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MIDL 3/52: Retraining Autonomous Breathing


In MIDL Mindfulness Training 3/52 you retrain any habitual stress based breathing patterns to lower anxiety and as a basis for the development of mindfulness of breathing. Autonomous diaphragm breathing is essential to the development of mindfulness meditation as it affects the arising of the Five Hindrances to Meditation and the ability to use breathing as a meditation object. Training in sensitivity to diaphragmatic breathing is also used as a basis to reflect the mind to decondition habitual patterns of reaction. It can be considered the first of the softening skills developed within MIDL. Submit Your Question

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Is This Satipatthana?

Your Question: What does breathing with my diaphragm have to do with Buddhist Satipatthana practice? I can understand this as a way of feeling less stressed but didn't the Buddha say that we should practice mindfulness of breathing?

Stephen Procter: There are many doorways that we can enter when practicing Satipatthana Vipassana (mindfulness meditation). While on a physical level, retraining of our breathing patterns to autonomous diaphragmatic breathing lowers the experience of anxiety, it also opens the doorway to something much more profound if trained as a foundation for mindfulness within daily life.

Intentional retraining of breathing patterns covers all four Satipatthanas. When the meditator begins breathing retraining they develop Kayanupassana: Mindfulness of Body by bringing awareness to the sensations within the movement of the diaphragm within their body. While in the first two stages of breathing retraining the movement of the diaphragm is controlled, during the third stage the meditator holds bare awareness of the movement of breathing as it moves autonomously within their body. Awareness of this movement develops a heightened sensitivity to the experience of breathing as well as their relationship towards it.

This increased sensitivity to breathing naturally transfers into the meditators daily life allowing them to observe their breathing patterns throughout the day creating a foundation from which they can observe their habitual relationship of attraction or aversion. Mindfulness of breathing patterns changing from belly to chest breathing throughout the day, becomes a 'red flag' that signals the meditators relationship towards experiences within their life, allowing them to observe any habitual relationships.

When the meditator enters into the third stage of breathing retraining they immerse awareness into the experience of their body and allow the re-engaged diaphragm to move autonomously, free from control. This is their first training in the skill of mindfulness of breathing and teaches them how to experience the breath, free from control. At this stage they start to notice their habitual desire to control their breathing and develop an understanding of the relationship between their state of mind and the experience of breathing within their body. They are now developing the third foundation of Cittanupassana: Mindfulness of Mind. This sensitivity to changes within their breathing patterns naturally transfers into their daily life, heightening the understanding of how the experience of their body changes to reflect their state of mind.

As breathing retraining progresses the meditator becomes very aware of the correlation between the unpleasantness they experience while chest, stress breathing and the pleasantness they experience through diaphragmatic breathing. Sensitivity to the relationship between the experience of their body, interaction of their mind and the feeling tone that arises, dependant on both, develops. This increased sensitivity to unpleasantness and pleasantness, separate from the experience of the sensate quality of the body, brings the meditator into the development of Vedananupassana: Mindfulness of Feeling.

This increased sensitivity to the experience of their body, the interaction of the mind and feeling tone as a reflection of their mind, within their body becomes very clear to the meditator at this stage taking them into Dhammanupassana: Mindfulness of Conditioned Processes. The meditator now starts to see clearly the conditioned relationship between the experience of their body, mind and the feeling tone present. This sensitivity makes habitual defensive patterns of reaction within them very clear and provides the basis from which they can observe and soften their relationship towards these patterns within their daily life. The process of observing and softening into this habitual process becomes clear to them and the Satipatthana path of deconditioning through mindful non-participation opens up thereby cultivating the factors of the Noble Eightfold Path.

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Purpose of Diaphragmatic Breathing

Your Question: What is the intended purpose, please, of diaphragmatic breathing? It feels so unnatural, as if my body is not receiving sufficient oxygen until I bring the breath into my chest.

Stephen Procter: There are three purposes to diaphragmatic breathing in MIDL:

1. As mindfulness meditators we always work with our dominant experience. Many people come to MIDL mindfulness meditation because they are experiencing stress and anxiety within their lives. This experience of stress / anxiety is our first object of meditation and is part of our foundation of mindfulness of body. To do this we need to work with it in a skillful way, this is done by developing sensitivity to our breathing patterns in regards to diaphragmatic breathing.

