Finding Balance With The Breath
Breathing is, normally, an automatic bodily process that doesn’t require our constant awareness and active participation. We all know we breathe, right? Despite this no-brainer fact – we all breathe – many people aren’t aware of HOW they breath. How we breath has an impact on the mind-body, and the mind-body has an impact on how we breathe. Improper breathing habits contribute to stress, anxiety, depression, and poor concentration. However, the reverse is also true – mental and physical distress contributes to improper breathing habits. Fortunately, we have the ability to change how we breathe by utilizing time-tested breathing techniques that have been practiced for thousands of years. Research has demonstrated that improving how we breathe leads to increased inner peace, well-being, focus, and productivity. For additional information, I encourage reading the book, “The Healing Power of Breath,” by Richard Brown, MD, and Patricia Gerbarg, MD.
Below are several breathing strategies that you can utilize at any time for achieving mind-body relaxation and focus. Like most things, breathing exercises take time, commitment and practice in order to get the most from them. Be patient and supportive of yourself as you incorporate them into your wellness regimen.
Before beginning any breathing exercise, it’s important to practice mindfulness – that is, using your awareness to focus on how stress impacts your mind and body in the present moment. Stated differently, “How can I tell I’m stressed right now?” This will serve as a sort of baseline for you as you progress. For example: What does stress feel like in the body? This might feel like butterflies in the stomach, tension in the chest and belly, clenching the jaw, tension headaches, etc. What does stress look like in my mind? Maybe you experience racing thoughts, agitation, irritability, and poor concentration. Mindfulness is all about observing something in the present moment, without judging it or controlling it.
-Belly Breath: Perhaps the “simplest,”and most effective, breathing exercise is diaphragmatic breath, or belly breath. This can be done standing, sitting in a chair, or sitting in a cross-legged posture with a straight spine. Initially, it may help to place your hands on the belly in order to notice movement. As you inhale, feel the air enter your nostrils, travel down your throat, and cause your belly/ribs to expand. On the exhale, feel your belly/ribs deflate as well as the air exiting your throat and nostrils. Make sure the breath is deep and slow and focused. It may help counting to 4 on inhale and 4 on the exhale. If you’re not used to breathing this way, you may encounter tightness and tension–that’s totally normal and will change over time! Try to relax your muscles during this exercise. Each time you exhale, notice any changes in the mind and body? Do you feel more relaxed, more focused? Practice belly breath for 5-10 minutes, once or twice daily, or throughout the day as needed. Doing so stimulates the body’s relaxation response!
-1:2 Breath: This exercise is a variation of belly breath (see above). This can be done standing, sitting in a chair, or sitting with legs crossed and spine straight. You can place hands on belly in order to enhance awareness of movement. 1:2 breath entails inhaling for a certain count, then doubling the exhale. For example, you might breathe in 2 or 3 counts, then exhale 4 or 6 counts. If you’re a beginner, it may help keeping the initial ratio small; over time, as your breath capacity increases, you can increase the breath ratio. Having a longer exhale rather than inhale stimulates the body’s relaxation response. Of course, with each slow, long exhale observe any changes in your mind and body. Try to relax your muscles. Practice 1:2 breath for 5-10 minutes daily, once or twice, or throughout the day as needed.
-Ocean Breath: This practice can be used in conjunction with belly breath and 1:2 breath. It entails gently constricting the upper back throat (the glottis, specifically). As you breathe, due to the slight throat constriction, the air makes an oceanic sound (like air flowing through a seashell), or a Darth Vader breathy sound. This is best done through the nostrils, as that increases breath constriction. Breath constriction, though it seems odd, further stimulates the body’s relaxation response. Never force the constriction; it’s a subtle sensation and sound.
-4:7:8 Breath: Utilizing the above strategies (if you desire), this exercise entails inhaling to the count of 4, holding the breath for 7 counts, and exhaling for 8 counts. Each breath is long and slow. 4:7:8 breath might be difficult at first, especially if you are new to breath work. It may be a good idea to start with 1:2 breath, using a low ratio, then working your way to 4:7:8 breath. Practice 4:7:8 breath for 5-10 minutes daily, once or twice, or throughout the day as needed.
-4:4:6:2 Breath: Utilizing strategies 1-5, this exercise entails inhaling to the count of 4, holding the breath for 4 counts, exhale for 6 counts, and holding the breath for 2 counts–then repeating the process. Each breath is long and slow. Practice 4:4:6:2 breath for 5-10 minutes daily, once or twice, or throughout the day as needed.