A daily practice of focused deep breathing is one of the best tools for improving health and well-being and is available to us at all times. Harvard Medical School reports that focused, deep respiration can have the following benefits:
- Lower blood pressure and heart rate
- Relief from stress, anxiety and depression
- Increased detoxification
- Improved memory and focus
- Heightened metabolism
The relationship between breathing and our stress response is key to understanding how we can take control of our own stress levels. Here’s a little more about how it works: your breathing rate is automatically regulated by the autonomic nervous system, a system which controls many of our internal body processes – such as blood pressure, heart and breathing rates, digestion, and metabolism to name a few.
If you’re in an emergency situation, the sympathetic nerves prepare the body for fight or flight by increasing the heart and breathing rates, causing the palms to sweat and the pupils to dilate, and slowing down processes like digestion and urination. When it’s time to rest and digest, our parasympathetic nerves are hard at work slowing the heart and breathing rates, decreasing blood pressure, and processing food and eliminating wastes. However, our response to stress can heighten over time if we’re not able to rest and restore our system to a state of balance. When we are easily triggered, something as simple as the sound of the phone ringing or a distant siren can set into motion a fight or flight response, which can have serious consequences. According to the JPB Research Network on Toxic Stress at Harvard University, this stress reactivity can have serious and even life-threatening effects on our physical and mental health.
Three Breathing Exercises
Controlling our own breath can help restore the balance in our nervous systems. This allows us to both respond with the appropriate focus and energy to everyday events and to wind down when we need rest. We can even use the breath to simply check in with ourselves at any time during the day.
Energizing Breath: Try this before you reach for the caffeine.
- Find a seated posture where you feel stable – comfortable yet upright.
- Shoulders are back and down, chest lifted, midsection lightly engaged.
- Ground down into the points of contact: feet on ground, hands resting gently on the lap, feeling completely supported by the chair.
- Tune into the sensation of the breath, the sound of the breath or the feeling of the chest rising and falling.
- Start your count – Inhale for five seconds – Exhale for five seconds, taking a short pause at the top and bottom of each breath.
- Lengthen the spine on the inhalation, pulling the belly button up and in; drop the shoulders on the exhalation, while keeping the midsection gently engaged.
- Continue until you feel a calm, quite focus to help you re-approach the day.
Relaxing Breath: Practice this to help fall asleep or to simply slow down and center.
- Find a comfortable seated position or lie down onto your back, supporting the head with a blanket or pillow.
- Focus your awareness on where you are making contact with the ground and release any tension or tightness with several deep exhalations.
- Place one hand on the belly and notice the breath with each gentle rise and fall of the midsection.
- Focus on feeling completely supported in your position and bring your attention back to the movement or sound of the breath anytime the mind starts to wander.
Checking-In Breath: Use this the next time you are waiting in line at the store.
- Bring awareness to the feet, position them hip-distance apart.
- Engage the muscles of the lower and upper legs, locking the knees.
- Shift the hips slightly forward, while pulling the belly up and in.
- Drop the arms down at the sides with the fingers lightly touching.
- Inhale, growing taller and more expansive; exhale, maintain the height, while grounding down through the feet, like the roots of an oak tree.
- Enjoy the opportunity to pay attention to yourself.
Basic Breathing Principles
By bringing just a little more awareness to our breath we can accomplish many everyday tasks more safely and efficiently.
- Inhale when extending and reaching (for that bowl on the top kitchen shelf). Draw the breath into the upper chest, while engaging or flexing the muscles of the abdomen. The rib cage lengthens the spine and provides us greater reach.
- Exhale when bending or twisting (pulling clothes out of the dryer). Release the breath like the air squeezed from an accordion. The absence of air in the lungs provides us greater space to bend/twist.
- Breath through the nose whenever possible. The nasal passageways filter impurities from the air while regulating the proper amount of oxygen absorbed into the bloodstream.
- Breathe into the chest to support physical activity requiring flexibility and core abdominal strength. Here, the ribs lift up and out to the sides, maximizing the volume of the thoracic cavity.
- Breathe “into the belly” to promote relaxation and manage stress. During this breath, the belly pushes out while ribs are stabilized.
The simple principles and techniques introduced here hopefully encourage you to make the breath a more active partner in your everyday routines. Whether you’re stressed out, in desperate need of sleep, or simply bored in the check-out line, the breath will always be there when you need it. What most matters is that we use the breath to bring a more mindful response to our environment and move away from mindless reactivity.
Today is the day to start paying attention to the breath!