There’s been quite a bit of discussion lately on the importance of proper breathing in athletic performance. The last article I wrote was on a sub-topic of respiratory physiology, focusing on ways in which you could train your respiratory system to influence perception during training, thus possibly improving performance. Others at SOFLETE have held seminars and live sessions recently on specific breathing techniques, highlighting how breath training ties in to exercise physiology. It’s clear that your breath is integral to some pretty amazing things and isn’t just involved in keeping you alive.
Certain types of breath practices can positively influence your cardiovascular system, help you identify and move beyond unwanted habitual behaviors, and even change your brain. Thanks to decades of research we now know that neuroplasticity is real, which means that our brains have the ability to rewire themselves and change for the better. Long gone is the static or “use-it-or-lose-it” notion of our brains.
If you’ve ever scoffed at the thought of meditation, maybe now is the time to shift your perspective on it because meditation is precisely what enables your brain, and therefore you, to change. And without the breath, meditation doesn’t exist.
What is Meditation?
Much skepticism exists around the subject of meditation, as most people are not entirely clear what meditation is. A basic Google search may offer over twenty different types of meditation, many of which sound pretty confusing and frankly, just bad.
Additionally, a common misconception (and major turn-off) is that meditation is a religious practice when, in fact, most forms of meditation are secular. As someone who grew up Catholic and wound up with an aversion to most forms of organized religion, this was one of the reasons it took me so long to try it.
Another popular but incorrect belief about meditation is that it’s primarily a practice for cultivating a positive mental state. Although deep peace and happiness may arise during meditation, achieving some specific or desired mental state isn’t the goal of practicing.
Which leads to the next misconception: meditation is something done by and experienced entirely within the mind. Some contemporary approaches to meditation do employ our left-brain, or the orderly and analytical part of the brain, to focus our attention in a “top-down” way. But these can be hard to stick with, especially for those of us with busy minds.
To illustrate what some meditative practices look like, let’s begin with Buddhist Zen Meditation.
Zen practitioners focus their attention on the movement of the breath into and out of the nose – specifically at the tip of the nose or nostrils. Counting each breath may be done to maintain focus, but the experience isn’t meant to be focused on the counting as much as it is with the sensations related to the movement of the breath.
Another way in which Zen practitioners meditate involves staying with the present moment rather than focusing attention on any specific object. If thoughts pop up, Zen practitioners simply notice them and let them go rather than fixating on them or trying to force their minds to be still. Zen Meditation is typically done seated on a meditation cushion or in a chair, and as with most types of meditation, posture is a critical component of the practice.
Another common type of meditation is Mindfulness Meditation, which has gained popularity in recent years due to apps like Headspace. It has also gained popularity among the research community, and you’ll find a much deeper dig into Mindfulness Meditation below.
In my own personal exploration of meditative practices, I have found that the types of meditation involving bodywork are the most engaging and effective, and these make use of what is known as the “bottom-up” approach.
These types include various forms of Yoga and what is referred to as Somatic Meditation. These practices focus on developing interoceptive (internal body state) awareness, enhancing tolerance for present experiences, improving capacity for non-judgmental thought, and enabling better attentional control.
Yoga does this via specific postures and movements, while Somatic Meditation does this by bringing your awareness and attention directly to your body and internal environment. Beyond those goals of the practice, Somatic Meditation also encourages personal transformation by aiding in the dismantling of the ego and unlocking and moving beyond trauma. I’ll explain this in a little more detail later, but a deep dive on these topics will need to wait for a future article.
Interoception and the Brain
Interoception, or being aware of your internal body state, is a critical part of a person’s ability to respond to stress. Being able to bring awareness to one’s internal state, which includes sensations related to breathing, enables that individual to maintain a sense of agency and regulate their response to internal changes in homeostasis caused by external stressors.
In other words, the better you become at focusing your awareness on your present internal environment, the more resilient to stress and stress-related sequelae – including those related to traumatic experiences – you become.
This also enables you to better identify threatening versus non-threatening stimuli. This is important as athletes because we need to be able to differentiate between things that painful or uncomfortable but benign (like muscle cramps and wanting to puke after a hard workout), and things that are painful or uncomfortable and actually a danger (like an asthma attack or bone fracture).
It’s kind of like that saying, “Are you hurt or are you injured?”
Knowing the difference, knowing what actually needs to be addressed (e.g. if I don’t use my inhaler I will die) is the key to handling external stressors.
Within the military, the ability to differentiate between threatening versus non-threatening stimuli may be a different kind of exercise. Often it exists externally, such as identifying faces of individuals that pose a threat versus those that do not. But despite being external in these cases, interoception is still a vital part of this ability.
