8 Breathing Practices for Relaxation & Health

For years, on and off, breath work has been a part of my daily practice.  However, it had not been something I’d really “thought about” for quite some time. A week or so into isolation (due to Covid-19) I started to really concentrate and re-connect more on my breath. 

Why? I heard personal stories about how the virus is all about the lungs. About how, if affected and symptomatic, there is a terrifying pressure in your chest and struggle to breathe. I read about being intubated with a ventilator to aid in breathing and how we don’t have enough of them.  And about masks and complaints about how they make our breath feel  labored in our everyday lives. 

 This prompted me to try and recall some of the moments in my life where I had been truly aware of my own breath. I remembered the feeling, as a runner, of my lungs searing as I grasped for more and more air while racing around the track. Or as a child, when I would dive deep in the lake where we’d camp each summer and my lungs would ache in desperation for air as I swam as far as I could before surfacing. I remember all the air leaving my body when  I’d hear terrible news or the escalation and shortness of my breath when I was scared or nervous about something. I even reminisced about when my wife gave birth to our children, and the beautiful long, loud relieving exhales she would have. 

 Alongside my own memories I also  read the account of a woman fighting for her life from Covid-19. Her description was as follows. 

 “…walking across the room is like scaling a mountain and trying to breathe through the ‘pollution’ deep in the lungs. Like sitting in a forest fire, trying to grab some oxygen. Or a traffic jam. Ironically now and only now, the lungs of the world are beginning to fill, as the skies and the roads, the rivers and the seas clear of our rushing about. Somehow, the tables have entirely turned. The earth takes a nice deep breath and we’re now flapping about, gasping and flailing, like fish on the shore.” 

 This all provided me the visceral realization that breath, really is life. It is the root source of all that we do. Without breath our life is but a few minutes long. 

 David Deida once said, “freedom is only a breath away.” 

 Navy seals say “Control the breathe, control the mind.” 

 Eckhart Tolle says “Being aware of your breath forces you into the present moment.”

For hundreds of years yogis have used pranayama, or breath control, to bring about concentration and improve vitality. Buddha advocated breath-meditation as a way to reach enlightenment.

Science is just beginning to provide evidence that the benefits of this ancient practice are real. Yet, as a mostly subconscious activity, many of us do not think much about breath beyond “being out of it,” “holding it,” or occasionally trying to tell our children to “take a deep one.” 

 Life is a wonderful and often tragic mystery. I’m a strong believer that it is important to try and be aware of the purpose (or greater lesson) behind everything that happens in the world – whether we perceive the “thing” as being good or being bad. This is one way we can grow our hearts and minds and personal well being amidst things that make us feel powerless or uncertain.  

 In the case of novel coronavirus Covid-19, as the account I read so strongly outlines, one lesson it offers us is a reminder to our connection with our breath. 

 One way we can achieve that connection is through breathwork – which is a new age term for a variety of breathing practices. These practices have been said to, through the calming of your nervous system, aid in people’s physical, mental and emotional well being; including reduced blood pressure, regulating certain bodily functions such as metabolism, balance energy or homeostasis, boost the immune system, and reduce stress & anxiety. 

 Breath work does not take much time to do. In fact,  just a few minutes can go a long way. 

In this blog I share 8  different breath work practices to get you started. 

For all of them, start with 2-10 mins a few times a day and increase from there if you find the practices helpful. 

 Diaphragmatic breathing (aka Belly Breathing) 

Belly breathing is a great place to start your breath work practices. It can help you use your diaphragm properly (the muscle that helps you breathe!) and it’s been said to help with shallow breathing and is the basis for other meditation and relaxation techniques.Belly breathing can feel a little unnatural so when you begin you may feel tired, but as time passes the technique should become easier and  feel more natural. 

To do it:

  1.     Lie on your back with your knees slightly bent and your head on a pillow. 
  2.     Place one hand on your upper chest and one hand below your rib cage (on your stomach), allowing you to feel the movement of your diaphragm. 
  3.     Slowly inhale through your nose, feeling your stomach pressing into your hand. You can add to this exercise by imagining that the air you inhale brings waves of peace and calm throughout your body.  Mentally you can say something like, “inhaling peace and calm.” Or “inhaling strength and power.”
  4.     Imagine that the air you exhale washes away tension and anxiety. You can say to yourself, “exhaling tension and anxiety“ or  “exhaling all negativity and toxins.” Whatever feels right to you. 
  5.     Note how shallow breathing feels compared to deep breathing. 
  6.     Place one hand below your belly button, keeping your belly relaxed, and notice how it rises with each inhale and falls with each exhale. 
  7.     You can let out a loud sigh with each exhale. 
  8.     Keep your other hand as still as possible. 
  9.     Alternatively, Purse or pucker your lips, almost as if you were going to whistle, and, keeping your mouth closed, inhale slowly through your nose for 2 or counts. Pucker or purse your lips as though you were going to whistle, exhale slowly by blowing air through your pursed lips for a count of 4. 

 To enhance the physical aspect of this breath practice you can place a book on your abdomen – this will  make the exercise more difficult. Once you learn how to do belly breathing lying down you can increase the difficulty by trying it while sitting in a chair. You can then practice the technique while performing your daily activities. 

Lion’s Breath 

Lion’s breath is a sitting pranayama practice in yoga for releasing tension in the jaw, neck, and face. It is a powerful breath that is said to release anger and leave you with courage, energy, and laughter! 

