Essential to meditation, even for good health and peace of mind, is breath. If you think of your body and mind as an amazing, complex orchestra, everything working together as much as possible to produce the beautiful symphony of you, guess who would be the conductor? Your breathing.
If you take shallow, quick breaths, your body will know that the panic is on, also known as the fight or flight response: stress hormones are released, your appetite may increase to prepare for unknown dangers, your body may arm itself with extra tension in the neck and shoulders, you may hold on to extra belly fat, most emotions will shut down (except fear and anger), and you might even experience a bad taste in your mouth. If you continue to take short, shallow breaths for extended periods of time, or perhaps hold your breath completely while you think, you will be encouraging stress related illnesses, like heart disease, skin problems and even the weakening of the immune system. It is well known that the diseases that aren't directly caused by stress will certainly be aggravated by it.
On the other hand, if your breaths are long and deep, your orchestra will take the cue from its conductor, your breath, that all is well. You may become more aware of your full range of emotions, especially love and tenderness, your body will easily take care of all of its natural functions and organs, your muscles will be ready but relaxed, your circulation may improve, your body may not feel the need to overeat or over store foods and fats -- as all is well in your world, and you may be preventing stress-related illnesses.
Breath is the only function of the body that is both automatic, like digestion, hormone secretion, or any other autonomic function of the nervous system, and also consciously controllable, like movement, speech and other functions of the somatic nervous system. This makes breathing like a magical key to altering your state of being, as it unites every aspect of the nervous system, and so your experience of yourself.
In a study done in Framingham, Mass. by NYU and Boston University, generations of residents were studied over a period of more than 60 years. Eventually, the clinicians were able to accurately predict who would get sick and with what based on breath rate. Taoists and Pantanjali's the Yoga Sutras could have given you some of the wisdom derived from the Framingham study, among other studies recently: they say the ideal breath rate for humans is 6 breaths per minute or less, taking deep, full inhales with slow exhales.
This can equate to inhaling for five seconds, and exhaling for five seconds. You might be surprised to know that there are many who already breathe at this rate. For me, it took a concerted effort to deepen and lengthen my breath, but I did find a deeper state of being, and my asthma is now practically nonexistent.
Try it with me in this guided breathing meditation, and let me know how it goes in the comment section. I am showing a traditional yogic pranayama (breath control) practice, called anuloma. If you find it too easy, try lengthening your exhale until it is twice as long as your inhale.
"There Is A Way A Way Of Breathing That is a Shame And A Suffocation.
A Love Breath,
That Lets You Open Infinitely."
RUMI, 13th Century Sufi Mystic