The main parts of the brain involved in interoceptive processing are called the insula and anterior cingulate, or the insular and anterior cingulate cortices since they’re part of the outer portion of the brain, or the cortex. Going forward, I’ll refer to the insular cortex as the IC and the anterior cingulate cortex as the ACC.
These brain regions have reciprocal connections with other areas of the brain, including a major emotional center called the amygdala, which is the most well-known brain structure involved in fear processing. Those with an overactive amygdala will likely show enhanced fear responses.
As an interesting reference regarding the IC, Dr. Martin Paulus and colleagues have investigated emotional and interoceptive processing in highly resilient individuals, including elite athletes and elite warfighters. This research group found that elite warfighters (Navy SEALs) and elite athletes are able to optimize activation of the IC during various stimuli and challenges, indicating that the IC is an integral structure for peak performance in extreme environments (Haase, et al. 2016).
Mindfulness has similarities with Zen Meditation in that the practice involves focusing awareness on the present moment, and experiencing any thoughts, sensations, or emotions that arise without judgment and with full acceptance.
Mindfulness also involves bringing awareness to each sense and noticing how things feel, sound, taste, etc. Mindfulness Meditation can be practiced while seated, but the goal is to be able to maintain this practice in as many aspects of daily life as possible. You can think of it as an invitation to awaken to your life, to every single moment, regardless of what it is that you’re doing (e.g. mowing the lawn, mixing up that TBNN before bed, filling out those TPS reports).
Mindfulness Training has been shown to modulate ACC and IC activity. In 2016, Dr. Paulus and colleagues exposed infantry Marines to a twenty-hour Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training (MMFT) during the pre-deployment interval to assess how it might affect their responses to various stimuli. The MMFT program utilized some didactic content, which covered concrete applications for mindfulness practices in the operational environment, as well as in-class mindfulness practice and mindfulness homework consisting of independent practice (Haase, et al., 2016).
The Marines who underwent MMFT showed significant attenuation of the right anterior IC and ACC during the experience of aversive breathing conditions.
In a more simplified explanation, those who underwent MMFT were able to use fewer brain resources during a stressful situation. The conclusion drawn from this study is that Mindfulness Training changes brain activation, resulting in more effective processing of aversive interoceptive stimuli and improved resilience.
An earlier study involving MMFT delivered the twenty-hour program over an eight-week period to a similar cohort of active-duty infantry Marines (Johnson et al., 2014). Those who received the MMFT training had attenuated activity in the right IC and ACC in response to stressful stimuli comparable to what was observed in the 2016 study involving aversive respiratory challenges.
Additionally, there was greater reactivity and recovery – measured via respiratory rate and heart rate – to stressful stimuli, which are hallmarks of psychological health and a healthy homeostatic system. Finally, the Marines in the MMFT program had lower levels of plasma neuropeptide Y (NPY), a substance whose release can be used as an indicator of sympathetic nervous system activation.
Perhaps a more tangible or obvious way in which a regular meditation practice can be beneficial is that it enhances one’s attentional performance.
This was found to be the case even in situations of high-demand military training, where attentional performance lapses are known to occur (Jha, et al., 2015).
In this study, Dr. Elizabeth Stanley and colleagues delivered an eight-hour version of MMFT over an eight-week period to active-duty U.S. Army male volunteers eight-to-ten months prior to deployment to Afghanistan. The primary findings from this study indicate that there are adverse cognitive effects in military cohorts during the pre-deployment interval due to training demands and overall stress, that mindfulness training is somewhat protective against these cognitive impairments, and that the specific MMFT program may promote cognitive resilience over time by protecting attentional capacities put at risk by high-demand intervals (Jha, et al., 2015).
This has implications far beyond the military population, as many occupations involve high-demand intervals, such as emergency medical services, law enforcement, aviation, and firefighting, just to name a few.
Other Types of Meditation and Health Benefits
Most recently, Doctors conducted a study where they trained participants in awareness-based compassion meditation (ABCM) or matched relaxation training and found that the ABCM group exhibited significantly reduced anxiety and right amygdala activity during negative emotional processing than the relaxation group (Leung et al., 2018).
As a reminder, the amygdala is an essential component of emotional and fear processing, and the more active this structure is, the more intense an individual’s perception of and response to fear. The observed effect in the study was dose-dependent, meaning that those who practiced more compassion had a larger reduction in anxiety and amygdala activity. The study’s findings suggest that the benefits of meditation carry over into non-meditative ordinary states, which has important implications on stress management and day-to-day living.
