Breathing. We do it just about every second of every day – whether we pay attention to it or not. So it’s easy to take it for granted and view it as automatic. Learn to harness breath and you will harness your emotions, increase productivity and ultimately upgrade your health and wellness.
Why is Deep Breathing Important?
It’s an always-available way to be present in the moment. Yogis – and you – can work with a mindful, deep breath. The way we breathe impacts the body and mind in many ways. Some methods can even put you into a psychedelic state of mind, giving you deepened insight into self and the world we live in.
- tells the body everything’s OK (provides the body with much-needed oxygen)
- keeps the diaphragm muscle flexible and strong
- gets more oxygen into the body to nourish the blood cells
- rids the body of carbon dioxide, helping to detoxify the body, on the exhale
- can turn on the body’s relaxation response, or “rest and digest” – lowering blood pressure and heart rate, improving sleep and digestion and dialing back stress hormones
- tells the body you might be in danger
- comes mostly from the chest
- limits the diaphragm’s range of motion
- means the lowest part of the lungs doesn’t get the full amount of oxygenated air
- may make you feel anxious and short of breath
- can turn on the body’s stress response, or “fight or flight,” increasing your blood pressure and heart rate and flooding the system with stress hormones that encourage weight gain and slow your digestion
Retaining the inhale (aka holding your breath):
- helps your lungs work more efficiently
- temporarily increases carbon dioxide
- leads to an increased exchange of oxygen
- improves health and concentration
- may boost athletic performance
- encourages the body to relax
Yogic Breathing Tips for Beginners
Sure, you’ve been breathing all your life. But probably not in the ways you’ll learn about below. Some general tips to keep in mind for yogic breathing:
- Sit anywhere that’s comfortable. On the floor, cross-legged or sitting on your heels, or in a chair. And make sure the temperature is OK for you.
- Make room for more breath. Sit up straight, shoulders over hips, collarbones wide.
- Close your eyes. If that feels impossible, take a soft, steady gaze at a single point (called a drishti in Sanskrit). Try not to look anywhere else. Having a point of focus in this, like all things in life, is paramount.
- Don’t worry if the mind starts to race at first. Actually your mind isn’t racing – it’s doing what it does all the time. You just have the space to notice all that activity and allow your mind to process these thoughts while holding on to nothing and simply allowing them to pass through you.
- Reduce distractions. If possible, find a really quiet place to practice. Or if you have earbuds or noise-canceling headphones, they could help increase your ability to focus.
- Notice how you feel. If you become physically uncomfortable or agitated, then stop. Try another technique when you feel better. (It may be good to take this opportunity to focus on other things, allowing your body to strengthen itself. Do not push to injury).
- Avoid making it a pass/fail experience. Try your best and accept whatever results you get. Learning a new skill is progressive and you should approach it with your ego firmly in check. For me, breathing techniques come easily on some days other days require me to step outside of the day and focus something I have cultivated over years. Stick with it and you’ll get better at it over time. That’s why it’s called a “practice.” No self judgement, no rating other people.
Deep Breathing Exercises – No Mat or Mantra Needed (although they can help)
Breathing techniques can help everyone relax and lower their stress level. You don’t need to buy anything or create a special place to do them. Give some of these a try and see which ones do you the most good. They’re all simple, always accessible and free.
1. Equal breathing (sama vritti in Sanskrit) makes your inhales and exhales equal to each other to encourage balance and calm. The length of the breaths should be more than normal but not so much that it feels like a strain or makes you anxious.
- relax your hands and arms any way you like
- inhale and exhale through the nose
- count to the same number – maybe 3, 4 or 5, 5 being ideal – during each inhale and exhale to make sure they’re the same length.
- inhaling through the nose (important as this is the most beneficial way for the human body to take in new air).
- or repeat the same word or phase instead of counting
- option to create a slight pause after each inhale and exhale if you feel comfortable
- try to do this for 5 minutes a day, eventually working up to 10
- setting a timer is helpful
2. Alternate nostril breathing (nadi shodhana) can improve cardiovascular function and slow down your heart rate. Practice this on an empty stomach (3 or more hours after a big meal, 2 after a medium one).
- get settled, then position your hands
- left hand – join the tips of your thumb and index finger, palm facing up, and relax the back of the hand on the leg or anywhere else that’s comfortable
- right hand – press the index and middle fingers down to or toward your palm, leaving your other fingers extended
- lightly place your thumb and ring fingers on either side of the nose, just below the bony area
- keep the right hand like this throughout the exercise
- after an exhale, press your right thumb to gently close the right nostril
- inhale through your left nostril and then press your ring finger to close your left nostril too
- pause for the same amount of time the inhale took
- release your thumb and exhale out through your right nostril
- inhale back up that same side
- close both nostrils and pause
- release your ring finger to open your left nostril and exhale through this side
- this is one cycle
- continue this breathing pattern – exhaling out of one side and inhaling back up the same side – for as long as 5 minutes
- finish with an exhale on the left side
3. Lion’s breath (simhasana) is believed to relieve tension in your chest and face. You may also find the big exhale to be a great emotional release. This is a perfect technique when you need to relax but think you can’t.
- press your palms against your knees or thighs with your fingers spread wide
- lift your chest and spread out across your collarbones
- inhale deeply through your nose
- hold the breath
- squeeze the muscles of the face as tightly as you can, squeeze the eyes shut
- when you need to exhale, open the eyes and roll them up
- open your mouth wide and stick out your tongue
- make a long, loud “hah” sound as you exhale
- do this breath 2 or 3 times
4. Cooling breath (sitali) helps you lower your body temperature, manage anger and relax your mind. You’ll be inhaling through your mouth, so be sure to do this in a place that’s free of air pollution and any allergens that impact you.
- sit down and get comfortable
- stick out your tongue
- if you can curl your tongue, do so
- if not, purse your lips
- inhale slowly and fully through your mouth
- exhale deeply through the nose
- continue for up to 5 minutes
I know this stuff can seem a little “out there,” but is only because our culture puts so little emphasis (as in none) on proper breathing. These techniques work and the keys to owning your breath are waiting for you. If a veteran US Navy SEAL can try and incorporate yogic breathing techniques to ensure easy days, then so can you.
You’ve got nothing to lose but some tension, anxiety, a racing heartbeat, a clenched jaw and maybe decrease disease over a period of years. Whatever’s motivated you to read this far. Of course, talk to your doctor if you have breathing issues, other medical concerns or take medications.
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