Mental activity is inherently intertwined with the functioning of the autonomic nervous system, including respiration. The example most people being aware of being the balance between the sympathetic nervous system and arousal, on the one hand; and the parasympathetic nervous system and relaxation, on the other.
It’s not normal for the average person to have any voluntary control over their autonomic nervous system. However, every individual has conscious control over their breathing – which is both consciously and unconsciously controlled, and thus provides a link between the conscious and unconscious. Having a degree of control over the breath, it is possible for everyone to influence their inner state via control of the breath.
Here we will be using the most basic of breathing exercises – yet also the one which has the most profound and immediate effect. The purpose of this particular exercise is to impose a rhythm on the breath, which, through its influence over the rest of the nervous system, can help bring the psycho-mental flux under control. This is brought about by the two-way relationship between the breath and heart, on the one hand; and the activity of the mind, on the other.
In order to achieve this objective there must be two conditions imposed on the breath:
- It be rhythmic (the inhalations and exhalations are matched.)
- It be automatic (not under too strong a voluntary control, which can inadvertently cause problems, such as tension or hyperventilation.)
These are the two necessary conditions. If we have these two conditions present then all other considerations are of little significance.
The virtue of the perfectly rhythmic breath was an important element within the tradition of yoga. It was an essential part of their discipline of pranayama – which was at once seen as a suitable practice for the average man, as well as a pre-requisite for more advanced meditative practices.
Modern science is developing its own support for this method. Namely that breathing is intimately tied up with activity of the heart – which is directly liked up to the brain via the nervous system – and as such, can be consciously manipulated as a method of controlling nervous system activity. The more rhythmic our breathing, the more stable our autonomic nervous system is. This manifests itself as increased heart rate variability; which is seen as signifying nervous system adaptability and stress resilience.
The goal is to train the breath to adopt this steady breathing pattern as its default state. The steadiness of the breath becomes a strong foundation upon which to develop the steadiness of the mind.
As a beginner, this can be practised in small 10 to 20 minute sessions, intermittently throughout the day when appropriate. Over time, the unconscious will readily adopt this as its default breathing style. It can then be left to run like clockwork in the background ensuring an ongoing state of heightened mental sureness and stability.
Choose somewhere comfortable to sit where you won’t be disturbed, and practise the breathing pattern below. A stopwatch or clock with a second-hand can be used to maintain the proper timing. Though you could also, for example, tap out a steady beat with your fingers. Reciting a mantra in the mind is sometimes suggested in traditional yoga teachings as a means of keeping time.
In actuality, any recurring rhythm could be used for the breath, but the most practical – and the one that produces the most optimal results – is probably a 2-1-2-1 ratio (inhalation-hold-exhalation-hold); or alternately a 1-1-1-1 ratio.
The actual time for each segment in the sequence doesn’t matter, as long as the proportions remain correct. The correct speed of the breath will depend a great deal on present circumstances. i.e. it would necessarily be much quicker during intense physical activity than at rest – a point more relevant for when you begin to incorporate this continuously throughout the day than in the beginning when the practice is first being learned.
The following two are just examples of timings that may be used. They would be the most practical, due to them being the ones most easily practised with the assistance of a stopwatch or clock:
4 seconds in, 2 seconds hold, 4 seconds out, 2 seconds hold. (5 breaths/minute – slow.)
2 seconds in, 1 second hold, 2 seconds out, 1 second hold. (10 breaths/minute – moderate.)
So, for example, you would inhale gently for four seconds. Hold the breath for two seconds. Exhale gently for four seconds. Hold the breath for two seconds. Repeat in a cyclical manner.
Side note: the popular notion that high arousal (adrenaline) equals stress, and that relaxation techniques which induce parasympathetic dominance are the key to a healthy mind, is pretty wide of the mark.
The mind being in a positive state – along with the corresponding physiological state – has little to do with high vs. low arousal. It instead has much to do with what some are now calling brain coherence – brainwaves, as measure by ECG, etc. manifesting a highly ordered state. This is found in conjunction with a highly rhythmic heart beat (at the same time exhibiting high variability – i.e. a steady, predictable variability; as opposed to a chaotic and unpredictable variability.)
The bottom line here is that a high arousal state is definitely useful if you’re also in a state of internal coherence. Conversely a low arousal (or ‘relaxed’) state will still be negative if you are in a chaotic internal state.
This is the second vital consideration. It also presents something of a paradox, for the task at hand is the conscious manipulation of the pattern of the breath. However, focusing on moving the breath in and out with our conscious mind presents a significant problem. The conscious mind does not know how to breathe anything like as well as does the sub-conscious mind – whose task it usually is. Consciously manipulating our breathing in this way is very likely to lead to problems – hyperventilation, and/or tension from the forced nature of it – and will only make our situation worse. Hyperventilation deprives the brain of oxygen, hindering mental performance – even in the presence of brain coherence where the breath is properly rhythmic. None of this is what we want.
The answer is to control just the parameters of the breath; but to actually let the breathing process itself – the mechanical in and out – take care of itself. This can be developed as a skill by simply sitting and observing the breath. Notice how it feels when the breath takes care of itself, going in and out automatically. And also understand the difference between this and how the breath feels when we are actively and consciously inhaling and exhaling. There is a subtle but marked difference. Aim for the former – an automatic breath – and not the latter. The body knows how to breathe better than we do.
You want to almost keep the breath in peripheral awareness, whilst controlling the parameters – the length and timing of the inhalation, exhalation and retentions.
Combining the two into one (rhythmicity and automaticity together) is the whole method. When performed correctly everything will be subjectively experienced as being just right.
Breathe through the Heart
There is an additional, third, element that can be leveraged in this breathing exercise. This is to consciously breathe through the centre of the chest – where the mystical side of the Indian tradition held the heart chakra to be. Doing this amplifies the power of the technique. It is not necessary; as are the elements of rhythmicity and automaticity. Breathing through the heart is instead supplementary – providing an enhancing effect.
This would give us a diagrammatic representation looking something like the following: