The Breath in Meditation
Excerpted from Subtle Energy: Awakening to the Unseen Forces in Our Lives by William Collinge, Ph.D., Warner Books, Inc., 1998  

"We're going to have to do this without the IV Valium," warned Angela's doctor. "Can you just somehow breathe your way through it?"  

Angela had been having severe stomach problems for a couple of years, and was about to undergo a gastroscopy which would involve inserting a long three-quarter inch tube down her throat and into her stomach to look around. The whole procedure takes about half an hour and is very uncomfortable because you have to breathe through your nose, and you have a tremendous gag reflex.  

"They always use intravenous Valium to help people get through this, but my veins are really tiny and deep," explains Angela. "Three different technicians tried to get the IV into me, and they couldn't do it.  

"So I started meditating, just following my breath. I had to breathe through my nose and just control it. It's what got me through the half hour, and I didn't gag at all. When I began to get anxious or feel like I was choking, I just came back to my breath. It's what anchored me and centered me, and I just allowed it to carry me through this really scary experience."  

Angela's story illustrates a very practical benefit of meditation, in the form of greater ability to tolerate what's going on in her body. To do this of course required her to concentrate on her breath. Virtually every form of meditation, regardless of the tradition or the culture from which it came, harnesses the breath in some deliberate way.  

The field of mind/body medicine has drawn a great deal from the world's meditative traditions. One result has been the discovery of the medically beneficial "relaxation response" that it creates (a state of reduced tension and blood pressure, and other positive changes). This has in turn led to meditation being considered a legitimate medical recommendation for people with illness. I will go into more detail about energetic aspects of meditation in Chapter 7, but for now I will summarize the role of the breath.  

It is universal that in meditation the primary use of the breath is to help soothe or calm the mind and body. Typically the instructions pertaining to the breath involve:  

• Using deep, slow, regular breaths  
• Directing the breath into the abdomen  
• Using the breath as the focus of the mind  

For example, in the traditional Buddhist practice called vipassana or mindfulness meditation, the basic instruction is to put all your attention on fully experiencing each breath, and allow all other thoughts, feelings or sensations to pass on by while you maintain this focus.  

The Buddha's instructions appear remarkably simple, but upon trying them one quickly discovers the power of the mind to interfere:  

"Oh monks, there is a most wonderful way to help living beings realize purification, over-come directly grief and sorrow, end pain and anxiety, travel the right path, and realize nirvana...  

"One goes to the forest, to the foot of a tree, or to an empty room, sits down cross-legged in the lotus position, holds one's body straight, and establishes mindfulness in front of oneself.  

"Breathing in, one is aware of breathing in. Breathing out, one is aware of breathing out. Breathing in a long breath, one knows, `I am breathing in a long breath.' Breathing out a long breath, one knows `I am breathing out a long breath.' Breathing in a short breath, one knows `I am breathing in a short breath.' Breathing out a short breath, one knows `I am breathing out a short breath.'"  

The impact of meditation on our energy is not so much a matter of building it up, as it is balancing and maintaining it. Through regular meditation practice it becomes a habit to breathe more continuously and regularly throughout our day. We become more acutely aware of our breath each moment, even when not meditating, so that in the long run the breath becomes a reliable, steadying force in daily life. And then, as in Angela's case, we can call upon it to help us through trying times.