Breathing for Meditation

By Traci Pedersen

Your state of mind is closely linked to the many physiological processes going on in your body. In fact, your entire meditation experience can alter depending on where your breathing is focused.

According to a new study from Brown University, focusing on the breath in your nose or in your belly during meditation will result in two distinct mental states. Researchers found that belly breathers tend to feel more in touch with their somatic—or bodily—sensations, while nose breathers tend to be more aware of how their attention ‘feels.’

For the study, researchers randomly assigned student participants into two meditation groups: one group focused on nose breathing, and the other group focused on belly breathing. The participants were asked to document their experiences in a journal immediately after meditation.

Two independent coders were also asked to create an analysis of these journal entries. When a self-reported personal experience is coded, it is called grounded theory methodology—this is a research method that works in ‘reverse.’ For example, instead of beginning with a hypothesis, the first step is data collection, and then the key points are marked with a series of codes. The codes are then grouped into similar concepts and then further grouped into categories. This allows a hypothesis to be made.

When asked to describe their meditation experience, participants who focused on belly breathing referred more to specific somatic areas and bodily sensations. In contrast, those who focused on nose breathing tended to describe their state of mind and how their attention ‘felt’ during their awareness.

Based on the journal entries, the researchers believe that the belly breathers may have developed an ongoing, resting-state connectivity across different parts of the insula—the part of the brain that involves intuitive, bodily sensations and plays a role in the emotional aspects of ‘gut feelings.’

Breathing is one of the most important aspects of meditation, and it is typically used as the object of concentration. As you focus on your breath, you become more aware of your mind’s tendency to jump around to different thoughts. Whether your awareness is on your nose or your belly, focusing on the breath is a gentle discipline that puts you in the present moment and helps to develop mindfulness.


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