A recent review on the effects of Yoga Meditation on pain relief found that Yoga was indeed effective at inducing analgesia, or pain relief, and it achieved this by attenuating the medial pain perception system, which includes the ACC and IC (Jurisic et al., 2018).
For those of you who have difficulty sitting still for traditional meditative practices, Yoga can be a welcoming way to access the body and mind and still engage in meditation because you’re encouraged to move your body. Just as there are many different types of meditation, there are many different types of Yoga, and finding the best fit for you is the key to reaping the health benefits as well as sticking with the practice.
Although it may seem obvious that meditation could have beneficial effects on the cardiorespiratory system, no legitimate claims can be made without scientific evidence to back them up.
Luckily, doctors discovered last year that meditation induces favorable changes in the cardiovascular and respiratory systems. Specifically, this team found that meditation lowers arterial and tissue oxygenation in an acute setting, but that the repeated exposure to reduced oxygen in practiced meditators ultimately led to long-term adaptations that included increased ventilatory efficiency, improved gas exchange, and subsequently an increase in baseline arterial oxygenation (Bernardi et al., 2017). Again, there are important implications here for us athletes, especially those of us living and training at higher altitudes.
I’ll end this section with a topic that is near and dear to my heart with the mounting evidence that soldiers are greatly affected by it: neurodegeneration.
A review published last year in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease dove into the literature to determine the effects of meditation on restoring brain grey matter volume in healthy individuals and those affected by neurodegeneration. A hallmark of neurodegeneration is brain tissue atrophy, primarily within the grey matter, or the part of the brain where the cell bodies of the neurons reside. The researchers found that despite differences in meditation type, the studies they found all showed significant increases in grey matter volume in various brain regions within the meditation groups (Last et al., 2017). The authors state that preliminary evidence suggests that meditation may offset grey matter atrophy, which is more than a huge deal as this is something most drugs for treating neurodegeneration have been unsuccessful in accomplishing. The mechanisms through which the prevention of brain atrophy occurs remain to be investigated, but it is certainly promising.
I mentioned Somatic Meditation early on, and this type of meditation, in addition to Yoga, is what has worked for me.
In addition to the myriad health benefits mentioned in this article, which I do believe Somatic Meditation is also capable of providing, Somatic Meditation is one of the few types of meditation that actually enables you to change and grow in a profound way.
Somatic Meditation is unique in that it enables you to reconnect with your true self as defined by your primordial nature rather than your constructed ego. This primitive connection is reestablished through the somatic practices, which primarily focus on interoceptive awareness. Again, remember that skilled interoceptive processing is critical for resilience and adaptability. By reconnecting with your true nature, you’ll find that you’re able to connect with others and with the natural world in a much deeper, more authentic and meaningful way. You’ll also become better at cultivating a sense of presence in each moment of every situation, regardless of how easy or difficult it might feel on an emotional level.
This might be encroaching into the outskirts of the hippie woo-woo realm, but if you’re the type of person who has ever felt like you weren’t made for the modern world in which we find ourselves, that there’s discord between a primitive part of you that feels stuck in some ancient way of living and being, and a part of you that feels obligated to live and be according to what society tells us is necessary, Somatic Meditation may be helpful for you. I’ll leave it at that
There are a multitude of studies on the benefits of various types of meditation beyond what I’ve highlighted in this article, and the publication list keeps growing.
There isn’t any medication that exists that is able to confer the same health benefits that regular meditation and exercise are able to offer. The key, however, lies in the word “regular.” This is why when one meditates it’s called practicing – meditation isn’t supposed to be something you do once, or even once in a while; it’s supposed to be a consistent practice.
Regardless of which type of meditation you choose to try, I sincerely encourage you to try something if you haven’t already. There are clearly many benefits and exactly zero disadvantages to trying it unless your free time would be better spent doing something else that will make you a better person and improve your quality of life.
Really though, many of us are just going through the motions of life and aren’t truly living. Meditation provides a way to get back in touch with your true nature, your primitive self and that feeling of being fully alive and present with awakened senses. There’s a reason those of us at SOFLETE are so dedicated to the Die Living mentality – because it’s the only way to truly live.
Dr. Katie Pate spends her 9-5 creating medical solutions for battlefield trauma and prolonged field care, and finding ways to improve the quality of life of our Veterans. She has a PhD in Physiology and background in Neuroscience, and has conducted research in a variety of medical fields. When not nerding it up, you can find her doing extreme sports in the mountains of Colorado, unless she’s training at the range and gym, or sitting on her meditation cushion at home with her dog. He meditates, too. Follow her on LinkedIn, Instagram, and Facebook.