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Trouble breathing when meditating?

VisaVisa Finland New
edited August 5 in Meditation

Hello all!
I registered some time ago, but this is actually my first post. =) It's a bit long, sorry!

I'm seeking help with a strange problem I haven't heard anyone else discuss. Basically, I have trouble breathing when I meditate. The problem also happens to some degree outside meditation, whenever I sit in any good straight-backed position without back support, sitting in front of the chair or zafu, allowing my lower back / lumbar to curve naturally.

Basically, it feels like my breathing is somehow restricted/constricted/obstructed. When I try to allow the breath to go as naturally and without interference as possible, it seems that the exhalation is not complete. The lungs at the belly area seem to go from 100% full at the end of the inhalation to 90% full at the end of the exhalation. Then, when the next inhalation occurs, there's not enough room for the incoming air, and so it feels a bit painful as the belly tries to expand more than it can. If I consciously control my breath, I can force the exhalation to push all the air out, but this does not happen naturally, and requires forced conscious breathing. Also, after this, the inhalation is very forceful and fast.

All in all this causes a great deal of discomfort and a feeling of being constantly a bit out of breath. It makes my mind wander like crazy, and meditation is nearly impossible, becoming a constant teeth-grinding struggle.

I have meditated for many years semi-regularly, but because I'm chronically ill (CFS), most of the time I meditate lying down, where I don't have this problem. However, in that position dullness, torpor and falling (half-)asleep are problems. I noticed this breathing-problem slightly under a year ago, when I started again to sometimes meditate while sitting on a chair or on a zafu.


I'm mystified about what could be going on, but here's some background that could be relevant. Because I'm ill and have low energy, I've spent quite a lot of time in bad positions, e.g. working on the laptop while sitting on the bed, supported by pillows. These tend to push the back into a slouching position. Perhaps the muscles around my belly have tensed up or shortened due to bad postures and lack of stretching. I've now started to stretch the front of my torso daily by lying on an exercise ball for a moment, but so far it hasn't made a difference.

Also, because my (lower) back is quite curved, in the past I thought it's too curved, and tried to straighten it up by tucking in the tailbone, for example when meditating. If I do that now (i.e. tuck the tailbone in and reduce the curvature of the lumbar), it helps the breathing a bit, but then my mid-back starts hurting very badly after about 10 minutes.

Also, not sure if it's relevant, but I had epidymitis and seminal vesiculitis last October, a bit before I noticed this issue. They were treated heavily with antibiotics, but there are still some sensations in the area of the vesicles (i.e. near the bladder). So, maybe there might still be some low-level inflammation somewhere there, which could affect the situation.

Finally, maybe it could be that my diaphragm or some other muscles related to breathing are weak.


Anyhow, does anyone have any idea what could be going on here, or what to do about it? Any exercises, stretches, yoga positions, breathing exercises etc I could try? Or any place where I could search for more information?

Thanks a lot! <3

[Deleted User]

Comments

  • karastikarasti Breathing Minnesota Veteran

    My guess would be that it is related to your illness causing you to have to support your body instead of your body being able to support itself. It actually takes the entire chain of muscles, tendons, ligaments etc to fully support our body. It is common even for people without illness to struggle with breathing issues because of posture, simply because we spend so much time on furniture. The crazy thing is, they make furniture, especially for work, to make it comfortable for our bodies to stay in the same position for hours and hours. When our bodies are absolutely not designed to do that. We should be using multiple positions and changing them frequently to ensure all of our body is stretched and worked.

    Pranayama exercises are always good to work on your breathing muscles. There are many of them online, but I'd look through and start with easier ones rather than the more vigorous ones like breath of fire etc. But if you can swing it, I'd look into Katy Bowman's books. She has a webpage with a lot of the information on it as well, I just found the books easier to navigate. She has a ton of information about this kind of stuff with lots of exercises that are fairly simple. Of her books, I'd recommend Movement Matters over any of the others. Lots of great information and lots of exercises. She explains far better than I can the importance of the proper tension in our bodies and what happens when we don't have it. Here is her blog https://nutritiousmovement.com/blog/

    Just be gentle and patient with yourself. With your illness, you may need fewer repetitions, you might need to work up to some things, and you might need more breaks, and there is nothing wrong with that. But doing her exercises helped resolve a lot of issues for me, including chronic hip pain. A chiropractor might also be of help to explain to you which parts of your body might be out of alignment. I am not a huge fan of them, because they basically make it so that you have to go in to see them regularly, and I don't believe that is medicine (IMO). Our bodies get out of alignment because of our lifestyles and injuries, but doing the right things can bring them back and that doesn't have to mean weekly appointments and adjustments. But, the information they might have could be valuable into you learning what your imbalances are.

