One of the most effective and efficient methods of self-management is breath control. Breath control can stop the mind’s tendency to worry and wander. It can also help settle and relieve periods of anxiety, panic, emotional instability and much more.
When someone gets upset, you often hear the expression “Take a Deep Breath”.
Inhaling and exhaling deeply can quickly calm a person down. Taking deep breaths works because there’s a directly relationship between breathing patterns and someone’s emotional condition.
This is just one example of what breath control can accomplish.
Although it seems obvious to breathe through your nose, you would be surprised how often people breath through their mouth. Just like feeling anxious leads to shallow breathing, we tend to breath rapidly through our mouths during times of extreme stress and fear.
Breathing through the nose provides defense mechanisms such as mucous membranes and tiny hairs that prevent impurities from entering your body. Glands deep within your nose ward off bacteria that may have slipped past your nose’s initial defenses. Nose breathing also helps minimize the amount of carbon dioxide you exhale, facilitates oxygen release from red blood cells and helps keep your blood’s pH level properly balanced.
Some people ask themselves “can I breathe properly”? The answer is a resounding YES. The real question is whether or not you know how to breathe correctly, or not. Proper breathing is something many people don’t know how to do, or don’t practice very often. The truth is breathing has a profound effect on both our mental and physical health. Research is suggesting breathing exercises and proper breathing techniques can improve our overall health and well-being.
As far as bodily functions are concerned, breathing is unique. Unlike the flow of blood through the body, for instance, we can choose to stop breathing by holding our breath and cutting off our supply of oxygen. Hold your breath long enough and you’ll pass out, at which point, your body takes over and begins breathing without your conscious permission.
The fact that humans can be aware of this bodily function and, in fact, control it, means we can adapt breathing techniques and breathing exercises that will benefit our bodies and minds.
Yoga – Pranayama
There is an entire science dedicated to breathing. It’s called Pranayama.
One of the five principles of Yoga is Pranayama, breath control. It is a Yoga discipline originating in ancient India. Composed of 2 words, Prana means breath, of life-force. Yama means control. So Pranayama means breath control. By controlling the breath, the intrinsic life-force can be used to grow spiritually, and as a form of discipline. Some of the exercises in this article are forms of Pranayama, in the Yoga tradition.
In the ancient Sanskrit language, breath means “wind” or “spirit”.
Much of yoga’s practices and philosophy has to do how to breathe. The word Yoga means “union”, union of mind, body and spirit. Breathing is a body-centered physical activity, so bringing the attention to the breath brings union of mind with the body.
Mindful breathing is a powerful technique for slowing down the thinking mind.
Besides the healthy aspect of proper breathing, yoga teaches that by focusing the attention on the breath, you gain mindfulness. Breathing is always something that is happening in the present, here and now. So concentrating on the breath helps someone be here now, in the present moment.
Here are 12 simple breathing exercises and techniques to help you learn how to breathe properly.
Also called abdominal breathing or belly breathing, diaphragmatic breathing is the act of expanding the abdomen instead of your chest while concentrating on breathing. Deliberately inhaling and exhaling deeply and slowly through diaphragmatic breathing seems to reset your autonomic nervous system by increasing theta wave amplitude in the brain. In addition, elevation of parasympathetic activity via abdominal breathing enhances mental alertness and decreases fatigue.
Diaphragmatic breathing, also known as deep belly breathing, comes with a myriad of physical benefits. They are deliberate, deep breaths that fill the stomach with air. It’s been shown that regular deep breathing can improve focus by increasing blood flow to the brain, increase the release of growth hormone, which slows aging, reduce blood pressure and blood sugar. Finally, it helps facilitate the production of serotonin, which improves sleep. It’s suggested that diaphragmatic breathing be done in five to 10 minute intervals in either a sitting or laying position.
The Cleveland Clinic provides detailed instructions for learning diaphragmatic breathing exercise techniques.
This exercise is good for beginners. Simply put, rhythmic breathing follows a fixed pattern of inhaling, retaining, exhaling and retaining your breath.
detailed instructions for rhythmic breathing
rhythmic breathing video
The 4-7-8 Exercise
The 4-7-8 breathing exercise is a powerful way to help deal with stressful situation of issue. Often suggested as a remedy to help people sleep, the 4-7-8 breathing exercise is simple and easy to do.
- In any position, relax and preferably close your eyes
- Inhale slowly and deeply through the nose, to a count of 4; 1-2-3-4
- Hold that breath in for a count of 7; 1-2-3-4-5-6-7
- Exhale slowly and gradually to a count of 8; 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8
Repeat this pattern 4 times to complete the exercise. To be most effective, it is recommended doing 4-7-8 twice per day. Watch Dr. Weil demonstrate the 4-7-8 breathing exercise video here.
Alternate Nostril Technique
One of the most important of the yoga breathing practices (pranayama), alternate nostril breathing is designed to balance the energy of the left and right sides (hemispheres) of the brain. The practice uses the fingers of the hand to form a “bridge” and the 2 fingers to open and close the left and right nostrils.
- Use the right hand, and place the middle finger squarely on your forehead
- Use the ring finger to close the left nostril, holding the left nostril shut, inhale through the right nostril.