When the stress response is switched on, one of the ways it affects us is by disengaging the diaphragm muscle from the process of respiration. This disengagement leads to habitual stress-chest breathing patterns thereby creating the conditions for the Five Hindrances to Meditation arise. As meditators we intentionally retrain diaphragmatic breathing in order to decondition any habitual stress breathing patterns. Once diaphragmatic breathing becomes autonomous the meditator will experience a significant reduction of the Five Hindrances to Meditation arising in seated meditation and within their daily life.

2. Once breathing patterns have been retrained the meditator can then use slow diaphragmatic breathing as a basis for the MIDL Softening skill. Softening is the ability to soften / relax our relationship towards any experience that arises during seated meditation and within daily life. Softening into our relationship towards what we are experiencing is a basis for deconditioning any habitual defensive patterns of behaviour within our life.

3. Autonomous diaphragmatic breathing creates the basis for the development of mindfulness of breathing. If a meditator begins mindfulness of breathing with stress-chest breathing patterns they will have a never ending aversion based relationship with their breathing and mindfulness of breathing will not develop. Through retraining diaphragmatic breathing until it becomes autonomous the meditator creates the conditions necessary for further development of mindfulness and concentration.

Not Getting Enough Air
The experience of feeling like you are not getting enough air when breathing in your belly is a sign that stress-chest breathing has habitualised and that your diaphragm muscle has weakened as a result. This weakness can be seen both in the range of movement of the diaphragm and also the speed in which it moves. Both this range and speed of movement will affect your ability to breathe slowly within your belly with your diaphragm. As you gradually slow down your breathing pattern and increase the range of movement of your diaphragm muscle the feeling of not getting enough air will go away.

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Use Mouth or Nose Breathing?

Your Question: For the deep breaths, do we breathe in through the nose, then out through the mouth? Or out through the nose too?

Stephen Procter: If your nose is not blocked or obstructed in any way then the mouth is kept closed with the tip of your tongue on the little node behind your two top teeth. The breath is always drawn in and out through the nose, never the mouth.

The nose prepares the air for your lungs by filtering it, moisturising it and regulating its temperature. On the out-breath the nose creates a relationship of back-pressure with the diaphragm creating a slow, calming out-breath. This slowness of the out-breath also allows re-absorption of CO2 necessary for the regulation of the respiration process.

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Diaphragm Breathing Difficulties

Your Question: I am finding breathing with my diaphragm difficult, do you have suggestions on why this would be and how I can improve my breathing patterns?

Stephen Procter: Learning to breathe using your diaphragm can be quite tricky at first especially if chest breathing has become normal to you. The diaphragm naturally engaged in the process of breathing is not anything special or unusual, it is how a baby or young child breathes all the time unless it is stressed or has experienced trauma.

For many of us chest stress breathing has become our normal, natural way of breathing. It therefore may not feel natural at first to re-engage the diaphragm when breathing. The most common barrier to retraining diaphragmatic breathing is trying too hard to breathe down into your belly from your upper chest - (top of chest - ribs - belly). Trying to breathe from the top of the chest downwards into our belly does not work because when we are stressed our diaphragm muscle locks under our rib cage and since it is a dome like shape, cannot be pushed down using force.

Diaphragmatic breathing has to be started from the V shaped muscle at the base of your abdominals below your belly button (in-breath = belly button - ribs - upper chest). To learn this, place your fingers just below your belly button while lying down; lightly pressing your fingers inwards. You then slowly extend the lower abdominal muscle upwards so that it lifts your fingers; you will notice that this draws air in through your nose. You then slowly lower your fingers and lower abdominals down again; you will notice that air goes back out of your nose.

At first this may feel artificial but with practice your diaphragm becomes stronger and the movement becomes smoother and more refined. Remember slowness of the movement of your lower abdominals is the key here. This slow movement causes the diaphragm to re-engage - it now moves autonomously and the stress response turns off temporarily creating a break in the anxious habitual pattern.

As you continue in your training you will then go through a process of learning to soften / relax any over-effort or resistance you feel in order to decondition the hyper-sensitivity of your stress response; changing habitual stress chest breathing patterns. There is a detailed article on the Meditation in the Shire website in the MIDL Anxiety Softening Room.

