One of the unique abilities that make us human is the ability to control our breathing; in animals, breathing is involuntary. This peculiarity leads to the question of what the consequences of voluntary breathing are, and what kind of effects optimising breathing techniques may have on us.
A recent study published in physiology shows that controlled breathing can have positive effects on focus and stress reduction, and stimulates different areas of the brain than normal breathing.
That controlled breathing can be beneficial has been understood for thousands of years, and has been used by athletes and other high-performance individuals as a technique to increase concentration.
More specific to mindfulness practices, the study notes that in additional to voluntary (“volitional”) breathing, people have the ability to concentrate on the breath itself, a process called “Attentive” breathing. When participants in the study tracked their breathing, parts of the brain linked to moment-to-moment awareness were stimulated. These parts of the brain were not stimulated during untracked voluntary breathing, or when participants were asked to focus on external objects.
In the OBM method, key exercises incorporate both voluntary and attentive breathing. Interestingly enough, some people find the first one very difficult, while others struggle with the attentive breathing. This demonstrates how the same meditation can affect different people in different ways.
While the benefits of attentive breathing have been known experientially for millenia, and scientifically for the last few decades since mindfulness research began, it’s exciting to see studies begin to explore the underlying neurophysiology of the phenomenon.