potentially stressful situation, since it clears and focuses the mind for what is to come, hence enabling you to approach it with that same level of serene objectivity that our emotional methodology is designed to encourage.
The technique also serves as an aid to mindfulness – use of it first requires mindful recognition of stress and tension (both as it is being experienced and with the potential for further sensation), the understanding of the negative consequences of suffering from stress, a conscious intention to use the calming breath to return to a state of equanimity, and particular mindful focus during the exercise itself – the reason we use the count is to focus one’s thoughts on the here and now, to allow the student to centre themselves and stay focused entirely on what they are doing, rather than allowing their minds to wander.