If you find this is all too much for you this is also ok, I recommend instead focusing on developing Stillness meditation MIDL Mindfulness Training 39 - 42/52. As Stillness becomes deeper your mind will find safety and your breathing patterns will naturally start to change.

This training becomes much easier.

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Breathing Into Chest

Your Question: Why should we bring the breath up into our chest? Why not just continue breathing in our belly?

Stephen Procter: It is not enough when retraining habitual stress breathing patterns to just strengthen and lengthen the range of movement of the diaphragm in the belly. This is because stress breathing is also up-side-down in the way it functions, to autonomous diaphragm breathing.

With stress breathing, due to the disengagement of the diaphragm, breathing is experienced on the in-breath as starting at the top of the chest and moving downwards as the breath comes in, stopping at the lower ribs.

With autonomous diaphragm breathing, due to the engagement of the diaphragm, breathing is experienced on the in-breath as starting below the belly button and moving upwards to the top of the chest.

First training to breathe in the belly, then belly up into the chest, is a necessary part of breathing retraining if we wish to decondition habitual stress chest breathing and condition diaphragmatic breathing so that it becomes autonomous.

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Stress Breathing Returns

Your Question: When doing this meditation my diaphragm returns to breathing and happens naturally in my belly but when I finish the meditation and go back into daily life it disengages and I start breathing in my chest again. How long does it take to change my breathing patterns?

Stephen Procter: Diaphragmatic breathing is a foundation skill in MIDL and retraining your breathing pattern so that diaphragmatic breathing becomes natural is a doorway of self observation in MIDL mindfulness meditation.

If you practice breathing retraining correctly twice per day it usually takes 3 - 4 weeks to change from habitual chest stress breathing patterns. You are correct that in the last phase of this meditation the diaphragm will re-engage and diaphragmatic breathing will happen autonomously. You will than experience the benefits of correct, natural non-defensive breathing. You are also correct that when you finish the meditation and return to normal life that at some stage your diaphragm will lock and habitual chest chest breathing will start again.

The change of your breathing pattern to chest breathing is a habitual defensive behaviour that re-engages your stress response. There is nothing wrong with this process, it is doing what it is supposed to do, the problem is that this pattern has become habitual so is not turning off when no danger is present. This is a normal part of working with any habit, something will trigger the habitual behaviour and you will fall back into it again and again.

The task of this breathing retraining has three levels:
1. Strengthen and lengthen the movement of the diaphragm by moving it slowly within the belly. This is aided by placing your finger tips just below your belly button, slightly pushing in, and lifting them away from your body by slowly extending and lowering your lower abdominal muscles. In the beginning the range of move may only be 2 - 3 seconds and the diaphragm will move too fast. With gentle practice this will lengthen to 5 seconds on the in-breath and 5 seconds of movement on the out-breath which is a more comfortable range. Even though we train this movement in this way during the meditation, this does not reflect the breathing rate in daily life. your brain will naturally adjust this dependent on what you are doing it just has a greater range of speed and length to work with.

2. Reverse stress breathing from starting at the top of the chest, moving down towards the base of the ribs to starting from below the belly button and moving up towards the top of the chest. This is also necessary because habitual stress breathing lowers the ability of the ribs to expand and contract with breathing.

3. Lying still and allowing the diaphragm to move autonomously for a period of time, without control to reteach your mind what natural breathing feels like. It is not unusual to deal with the desire to control your breathing during this stage, distract yourself and allow your body to do what it already knows how to do.

4. Observing and re-engaging diaphragm breathing throughout your day, whenever you notice that your habitual stress chest breathing pattern has re-engaged again. This is done by placing your finger tips below your belly button, pressing in slightly and slowly lifting and slowly lowering your fingers with your lower abdominal muscles five times. Slow movement is important. This will cause the diaphragm to re-engage autonomously.

Your whole task during this process is to create gaps in the habitual cycle. At first these gaps will be small, your breathing will change back again and again. This does not matter. Gradually the period of time that your diaphragm is re-engaged in breathing throughout the day will increase as will your sensitivity to changes within your breathing patterns.

From this platform you will start to observe and understand the correlation between your resistance towards what you are experiencing in life and changes within your patterns of breathing. This is real mindfulness of breathing from which you will be able to observe and decondition defensive patterns of reaction deeply embedded within your mind.

