Having Trouble Meditating? Start With Your Breath

12/24/2010 09:35 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

It is possible that you are one of the rare few who can stop your mind at will, entering deep, thoughtless meditation with ease and great peace. When you enter this meditation, you are healing your body, rejuvenating your brain and preventing physical and psychological disease. If that is the case, this is not the read for you. Move on to something more useful.

However, if you are like most people, silencing the mental chatter that haunts most of our waking hours is a challenge. It is not impossible, but you may require tools to ease into this peaceful state of being. There is a tool that is with you at all times, that is free of charge, and that functions both automatically and responds to conscious command: your breath.

If your body is an orchestra, the breath is your conductor. Whether you are aware of it or not, the rate and depth of your breath sends signals to your body, telling it to prepare for stress, or to relax. The quick shallow breaths that most city dwellers take as we go from place to place running errands and working gives a message to the body that there is stress present. Deeper, slower breaths, on the other hand, give the body the message that it is okay to relax.

And as it is commonly known, prolonged stress contributes to disease, whereas a relaxed mind and body contribute to health. The connection of your breath in this formula is well established by the Framingham Study, which has studied residents of Framingham, Massachusetts for 60 years. Their conclusion about breath matches the advice of the Taoists and the Yogis: the ideal breath rate for a human is 6 counts in and 6 counts out, or 5 breaths per minute. Modern science and ancient wisdom agree on this rate.

In preparation for meditation, you can use your breath. First, become aware of your breathing. Notice what your breath is like without modifying it. Are you naturally a quick, shallow breather, or do you breathe deeply and slowly? Next, set your intention to deepen and slow your breath. Begin with 4 counts in, holding it for 2 counts (to help slow it down), and then exhale for 4 counts. Slowly work your way up to 6 counts in and 6 counts out. You may find that this brings you into a more relaxed state mentally and physically. From this sense of peace, entering meditation may require less effort.