The way we breathe is the way we live. Breathing is absolutely essential to life, but it’s often overlooked as a necessity for good health. Full, free breathing is one of the most powerful keys to enhancing physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing. This is why learning to breathe consciously and with awareness is a valuable tool in helping to restore balance in the mind and body.
The Physiology of Breathing
When we experience stressful thoughts, our sympathetic nervous system triggers the body’s ancient fight-or-flight response, giving us a burst of energy to respond to the perceived danger. Our breathing becomes shallow and rapid filling only the chest and not the lower lungs. This can make us feel short of breath, which is a common symptom when we feel anxious or frustrated.
Deep breathing can reverse these symptoms, instantly creating a sense of calm in the body by activating the parasympathetic nervous system. In addition to reversing the physical stress response in the body, deep breathing can help calm emotional turbulence in the mind; Breath practices have an immediate effect on diffusing emotional energy so there is less reactivity to our emotions.
Benefits of Deep Breathing include:
- Reduced anxiety and depression
- Lower/stabilized blood pressure
- Increased energy levels
- Muscle relaxation
- Decreased feelings of stress and overwhelm
When we constrict or stop our breath, we lose touch with what is happening in the present moment—with how pleasurable and wonderful it is just to be alive. Instead, we get stuck in the past and the future, our minds racing with thoughts—worrying, figuring out, planning. We lose the freedom, joy, and expansiveness that are natural when our breath is connected to our body awareness.
As we become aware of the breath and work with it consciously, we make a direct link to our autonomic nervous system, gaining access to a part of ourself that usually functions outside of conscious awareness. It is no accident, then, that so many meditation techniques are based on breathing; It is as our breathing gets fuller and deeper that we feel ourselves softening, opening, and getting more spacious inside.
Here are two deep breathing practices to help you regenerate and restore:
Complete Belly Breathe
- With one hand on your belly, relax your abdominal muscles, and slowly inhale through the nose, bringing air into the bottom of your lungs. (You should feel your abdomen rise, expanding the lower parts of the lungs.)
- Continue to inhale as your rib cage expands outward, and sense your collar bones rise.
- At the peak of the inhalation, pause for a moment.
- Then, exhale gently from the top of your lungs to the bottom.
- At the end of the exhalation, contract your abdominal muscles slightly to push all residual air out of the bottom of your lungs.
Alternate Nostril Breathing
When you are feeling anxious or ungrounded, practicing Alternate Nostril Breathing, or Nadi Shodhana, will immediately help you feel calmer.
- Hold your right thumb over your right nostril and inhale deeply through your left nostril.
- At the peak of your inhalation, close off your left nostril with your fourth finger, lift your right thumb, and then exhale smoothly through your right nostril.
- After a full exhalation, inhale through the right nostril, closing it off with your right thumb at the peak of your inhalation, lift your fourth finger and exhale smoothly through your left nostril.
- Continue with this practice for 3 to 5 minutes, alternating your breathing through each nostril. Your breathing should be effortless, with your mind gently observing the inflow and outflow of breath.
A regular daily practice of deep breathing is one of the best tools for improving our health and wellbeing. Performing either or these simple breath techniques twice daily for only three to five minutes can produce long-term benefits. Used anytime we feel stressed or notice that our breathing has become constricted, the body gets trained to breathe more effectively even when we aren't concentrating directly on it.