I Can’t Breathe, How Can I Do Breathing Meditation?

It is a common instruction for beginner meditation students to start with the breathing meditation, which is often called the sitting meditation as it’s mostly done while sitting down. 

The usual instruction is to find the breath where it can be felt most obvious and most distinct. Now breathing is an involuntary function for the most part. It happens automatically without us having to intervene. And because it usually happens automatically we don’t have to worry much at all about it and we typically just leave it alone.

There are so many things to worry about in life, why create unnecessary worry. If something can be left alone without paying any attention, we should do that and that’s exactly what we do with our breath. Now if you have a disease or condition like asthma, you may have had to pay attention to your breath. And in that case your familiarity with the breath is going to be much more than others who haven’t faced any issues with their breath.

In general, there is more awareness about breathing because deep belly breathing is known and used by many for reducing anxiety. In either case, the problem that we initially face is that it is hard for us to feel our breath. And we know that one easy way to overcome this issue is by breathing deeper than usual. When we breathe deeper it becomes easy for us to feel the breath.

Because with deeper breath we suck in more air volume. More air travelling through the same area causes more friction and more noise. Not only that, to suck in more air our muscles have to work harder and they stretch extra. And when they stretch extra it becomes more obvious for us to feel them.

So with deeper breath there is more air friction, more sound and more pronounced muscle actions. All of which makes it easier for us to feel the breath. How deep one has to breath in order to feel breath? That really depends and is very individual.

When working to cultivate mindfulness, one of the main teaching of mindfulness is that we learn to be with things as they actually are. As opposed to striving to change things around us and make them adapt to our needs. And most of the mindfulness teachers specifically  tell you that when you practice breathing meditation you should keep your breath natural and normal. So the instructions are not to breath deeply, but breath normally which for most of us is a shallow breath.

We just saw that if you are new to meditation and new to feeling the breath, it could be very difficult for you to feel your breath if you kept it normal and natural. We also saw that one of the best ways to feel the breath is to breath deeply and not keep it natural.

So what is one supposed to do? Many students find themselves in this predicament. Although your problems may just be that you can’t find your breath, even once you find your breath, you are going to run  into this issue of whether to breath deeply or not.

And what ends up happening is that many people find breathing meditation to be very difficult. What happens is that even once you find that breathing deeply is what seems to make it feel easily, breathing deep is something that’s not easy to sustain longer that a few breaths to begin with.

Remember for most of our lives breathing has been automatic. It just so happens that we have ability to exert some degree of control over our breathing, but we are habituated to let breathing happen automatically. Because of this it is not easy to sustain the control over our breath right away.

It takes a certain amount of time to learn to continue to exert control over our breathing. What ensues is a kind of struggle. We try to exert control over our breath and breath wants to go automatic. And we are not used to deep breathing so at times it feels like we are gasping for breath and can’t breath.

And to top all this, if you remember the instructions, they are to not breathe deep. All of this can easily send you in a tailspin. This may frustrate you and de-motivate you. So what should one do?

Here is what you need to do. First off, although it is true that in the cultivation of mindfulness, we are learning to be with things as they are.  Mindfulness is also about using skillful means or practical ways to further our learning. Mindfulness is not about being rigid or stubborn.

With this in mind, it’s okay if initially your breath is not normal or natural. Initially we try our best to do what helps us initiate and sustain the practice. So lets get any qualms about breathing deeply out of our way. We keep the motive to maintaining our breath normal in the back of our mind, but we should feel completely okay to try and manipulate our breath in the beginning to get the practice going.

With one obstacle out of your way, let’s move to the second obstacle and that is the struggle with breath that many of us encounter.

As I mentioned earlier its not easy to sustain an artificially deeper breath. Although I would like to further qualify “artificial“. It is widely believed that our normal breath is a shallow and incomplete breath. And we all need to relearn to breathe properly.

But we’ll talk more about diaphragmatic breathing in a separate article. When trying to breath deeply, so that one can feel the breath, one has to be prepared for a “struggle” with the breath. The key is patience. It will take several sessions before you know that you can really sustain deeper breath for 10-15 minutes or more.

And again, it has to be a gradual process. So try for several 5 minute sessions before you decide to quit. If you feel like you are struggling and gasping and not able to breath, it’s okay. See if you can still continue and give it at least two weeks. That is two weeks of daily attempts to feel your breath for at least 5 minutes.

If it still remains a struggle, then you should seriously consider trying other forms of meditation or something else. It’s just that breath is such a portable thing and breathing meditation is such a foundational practice exactly because breath is so much portable.

Once you have learned to sustain deeper breath for 5-10 minutes it is easy to stretch it longer. But is is also easy to go back to more natural breath from a deeper breath and continue to be able to feel the breath. And that’s exactly what you should attempt to do. But only after you have mastered the art of sustained deeper breathing.

In summary, it’s okay not breathing normally and naturally to begin with. It’s okay if you struggle with your breath and can’t breath initially Be patient with your practice. Give it at least 2 to 3 weeks of disciplined daily effort before you call it quits. Eventually, breathing should become effortless and you should not be controlling your breath.


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