Posted 07.19.2016 | by AMRA

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Many forms of meditation include an aspect of increased attention to and focus on the breath. This raises the question of whether breath-focused meditations change the way people breathe over time. This question is of interest because rapid, irregular breathing is associated with stress and anxiety, while slow, deep breathing is often prescribed to overcome negative emotional states. It’s possible that slowed respiration rates may account for some of the emotional well-being associated with long-term meditation practice.

Weilgosz et al. [Scientific Reports] measured the respiration rates of long-term meditators (LTMs) and meditation-naive controls on three separate occasions over the course of a little over one year. The authors examined whether greater amounts of long-term practice were associated with greater decreases in respiration rate, and whether an intensive day of meditation practice acutely changed respiration rate.

The study recruited 31 long-term meditators (average age = 51; 55% female) with 3 or more years of mindfulness meditation experience, a daily meditation practice lasting at least 30 minutes, and a history of 3 or more intensive meditation retreats. The LTMs were recruited from meditation centers across the United States and had an average of 4,658 hours of intensive retreat experience (range = 258 to 29,710 hours). The LTMs were contrasted with a group of meditation-naive controls of roughly similar age and gender (average age = 48; 68% female) recruited from the local Madison, Wisconsin area.

Participants had their respiration rates measured in a laboratory on three separate occasions spaced approximately 4.5 months apart. Their breathing was assessed while they were at rest, but there were no instructions to meditate during these assessment sessions. Prior to two of the laboratory sessions, LTMs completed 8 hours of either intensive open monitoring or lovingkindness meditation. The controls spent an equivalent amount of time engaged in leisure activities (reading, computer games, watching documentaries) prior to one of their laboratory assessments. The researchers also correlated LTM’s lifetime hours of retreat practice and daily home practice with their laboratory-measured respiration rates.

Respiration rates showed a good reliability across laboratory sessions for both LTMs and controls. LTM respiration rates were, on average, 1.6 breaths per minute slower than control rates; this group difference was significant. Engaging in leisure activities, open monitoring meditation, or lovingkindness meditation prior to assessment had no acute effect on laboratory session respiration rates. The extent of meditator’s daily home meditation practice was also unrelated to their respiration rates.

On the other hand, there was a significant inverse relationship between retreat experience and respiration rate: the greater the number of hours meditators had spent on retreat, the slower their respiration rates. The slope of the relationship was such that a doubling of retreat hours was associated with a decrease of 0.7 breaths per minute.

These findings support the hypothesis that long-term mindfulness practice slows respiration rate in a reliable way, and that this slowing is not associated with either immediate recent practice or daily home practice, but rather with cumulative hours of intensive retreat practice. The results suggest a possible special role for intensive retreat practice in developing certain physiological correlates of mindfulness meditation practice.

Additional research is needed to determine whether these decreased respiration rates are correlated with increased physical and mental well-being. One study limitation is that meditators may have spontaneously meditated during their laboratory measurement sessions, even though they hadn’t been instructed to do so, thus altering their breathing rates.

Reference:

Wielgosz, J., Schuyler, B. S., Lutz, A., & Davidson, R. J. (2016). Long-term mindfulness training is associated with reliable differences in resting respiration rate. Scientific Reports.

[Link to abstract]