Updated: Jan 11, 2021
I breathe out long into the shakuhachi, a traditional Japanese bamboo flute. I take about 5 breaths per minute, transforming breath into melody, bending each note, adding tone and color. This is suizen, or breathing meditation. Suizen was practiced by the Komuso, Zen Buddhist monks of ancient Japan
I use the breath to modulate my physical and mental state as countless meditators have done for millennia before me. Today, we have a better understanding of the biomechanics at play, but the practices remain unchanged. In this post, I will share some of the many variations you might add to your practice from suizen to pranayama, polyphonic singing, chanting, the Wim Hof and Butyenko methods. These are preliminary practices designed to settle the mind prior to meditation.
Breathing is an autonomic process. You don't have to think about it. The amount of oxygen that we inhale through our breathing influences the amount of energy that is released into our cells. With skill, we can control and direct the breath like a Komuso monk, changing the chemical and physiological processes within the body to induce an overall sense of well-being and improved health. We can, for example, change the frequency (breaths per minute) and amplitude (depth) of the breath to stimulate the sympathetic and/or parasympathetic nervous system. Like this, we learn to modulate our response to stress, reducing anxiety and improving sleep.
Neurons in the brain stem mediate the link between breathing and emotions. The pre-Bötzinger complex controls a variety of breathing behaviors. Scientists uncovered a separate group of neurons in this area that regulate states of calm and arousal. These neurons form connections with the locus coeruleus, another area in the brain stem involved in modulating arousal and emotion.
A frequency of six exhalations a minute can be especially restorative, triggering a “relaxation response” in the brain and body. Whether those six exhalations are hummed, chanted, or channeled into a bamboo flute makes no difference.
These extensions provide additional benefits. When I play shakuhachi, I am tied to tradition. Komuso means monk of nothingness. Emptied of self, they wore tengai, or straw baskets on their heads. Instead of chanting sutras, they exhaled into a hollow instrument to produce beautiful melodies.
Polyphonic chanting is another way to sustain a breath. Harmonic overtones are sung over a fundamental note. The singer changes the shape of the tongue, lips, larynx and pharynx to produce complex, multilayered sounds. I learned about this kind of singing from a most unlikely source: Snarky Puppy, a fusion ensemble, featuring Cory Henry and Lalah Hathaway. In the recording below, band members, who are recognized internationally as among the most talented in the world, react visibly when Lalah Hatahway begins singing two notes simultaneously (@ 6:12).
My favorite reaction comes from Tara Simon, a professional vocal coach who explained what Lalah was doing (@ 6:33).
Tara mentioned Tuvan Throat singing which introduced me to a new world of possibilities. Chants Encounter documents some of the many variations of polyphonic overtone singing from around the world.
I enjoy producing overtones (or trying) using random sounds from different traditions: Khöömii (Mongolia), Sygyt (Tuva), and Gyuke (Tibet) among others. Overtone singing takes practice and concentration (an added benefit). It connects me to traditions the world over. It also annoys my children when I do it, which is an added benefit. :)
Son: Dad, please stop doing that!
Me (in lowest pitch): Noooooooooooooooooo!
When I do chant words with meaning, I prefer Gregorian chants. As I was raised Christian, I feel most comfortable repeating words with meanings that are familiar to me. Sometimes, I will hold a note over a chant as in the 3 minute recording below. I take one or two breaths per minute, exhaling in the key of F#. When I loop the track, my CO2 tolerance improves. In the first round, I may exhale while humming more than 10 times (3-4 bpm), by the third or fourth round, I am exhaling 3 (1 bpm). Humming greatly increases nitrous oxide (Weitzberg, 2002) while not only improves sinus ventilation, but slows and controls the exhalation. Improved CO2 tolerance has many practical benefits: improves cardiopulmonary functioning and oxygen delivery, exercise capacity, reduced state anxiety, and better overall control of the autonomic nervous system.
In addition to these extensions, I practice other breath control techniques. I do 10-20 minutes of the Wim Hof Method daily.
The Wim Hof Method (WHM) is a repackaging of ancient pranayama techniques: bhastrika (hyperventilation) and kumbhaka (retention). The WHM changes the pH balance of the blood. When we hyperventilate, the blood becomes more alkaline. During the breath hold, we build our CO2 tolerance. After several rounds we change our body's chemistry, breath holds become longer, and metabolism slows naturally.
The CO2 tolerance test is another daily do. It measures how well a person can tolerate carbon dioxide, how efficiently they utilize oxygen, and how much pulmonary control they have. Results are also correlated to state anxiety, or a person's predisposition to stress. How-to:
I mentioned pranayama (breath control). Other pranayama techniques include: nadi shodhana, kapalbhati, anulom viloum, ujjayi among dozens of others.
Each exercises the body in different ways. Some are simple; some like nauli kriya are more challenging to learn, but worth the effort.
Humming is still another way to extend the breath. Humming increase nitric oxide (NO). When we hum, airflow oscillates- enhancing sinus ventilation and increasing NO levels. Nitric oxide is a potent bronchodilator and vasodilator. It helps lower blood pressure and significantly increases the lungs’ oxygen-absorbing capacity. In The health benefits of nasal breathing, Dr. Alan Ruth writes: "[NO] is also known to be antifungal, antiviral and antibacterial. NO is an active component of the cardiovascular, endocrine, and immune systems, and is extremely versatile and significant within and throughout the human body."
I exhale into the shakuhachi and shape the sound. Each breath is a note. Your body is an instrument; each breath is a note. It is a joy learning to master your instrument. The symphony that is your life begins and ends with a breath.