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Breathing More Deeply

Your Question: Some observations I have made while doing 3/52 meditation.

1. On each outbreath I try to breathe out as deeply as possible however it seems like sometimes I'm trying to squeeze the last remaining amount of air out using some effort to do so. I don't know if that is the right way to accomplish breathing out more deeply. Wondering what your thoughts are on this?

2. After I have completed my outbreath it seems like there is a long 8 second pause before I take my next inbreath. Is that okay to have a long pause like that?. It seems natural to me because I don't feel the need to breathe again immediately after the outbreath. I'm totally relaxed well laying there. I just lay there for 8 seconds without breathing. Wondering what your thoughts are on this?

Stephen Procter: 1. Trying to squeeze the remaining air out is counterproductive to the purpose of breathing retraining. Breathing deeply has nothing to do with the amount of air in the lungs, it has to do with the slowness of the movement of the diaphragm muscle in the belly. This slowness of movement can not be increased through force.

Lungs do not breathe, noses do not breathe and mouths do not breathe. Air is drawn into the lungs through the mouth or nose only when a vacuum is created by the movement of the chest / back muscles (stress breathing) or movement of the diaphragm muscle (rest / digest breathing). If the diaphragm movement is fast, say 2 seconds, then only two seconds worth of air will be drawn in through the nose and the lungs will partially inflate.

If the diaphragm movement is slowed down to say 5 seconds, then 5 seconds worth of air will be drawn in through the nose and a larger breath will be taken. This slowness of movement of the diaphragm as it moves downward on the in-breath and slowly upward on the out-breath can not be done by force but only through gradual, gentle training.

The diaphragm works like a spring and naturally returns to up under the ribs on the out-breath, there is not need to help it do this but we can slightly slow down its return when retraining its movement if it is returning too fast.

Remember that during this meditation you are just reminding your body to do what it already knows how to do, to breath in a relaxed state using the diaphragm. This is how a young child breathes before they experience stress and trauma. You have just forgotten how to breathe and you are reminding your body.

2. When you are doing the exercise of strengthening and lengthening the range of movement of your diaphragm, than there is no pause. When you get into the third stage of allowing the breathing to happening autonomously, a pause between the out-breath and the in-breath is natural as your brain is regulating your breathing dependent on your needs for CO2 and Oxygen. When you are very relaxed this gap will become larger, stressed it will become shorter.

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Dream Like State

Your Question: Very relaxing, but sometime while breathing I am drifting to some dream like state and after some time returning to presence feeling overwhelmed. Is it normal? Note - I am doing meditation on the floor on a hard surface as suggested.

Stephen Procter: Yes this is normal, do not concern yourself with your mind drifting off into a dream like state during breathing retraining, this is just a sign of the level of your relaxation. This dream like state arises from an over-calming of the knowing quality of your awareness leading to your mind filling this gap of 'not-knowing' with habitual content.

Feeling overwhelmed when you come back is possibly from the knowing factor, of what you are doing now, returning and the stark difference between being unaware of your senses and suddenly returning to full awareness of them is startling you. This feeling of driftiness is part of the healing process as your mind lowers its defenses and feeling overwhelmed is these habitual defense mechanisms coming back, this will lesson over time as your mind finds safety in this process.

There are two areas you can work with:
1. Focus on lowering your effort in diaphragm breathing incase you are hyperventilating. Less effort is the key as we are not making our breathing behave a certain way but rather re-training it to do, what it already knows how to do. We just need to remind our body that breathing starts with the diaphragm. If you experience any light headedness then stop controlling your breathing; allow it to return to normal.

Slow, diaphragm breathing increases CO2 levels, this can cause the light headness if chest breathing is normal for you. Any experience of light headedness will then gradually fade as the oxygen / CO2 levels rebalance. This takes about 10 - 20 seconds for the feeling to start to fade after control of the breathing is abandoned. This feeling of lightheadness can be normal when first switching from chest to diaphragmatic breathing but gradually becomes less over time.

2. When you enter into the third stage of allowing your breathing to happen by itself, autonomously, put more effort into remembering to remembering the experience of your body lying there. The experience of your whole body on the hardness of the floor: heaviness, touch, pressure etc in order to ground your awareness This effort in remembering to remember is the aspect of mindfulness and will prevent the over-calming of the knowing factor of your awareness.

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