    I'm a huge fan of yoga, but (and this is just my opinion of course) I'd work on some of those imbalances first, because if your alignment is off in your back/pelvis/hips you can just end up hurting yourself trying to do too much yoga. Restorative yoga might be a great idea though! I like Lauren Eckstrom.

    Bunks
  • lobsterlobster Veteran

    @Visa said:
    Anyhow, does anyone have any idea what could be going on here, or what to do about it? Any exercises, stretches, yoga positions, breathing exercises etc I could try? Or any place where I could search for more information?

    Thanks a lot! <3

    I am well aware of constricted breathing, having been in an unhealthy 'breath held' state for far too long.

    I think you need to sit up and at least practice regular mantra/chanting, which is a type of formal breath practice.

    http://www.manitobabuddhistchurch.org/traditions/chanting.html
    http://www.thebuddhacenter.org/buddhism/mantras/

    Get well.

  • VisaVisa Finland New

    Thanks for the helpful suggestions karasti and lobster! <3 I've been a bit tired and busy today, I'll get back to this tomorrow with some comments and follow-up questions...

  • VisaVisa Finland New

    @karasti said:
    My guess would be that it is related to your illness causing you to have to support your body instead of your body being able to support itself.

    Yup, what you wrote makes a lot of sense!

    Pranayama exercises are always good to work on your breathing muscles. There are many of them online, but I'd look through and start with easier ones rather than the more vigorous ones like breath of fire etc.

    Good idea. Are there any particular pranayamas (or instructional videos) that you'd recommend, or should I just go through some of the popular and easy looking ones that come up with a YouTube search?

    But if you can swing it, I'd look into Katy Bowman's books. She has a webpage with a lot of the information on it as well, I just found the books easier to navigate. She has a ton of information about this kind of stuff with lots of exercises that are fairly simple. Of her books, I'd recommend Movement Matters over any of the others. Lots of great information and lots of exercises. She explains far better than I can the importance of the proper tension in our bodies and what happens when we don't have it. Here is her blog https://nutritiousmovement.com/blog/

    Sounds very interesting. I think something like that could be useful in improving my overall health in the long term, although currently it's very difficult to pull off, as my exertion-limits are so low that sometimes even just vacuuming a bit and cooking already goes over and results in a bad flare-up for the following several days. Walking has been the best general exercise so far, but even with that I have to be precise in how much to do (e.g. 10 minutes might be ok, 20 min might give problems) – and on the worse days can't do it at all – or I might end up with the post-exertional fatigue lasting for days. So I suspect most of what she puts forward might not work for my low movement-limits at the moment, and I'll have to get back to them once I can move a bit more per day without problems.

    But now I'm very hungry to meditate more (and also seated, not always prone), so ideally I'm trying to find some pretty precise exercises or interventions that could tackle this breathing issue, provided that I can usually manage only about 10-30 minutes of very light exercise per day without problems.

    I'm a huge fan of yoga, but (and this is just my opinion of course) I'd work on some of those imbalances first, because if your alignment is off in your back/pelvis/hips you can just end up hurting yourself trying to do too much yoga. Restorative yoga might be a great idea though! I like Lauren Eckstrom.

    Thanks for the tip – I haven't heard of restorative yoga before, I'll do some youtube-searches. Most yoga is too heavy for me though, even most of the ones marked easy or light. The best one I've found so far is the 1st one Gary Weber demonstrates in this video (at ~5:47 where the playback starts):

  • VisaVisa Finland New

    @lobster said:
    I think you need to sit up and at least practice regular mantra/chanting, which is a type of formal breath practice.

    http://www.manitobabuddhistchurch.org/traditions/chanting.html
    http://www.thebuddhacenter.org/buddhism/mantras/

    Get well.

    Thanks! Are there any particular chants or particular types of chants that you think might be useful?

    I've liked chanting in retreats and other group practice, but never really managed to pick it up for my practice at home. I'm primarily familiar with the chants they use in Kwan Um school of Zen, and the ones Gary Weber demonstrates in this video (at 2:30, 7:20 & 9:10):

    (hmm strangely Weber ended up featuring prominently in this discussion.)