To do it: 

  1.     It’s important to be at rest for Lion’s Breath so stretch, shake it out or take a few deep breaths before you engage in this practice. 
  2.     Come to a kneeling position with your buttocks resting on your feet. Some teachers instruct you to criss-cross your ankles under your seat but if that isn’t comfortable for you then just use this breath while in a pose that you can hold for a period of time.
  3.     Place your hands on the floor just in front of your knees. Straighten your arms and extend your fingers.
  4.     Inhale through your nose.
  5.     Exhale strongly through the mouth, making an “ha” sound. As you exhale, open your mouth wide and stick your tongue as far out as possible towards your chin.
  6.     Try bringing your (internal focus) towards your third eye (center of your forehead) or the tip of your nose as you exhale.
  7.     Inhale, returning to a neutral face.
  8.     Repeat 4-6 times. If your ankles are crossed, switch the feet so the opposite one is on top halfway through your repetitions.  

Box Breathing 

Box breathing, also known as square breathing, is a technique used when taking slow, equal, deep breaths. It can heighten performance and concentration while also being a powerful stress reliever. 

 To do it: 

  1.     Lie on your back with your knees slightly bent and your head on a pillow and close your eyes. 
  2.     Breathe in through your nose while counting to four slowly. 
  3.     Hold your breath inside while counting slowly to four. Try not to clamp your mouth or nose shut. … 
  4.     Begin to slowly exhale for 4 seconds. 
  5.     Repeat 
Box Breathing Technique
Box Breathing Technique

The 478 Breathing Technique

This breathing pattern aims to reduce anxiety, manage cravings and help people get to sleep.

 To do it: 

  1. Lie on your back with your knees slightly bent and your head on a pillow and close your eyes. 
  2. Empty the air from your lungs. 
  3. Breathing in for 4 seconds, 
  4. Hold the breath for 7 seconds,
  5. Exhale for 8 seconds.
  6. Repeat 

Alternate Nostril Breathing

Alternate nostril breathing, known as nadi shodhana pranayama in Sanskrit, is a breathing practice for relaxation and the clearing of subtle energy. It has also been shown to enhance cardiovascular function and to lower heart rate, and quiet your mind. It is best to avoid the practice if you’re feeling congested. 

To do it:

  1. Sit in a comfortable position with your legs crossed.
  2. Place your left hand on your left knee.
  3. Lift your right hand up toward your nose.
  4. Exhale completely and then use your right thumb to close your right nostril.
  5. Inhale through your left nostril and then close the left nostril with your fingers.
  6. Open the right nostril and exhale through this side.
  7. Inhale through the right nostril and then close this nostril.
  8. Open the left nostril and exhale through the left side.
  9. This is one cycle.
  10.  Continue for up to 5 minutes.
  11. Always complete the practice by finishing with an exhale on the left side. 
Alternate Nostril Breathing Technique
Alternate Nostril Breathing Technique

Wim Hof Breathing Technique

Backed by science and probably the most “of the moment” breathing technique out there right now. Wim Hof has been at it for 30+ years and his technique is about optimizing body and mind function as well as boosting immunity…and making it possible to spend extended time in freezing water (although that skill is not guaranteed!) Do not do this technique while driving as the practice may cause light headedness. 

To do it: 

  1.     While sitting in a comfortable place, take 30 quick, deep breaths, inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth. 
  2.     Next, take a deep breath and exhale; hold until you need to breathe in. 
  3.     Inhale again, as deep as you can, and hold it for 10 seconds. 
  4.     Repeat as many times as you like. (I usually shoot for 3-4 rounds) 

Coherent Breathing

Coherent Breathing is a form of breathing that involves taking long slow breaths at a rate of about five per minute. Coherent breathing helps to calm the body through its effect on the autonomic nervous system  when you breathe at a rate of 5 full breaths per minute. Breathing at this rate maximizes your heart rate variability, reduces stress, and, according to one 2017 study, can reduce symptoms of depression when combined with Iyengar yoga. 

To do it:

  1.     Inhale for a count of 5.
  2.     Exhale for a count of 5. 
  3.     Continue this breathing pattern for at least a few minutes. 
Coherent Breathing Technique
Coherent Breathing Technique

Humming Bee Breath (Bhramari) 

The unique sensation of this yoga breathing practice helps  create a sensation that can bring about instant calm and is especially soothing around tension in your forehead. Some people use humming bee breath to relieve frustration, anxiety, and anger. Practice this breath in a place where you are free and comfortable to make a humming sound. 

To do it:

  1.     Choose a comfortable seated position. 
  2.     Close your eyes and relax your face. 
  3.     Place your first fingers on the tragus cartilage that partially covers your ear canal. 
  4.     Inhale, and as you exhale gently press your fingers into the cartilage. 
  5.     Keeping your mouth closed, make a loud humming sound. 
  6.     Continue for as long as is comfortable. 

A Final Note on Breath Work 

If you’re using breath work to work through certain emotions, or shift specific states of mind or energy that you feel are blocked, then the first step to achieving this is to be aware. While you’re doing any of these breath exercises, remember to check in with yourself. Our bodies get stuck carrying emotional and physical tension in certain areas (upper and lower back, neck, chest, ect)  – all which can be triggered or released from breath work.  Feel what emotions, fears or thoughts come up when you’re practicing breath work. Notice what areas in your body feel particularly tight and if you’d like, write these findings down in a journal. This way you revisit these feelings and areas of tension and develop specific mantras (as mentioned in exercise 1 for belly breathing) to aid in releasing them in future sessions. 

Lastly, you can use breath work as a chance to focus on gratitude for the breath itself.  

Thanks for reading and be well, 

Please note, I am not a doctor. So check in with your doctor if you have any medical concerns or take any medications. If you have concerns or to learn more about breathing techniques consult with a yoga teacher, doctor or breathwork practitioner who specializes in breathing practice. Discontinue the practice if you experience any feelings of discomfort or agitation. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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