- Using the thumb, close the right nostril and exhale out through the left nostril.
- Keep the right nostril shut, inhale through the left nostril.
- Close the left nostril (with ring finger), and exhale out the right nostril
- Keeping the left nostril shut, inhale through the right nostril
- Close the right nostril (with the thumb) and exhale out the left
read more detailed instructions
Relaxation breathing can go a long way toward alleviating stress and combating anxiety. The focused intake of oxygen reduces adrenaline and cortisol, two hormones in the body that are released in time of emotional and physical duress.
Watch a relaxation video
This breathing exercise is a great shake off any stiffness from a night’s sleep and prepare your body for the day ahead. In a standing position, with your knees slightly bent, bend forward at the waist and let you arms hang toward the floor. Take a deep, slow breath from this position and then exhale as you roll your spine back to a standing position.
Meditative breathing is often-practiced in yoga or using mindful meditative techniques, is gaining momentum in the field of drug and alcohol addiction treatment. A University of Washington study found that patients struggling with addiction issues were less likely to relapse in the long term when they incorporated mindful meditation techniques in their treatment regimen. Mindful meditation is practiced in a quiet space. In a sitting position, either on the floor, a chair or cushion, rest your hands face down on your thighs and bring your focus to your body and breath. It’s okay if the mind wanders, but try to gently bring it back to your body and breath. Beginners should begin with shorter sessions, in the five to 10 minute ranges, but with practice 15 to 20 minutes will be no problem at all.
The Bellow Technique
Bellow breathing, also known as “Stimulating Breath” and “Breath of Fire” is a yogic technique. It takes some time and effort to learn and master. It has far-reaching potential for positive results. It is designed to rapidly cycle inhalation and exhalation. When done correctly, a person’s energy and awareness levels are greatly increased.
Inhale and exhale rapidly and evenly through the nose. Try and average 2-3 breath cycles per second. Your mouth is closed at all times. Breaths should be short. Start with short durations of about 15 seconds and gradually increase the time by 5 seconds up to 1 minute.
see detailed instructions
Videos demonstrating the Bellow/Stimulating Breathing Technique
Dr Weil’s website – Stimulating Breath
The practice of deep breathing, or mindful breathing has been shown to not only provide the body and brain with sufficient amounts of oxygen but also promote release of oxytocin, prolactin and dopamine, three “feel-good” hormones that also help lower cortisol. Breathing deeply and mindfully, i.e., you are aware of breathing rather than just letting the limbic system do it for you, will also improve mental focus, help reduce blood pressure and relieve symptoms of depression.
Pursed lip breathing exercises are designed to create resistance on the exhalation breath. It also slows down the pace and rhythm of your breathing cycle.
- In a relaxed position
- Inhale through your nose a count of 4; 1-2-3-4
- Bring the top lip down close to the lower lip, like you were going to “whistle”
- Exhale slowly out the small space between your lips
- Maintain a consistent rate of exhalation, without forcing it
- Be very mindful as the air comes in and goes our of your body
Practice “Pursed Lip” breathing for 5 minutes. The resistance caused by the smaller exit port helps stimulate and relax the throat, mind and nervous system. For more detailed information about pursed lip breathing see Medline Plus.
Ujjayi breath exercise are a yoga technique. Translated as “victory breath”, it is also known as “ocean breathing” or “hissing breath”.
see detailed instructions
Ujjayi demonstration video
Breath counting is a very simple way to practice mindfulness. By paying full attention to the number of breaths your taking, your mind is forced to concentrate on nothing else. This can be a very powerful tool in developing the discipline necessary to gain self mastery.
video demonstrating breath counting
Heart Rate Variation
On inhaling, a human being’s heart rate naturally increases. Conversely, it decreases during exhalation.
There is a factor known as the Heart Rate Variation (HRV). It is the naturally occurring variation in the heart rate that happens during the breathing cycle.
The Brain Uses Most of Our Oxygen
Controlled by the oldest part of the brain called the limbic system, breathing, the intake of oxygen and the expulsion of carbon dioxide, is essential for all physiological processes.
The biggest user of oxygen is the brain, requiring about 25 percent of the oxygen existing in the body at any given moment. In fact, if your oxygen intake is restricted for just a mere 10 seconds, you will start feeling lightheaded and your heart rate increases significantly as your body “realizes” something is wrong. Most people can hold their breath for about a minute before the limbic system “forces” them to start breathing again.
When you are feeling powerfully negative emotions such as stress, anger or fear, your diaphragm (the muscle supporting the lower portion of your lungs) tightens and restricts the amount of oxygen being sent to this part of the lungs. Since most of the oxygen released into your body comes from the lower half of the lungs, your brain and body fails to receive the oxygen necessary for optimal physical and mental health.
When you chronically deprive yourself of oxygen due to poor breathing practices, levels of the stress hormone cortisol raise dramatically while neurons struggle to maintain normal signaling activity in the brain. Consequently, you may suffer health issues ranging from hypertension and reduced immune system functioning to biochemical imbalances in the brain that cause depression and anxiety.