How to Listen to Your Breath, and What it’s Telling You
8 Breathing Patterns that Reveal the Health State of Body and Mind
The quality of our breath has lots to tell us about what’s going on in our body and in our minds. By partnering mindful breathing and mindful listening, we can learn to use the breath to reach a healthier state of wellbeing in body and mind.
When we’re out of balance in body and mind, this state of distress is reflected in our breathing. Being mindful of your breath is one way to recognize when the body or mind needs more loving, kind attention. Breathing more fully and patiently can sometimes provide us with the care we need to restore balance. Practice mindfulness of breath during seated meditation and you’ll find you’re more naturally inclined to listen to your breath outside of meditation too. As you pay attention, notice if any of the following patterns are present.
- Shallow, Chest-Only Breathing: Breathing in the upper chest only versus deep into the belly is a sign of stress.
- Holding Your Breath: We tend to hold our breath in moments of anxious expectation, such as when we check our email.
- Loud Breathing: Overbreathing or forced breathing, even if done unconsciously, is often a sign we’re trying too hard or too tightly focused.
- Longer Inhale than Exhale: An impatient exhale breath can be a sign of nervousness as we try to take in more air than we release.
- Irregular Breathing: Irregular or interrupted breathing is a sign of general stress. Breathing irregularly exacerbates stress by limiting the oxygen the body receives.
- Shortness of Breath: The inability to breathe in as deeply as you’d like could be a sign something’s wrong. This commonly occurs in people with heart or lung issues. In serious cases, it may be a sign of an asthma or heart attack.
- Mouth Breathing: Normal, healthy breathing is through the nose. This provides the body with warm, humid air that’s been filtered by the cilia and endowed with nitric oxide. Breathing through your mouth can be a sign of stress or airway obstruction. Mouth breathing can lead to bacterial infection, tooth decay, poor posture and reduced sleep quality.
- Rapid Breathing: Our respiratory rate is just one marker of wellness, but a vital one. At least one study has found rapid breathing is a better indicator of poor health than blood pressure or pulse rate. In adults, a respiratory rate above 20 breaths per minute may indicate panic attack, carbon dioxide poisoning (acidosis), infection, or heart or lung disease.
When body and mind are in a state of health we breathe through the nostrils and deep into the belly. Breath is consistent and each breath out is at least as long as each breath in. Our breathing is relatively quiet, relaxed and patient.
Mindful Breathing Practice
To learn how to listen to your breath, practice breath meditation. In a quiet and comfortable place, sit up tall, turn your attention inward toward your body, and observe your breath. At first, just take note of what your breathing is like, without making any changes. Practice this meditation daily and you’ll begin to notice a relationship between your breath, your body and your state of mind.
Monitoring breath during meditation is a great place to start because distraction is minimal. Eventually, you’ll want to integrate the mindfulness you’ve learned into your daily life. Pause frequently throughout your day to check in with your breath and what it’s like. Notice if your breathing changes in different situations, and how.
Breath, Body and Mind Training
Having practiced mindfulness of breath consistently, both on and off your meditation cushion, you might try using the breath itself to guide the body and mind into a greater state of ease. Of all the functions of the body’s autonomic nervous system, breathing is the only one that can be voluntarily manipulated. By breathing the way a calm, relaxed and healthy person would, we can guide the body toward a greater state of wellness. Breath is just one way our body and mind communicates with us. When needed, we can use our breath to communicate back.
If you notice your breathing is short, shallow, rapid or irregular, try a breath intervention. Take a deep, full breath in through your nose, hold it briefly at the top, then sigh out completely through your nose. Do this 2-3 times before returning to more gentle and patient nostril breathing.
If, in a moment of stress, you find yourself unable to alter your breathing pattern it may be a sign of something serious. If removing yourself from the activity or situation doesn’t allow you to ‘catch your breath,’ seek medical help.
For most of us, mindfulness can be developed gradually to reduce the potential for sudden distress – try an online meditation course for starters.