    I haven't really thought of chanting as a form of breathing practice before. From a breathing point of view the Zen ones and the Weber ones are pretty different in that most of the ones I know from Zen are normally chanted pretty fast and rhythmically, leaving only time to take quick breaths through the mouth while chanting. In these Weber ones, though, one takes a deep breath and each line is chanted with one exhale. Some of them are a bit challenging to chant comfortably with a single exhale. Do you have any opinion on which type of chanting might help more here?

  • karastikarasti Breathing Minnesota Veteran

    Restorative yoga is resting yoga. It places no stress on the body whatsoever, and you use various pillows and such to completely support your body so you can fully release tension and let your body focus on nothing but resting and healing. There are no down dogs, or anything like that.

    There are so many different exercises for pranayama, some are more vigorous and some are calming and teach you how to breathe properly. Funny that we've forgotten how to even do that! I find sama vritti and nadi shodhana the most helpful. In the first, you inhale, hold, exhale, hold and just repeat until you settle and calm. It switches you over to your parasympathetic nervous system which automatically calms your body. You do whatever counts work for you. I general inhale for a count of 4 hold for 4, exhale for 4, hold for 4 again and then just keep repeating. The other is alternate nostril breathing, which is a simple exercise but kind of hard to explain. you should be able to google it for instructions. Ujjayi breathing is helpful, too, but takes a bit of practice if you aren't used to it.

    The exercises Katy Bowman recommends are very light. they will vary based on what your body is used to, of course, but you could probably do some of the simple stretches while you watch tv, read a book, cook dinner, etc. Some things are more vigorous, it's ok to not do them if you can't. The stretches will get rid of fascial adhesions, which cause knots and pain all over our body.

    lobster
  • namarupanamarupa Veteran
    edited August 7

    When do you find yourself breathing normally and with ease?

    Then ask yourself what is different about that time and when you're meditating.

    If it's nothing more than just the sitting or the act of meditating itself then it's quite normal and just comes with the meditation.

    It's more than just looking at the breath, it's also noticing how the mind reacts to the noticing.

  • vinlynvinlyn Colorado...for now Veteran
    edited August 7

    Do you ACTUALLY have trouble breathing during meditation.

    The reason I ask is that just in every day life (not during meditation), I sometimes feel as if I am having labored breathing. And yet my oxygen levels are normal, my breathing rate is normal, and my pulse and blood pressure are normal. I think sometimes I just become over-sensitive in noticing normal body actions.

  • lobsterlobster Veteran
    edited August 8

    Having had chronic fatigue syndrome, I know how debilating it is.

    I thought the video was excellent. I have only done the first breath mentioned but without the chanting.

    My feeling is the second two breaths would work out as more healing because they are calling or focussed in a different way. The aloud mantra or vibration is healing, much like a cut purring.

    You can stay within the Zen Mahayana tradition, in particular if you are comfortable there or go further afield into Pureland chanting, which is used in some Zen schools or even examine the 'medicine buddha'/Yakushi of Vajrayana or some Zen ...
    http://www.kwanumzen.org/?teaching=the-medicine-buddha
    http://www.onmarkproductions.com/html/yakushi.shtml
    http://buddhaweekly.com/the-first-doctor-medicine-buddha-bhaisajyaguru/

    I will be doing the vajrayana practice shortly and dedicating the practice for you and others needing a Buddha boost of well being ... <3

  • VisaVisa Finland New

    Thanks for all the comments and advice, very helpful! I'm also very happy that the suggestions are extending into things that could be useful for the CFS in general!

    @karasti said:
    Restorative yoga is resting yoga. It places no stress on the body whatsoever [...]

    Ok, sounds indeed like something that could be of benefit! How have you gotten into it – via online videos or such, or in actual yoga classes? On Lauren Eckstrom's web pages I didn't find any suitable / sufficiently cheap online videos or courses. Maybe it sounds a bit like restorative yoga is best done in a (physical) yoga class, if the pillows etc accessories are important?

    There are so many different exercises for pranayama [...]

    Thanks, I'm sure I'll be able to look them up from your descriptions!

    The exercises Katy Bowman recommends are very light. [...]

    Great, it's starting to sound like I should really get that book...

  • VisaVisa Finland New

    @namarupa said:
    When do you find yourself breathing normally and with ease?

    Primarily when lying on the bed. But also, it's not really a problem when I'm slouched on the couch, or when standing or walking – although in those situations I'm not always in such a mindful state that I would necessarily notice even if I did breathe badly/weirdly (e.g. hold my breath for a bit, then have a bigger breath etc).

