Meditation can be as simple as those four steps, yet what it does for the mind—and, some believe, the body—is deep, and that’s where you start: with deep breathing.
Breathing is automatic. We rarely give it much thought—like blinking or swallowing. Breathing keeps us alive with a steady flow of oxygen and a cleansing release of carbon dioxide. But, also like blinking or swallowing, we can control the way we breathe, and we can use it to soothe ourselves and increase our feelings of wellbeing. Paying attention to and altering our breath is one of the core components of meditation.
Experts suggest noting the way you breathe in different situations, like when you’re happy or stressed or engaged in exercise. Knowing the way your own breathing patterns aid or hinder you in those circumstances can help you to correct it.
Breathing is a key component of yoga, tai chi, and Pilates, all exercises that are said to combat stress. (The Sanskrit word for breath is prana, which also meansenergy.1) So you could even conclude that proper breathing is part of the reason. Learning to breathe properly—through the diaphragm—is not difficult to master, but after a lifetime of bad breathing habits, is likely to feel unusual.
To get started right now, inhale while counting to three, then exhale while counting to three, and continue on in this pattern for as long as you can, paying attention to the pattern itself. Practice calm breathing a few times a day.
Deep breathing, or belly breathing, is the antidote to anxiety and stress:
Through your nose, inhale slowly, filling your lungs to capacity. Concentrate on making your stomach, rather than your chest, rise. This poses a special challenge for us, as we are so self-conscious about our stomachs that we want to bring them as little attention as possible, yet our shallow breathing could be a significant part of why we hold onto excess weight.
Once you’ve inhaled, don’t stop yourself; that’s another bad habit many of us have. Instead, when your lungs are filled, begin the slow process of emptying them. Visualize controlling the flow of air from a balloon, as if emptying it through a tiny opening. It should take twice as long to empty your lungs as it did to fill them, and your stomach should seem to pull back into your body.2
Stressed out? Calm yourself by doing this exercise five times in a row. This is a great anti-stressor. Notice how you feel afterward (you may be lightheaded when you try any of these breathing exercises until you get used to what it feels like to really breathe!).
Just sit there.
Meditation requires nothing of you but a few brief moments of your time and your complete presence. You don’t need special pillows or mats, you don’t need books or lessons, and you don’t need special clothing. It’s as simple as finding a comfortable place to sit or lie down (or stand or walk!) and focusing on something as simple as a word, an object, or your breath.
While the idea is to eliminate stress-inducing thoughts and images from your mind—you should not be making a grocery list or coming up with a new sales strategy while you sit there—it’s best to avoid a conscientious removal of those stray thoughts that enter your head. As you sit or stand quietly, focusing on a syllable or the air filling and leaving your lungs, acknowledge those other thoughts as they enter, but decline to engage them, and return to your focus.3
Meditation brings clarity and calm and can even help to lower high blood pressure.4 As it is with exercise, it’s the busiest times that you most need meditation. If you think you simply can’t spare those five or twenty minutes a day to just breathe, think about how much more efficiently you’ll work once you’ve de-stressed.4
And while meditation probably won’t directly help you lose weight, the mindfulness gained from regular practice can help to soften many of the habits that lead to emotional overeating.