Video and Audio

Guided Meditation for Calming the Mind and Nervous System

Guided Meditations, Episode 9

September 25, 2018

Dr. Peter Van Houten leads a 13-minute guided meditation and teaches us a simple breathing technique for calming the mind and nervous system that we can use no matter where we are.


Dr. Peter Van Houten:

I'm Dr. Peter van Houten. And I'm here with you today to teach you a very powerful breathing technique, which, when done meditatively, brings about a profound sense of calmness and relaxation.

In my medical practice we use this technique with our patients to help them learn how to relax themselves quickly without medication. In my medical practice, which is about 60 percent made up of very impoverished people. We use this to help people have a way that, in any circumstance, they can quickly calm themselves down and become relaxed when they start feeling anxious or worried about what's happening around them.

Here, we're going to be counting the breath with an inhalation, a brief hold, an exhalation, and you'll see over the five minutes, or so we're going to practice this together, that what we'll do is start off breathing just a little bit more quickly. And gradually we'll slow down and extend the breath so that over time, we're breathing more slowly, holding just a little bit longer.

But we'll do this in such a way that it feels very natural, very organic. And while we're doing this, we're going to be calming the nervous system down.

Meditation Benefits for the Brain

Now, we know now from scientific studies that when you breathe in this fashion, what happens it causes an automatic calming of the fight-and-flight nervous system. It does this in part by directly calming the effects of those nerve impulses, but it also activates the part of our nervous system called rest and repose. So it has this profound, calming effect, this induced peacefulness that comes from this particular breath.

It also works on specific areas within the brain. To help the brain itself be calmer. I have my brain model here. I’m going to show you exactly what I'm talking about.

This is a model of the brain. And the part of the brain that we're actually going to activate with our breathing technique is this part of the brain here that would be right behind your forehead. These are called the prefrontal lobes of the brain. And when we do this breathing technique together in a meditative fashion, the prefrontal lobes of the brain get activated. When we do that, we feel happier, we feel calmer, and we actually feel more concentrated, easier to accomplish things. This is an important part of the brain for being a happy, centered, peaceful person.

Now, if we look deep inside the brain, we find this structure it's called the limbic system. And the limbic system, along with a few attached structures, like the amygdala. These are the areas of the brain that, when we're feeling anxious and worried, are activated and contributing to what we're feeling.

And so when we do this breathing technique together, what we'll find is the limbic system gets calmed down, and the prefrontal lobes of our brain, that part of our brain that really helps us feel happier and more concentrated, really more joyful, all that gets kicked into play by doing this technique.

5-Minute Morning Meditation That You Can Use Anytime

All right, this breathing technique that we're going to do together, we'll practice for about five minutes. And what we'll do is we'll start off with just a very simple inhalation through the nose, and we'll just do this to a count of three. We'll hold for a count of one and exhale to a count of three. So let me just demonstrate first, and then we'll get into it together. So, inhale 1 2 3, hold 1, and exhale 1 2 3.

Now when doing this, we'll be breathing exclusively through our nose. And I'll be talking periodically throughout this to help remind us to stay focused. If you want to just listen and do the remainder with your eyes closed until we get to the end, that's fine, too, because I'll talk right along with this. So let's go ahead and start.

So we'll start by breathing through the nose and inhaling to the count of three. Holding to one, exhaling to the count of three. So let's go ahead and start (sound of inhale), hold one, exhale, inhale, hold one, exhale 2, 3. Keep going. Inhale, 1 2 3, hold 1, exhale 1 2 3. Inhale 1 2 3, hold and exhale 1 2 3.

Why don't you just sit up straight, it's better to do things sitting straight, so our abdomen can move in and out. That's how we'll be breathing here, by our abdomen moving, not our chest wall. When our chest wall moves, we breathe like that, moving our shoulders and chest. It actually is anxiety provoking. So when you breathe with your tummy, by moving your tummy in and out, that's actually part of the relaxation here.

Let's go ahead and lengthen this to four counts. Inhale, hold 1 and exhale. Inhale. 1 2 3 4, hold, exhale. 1 2 3 4. Inhale, 1 2 3 4; hold, exhale 1 2 3 4. Inhale, 1 2 3 4, holding 1, exhale 1 2 3 4.

Now as you’re relaxing, let's do this a little bit longer, now. We'll extend this out to five and hold two. So inhale 1 2 3 4 5, hold 2, and exhale 1 2 3 4 5. Inhale, hold 2 and exhale. Inhale. Make sure you're breathing with your stomach moving. Exhale. Breathing just through your nose, hold 2, and exhale.

Let's go ahead and continue with that five and two rhythm. Inhaling to 5, holding 2, exhale and feel your body begin to relax. Inhale, hold 2 and exhale. Inhale. Keep your breathing slow and even. Inhale, hold 2 exhale, Inhale, hold 2.

Let's practice for about a minute without me saying anything so you can go a little deeper with this. Keep inhaling to a count of five, holding to 2, and exhale to a count of 5. I'm gonna close my eyes as well. (Long pause) Keep your mind focused. Good.

So this is a very simple calming technique, using breathing that you can do at any time. One thing I like about this is if you're waiting in the grocery checkout line or beginning to feel anxious or pressured, this is something you can actually do standing there; you don't actually have to be sitting off in a chair, being quiet, this is something that you can use pretty much in any situation to help you feel calmer and more relaxed quickly.

Five minutes is a good base to use for this technique because it's just long enough for the effects of this to really show itself in your brain and nervous system. So you'll really feel the effects.

Can Meditating Longer Help Even More?

People often ask me, well, if I want to make more progress and get some of the more cumulative of benefits that we can see, with meditation, how much do I need to practice every day? Well, if you were to do a very simple technique like this for 12 to 15 minutes a day, every day, within two months you would see real benefit from that technique.

So getting some benefit from meditation doesn't require excessively long amounts of meditation to start beginning getting the benefits. And if you're someone who's new to meditation, this can be very helpful for getting you a good start.

Know you only have to do a modest amount to really get going with it and begin to feel how it can change your brain structure and function and how you feel on a day-to-day basis. And you'll probably end up wanting more.


If you are a beginning meditator or an advanced meditator wanting to know more, please visit our webpage on meditation.


Dr. Peter van Houten is a longtime meditator and teacher at Ananda. He is a family physician with close to 40 years of real world experience in primary care medicine. He is nationally known for his pioneering work integrating meditation and behavioral healthcare into the medical setting. Sierra Family Health Center, the health clinic he founded in 1982, has been widely seen as a leader in this field. His background includes his medical training at the University of California in San Francisco School of Medicine.

He has published two books promoting yoga as a therapeutic tool which focus on treatments for common medical problems like insomnia and headaches. These were among the first books ever published bringing yoga therapy into the medical office setting. He has lectured extensively on the transformation in brain function brought about by meditation and spiritual practices. Well-known for his charitable works, Dr. van Houten’s clinic cares for a large indigent population in Northern California using cutting edge behavioral therapies as well as traditional medicine.

Peter has co-authored Yoga Therapy for Headache Relief and Yoga Therapy for Overcoming Insomnia. He also maintains an active interest in ongoing research into the subtle and powerful relationships between brain physiology and personal spiritual development.