    Then ask yourself what is different about that time and when you're meditating.

    I think meditation is one of the only situations where I sit in a proper, straight posture, where my lumbar is allowed to naturally curve fully. I think this lumbar curve is related to this, and sometimes I'm wondering if I'm allowing it to curve too much (esp. as I have a very naturally curvy spine), and whether I should "tuck in my tailbone" a bit more. But, if I do that (well, even if I don't, to some extent), I get bad pain in mid-back after a while. (Normally in instructions for meditation posture I've heard the instruction to allow the lumbar to curve naturally, rather than to tuck in the tailbone.)

    If it's nothing more than just the sitting or the act of meditating itself then it's quite normal and just comes with the meditation.

    I think it's primarily about the sitting position rather than the meditation – but from my point of view it's not normal to have severely constricted breathing.

    It's more than just looking at the breath, it's also noticing how the mind reacts to the noticing.

    Well, that's a whole other discussion, which I'm not looking to go so much in this thread. Currently it's pretty obvious to me that I'm not able to breathe normally in that position, and that there is therefore a physiological problem that needs to be fixed in some other way than just trying to manipulate my mind to stay put while I can't breathe...

  • VisaVisa Finland New

    @vinlyn said:
    Do you ACTUALLY have trouble breathing during meditation.

    YES! =)

    The reason I ask is that just in every day life (not during meditation), I sometimes feel as if I am having labored breathing. And yet my oxygen levels are normal, my breathing rate is normal, and my pulse and blood pressure are normal. I think sometimes I just become over-sensitive in noticing normal body actions.

    Yep, worth checking! There is actually another interesting physical phenomenon going on when I sit in meditation: I get really hot. Normally (due to the CFS) I'm feeling very cold and have to wear about 5x more clothes than other people (e.g. others are in t-shirts while I have to wear 4 long-sleeved shirts). But when I meditate, I start sweating very easily, like I was doing physical exercise. Which in a way I am – I think particularly my back has gotten so weak that it's quite a strain to keep it in that position...

  • VisaVisa Finland New

    @lobster said:
    Having had chronic fatigue syndrome, I know how debilating it is.

    Oh wow, very interesting! Do you mind if I PM you a couple of questions about that?

    I thought the video was excellent. I have only done the first breath mentioned but without the chanting.

    My feeling is the second two breaths would work out as more healing because they are calling or focussed in a different way. The aloud mantra or vibration is healing, much like a cut purring.

    You can stay within the Zen Mahayana tradition, in particular if you are comfortable there or go further afield into Pureland chanting, which is used in some Zen schools or even examine the 'medicine buddha'/Yakushi of Vajrayana or some Zen ...
    http://www.kwanumzen.org/?teaching=the-medicine-buddha
    http://www.onmarkproductions.com/html/yakushi.shtml
    http://buddhaweekly.com/the-first-doctor-medicine-buddha-bhaisajyaguru/

    Thanks for the tips! I've liked the Zen chanting in the Kwan Um retreats etc, but at home I think I maybe prefer the ones Gary Weber is suggesting in that video, which like you said might work out for healing purposes. I'll check out these other ones you mentioned, such as the "medicine buddha" – particularly interesting seeing Seung Sahn talking about it, I have great trust and respect in his teaching.

    I will be doing the vajrayana practice shortly and dedicating the practice for you and others needing a Buddha boost of well being ... <3

    Thanks a lot! <3

  • VisaVisa Finland New

    BTW, do people in general feel that breathing entirely in the belly is the best/healthiest approach?

    In Kwan Um Zen the instruction I've encountered has always been to breathe into the dantien, i.e. lower belly, so I've learned to breathe as low into the belly as possible. However, now that I've looked into this issue, I've noticed that some breathing instructors even advocate breathing into the chest or the sides of the chest. For example Max Strom advocates breathing to the sides of the chest/ribs (exercise is at 14:25 in the video blow), and suggests that breathing entirely abdominally is a bad idea and unhealthy, leading to tight chest and even emotional repression etc. This is interesting to me, because I do think my chest has tightened since shifting to breathing entirely in the low abdomen.

    I'm thinking now if it would be maybe better to breathe both with the belly and the chest (i.e. starting with the lower belly, and slowly extending upwards, including the chest).

  • VisaVisa Finland New

    (Seems like the "Start at" function of YouTube videos doesn't work when embedded here, the Max Strom one was supposed to start at 14:25.)

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