Catching Our Breath: Three Simple Conscious Breathing Exercises

Each of our breaths is an open window into the present moment.

Most of us tend to think of our breathing as an unconscious, involuntary process. But it is also one of the few automatic systems in our body that we can control. Research shows that when we pay attention to our breath, good things happen. Conscious breathing can help us reduce stress, increase attention and improve our mood (Heckenberg et al., 2018; Tang et al. 2015). It should come as no surprise that yoga, mindfulness and many mind-body exercises are built upon breath awareness. Our breath is always there for us, 24,000 times a day. Each one of these breaths is an open window to the present moment, where we can check in on ourselves and practice a measure of well-deserved self-care. After all, we need to take care of ourselves just like we take care of our family, friends and co-workers.

The three exercises here can help you get started with everyday conscious breathing. Take a few moments after watching each video to become more comfortable with the breathing techniques. We hope that over time you will increasingly find the windows in your normal (and not so normal…) day, to catch your breath and feel calm focus in the present moment.


Building Breath Awareness

Before we expect any magical transformations from our breath, we have to first acknowledge it. Like anything else worth doing, conscious breathing takes practice.

Everyday Breath Awareness – Take a few moments to identify a few different qualities of your breath. They can be related to sound, movement, posture or any other quality of your inhalation or exhalation. Set a challenge for yourself to notice your breathing at five different moments during the day. It could be right after opening your eyes in the morning or before drifting off at night. A few breaths can break the tedium when you’re waiting in line and help to reset your posture when you’re sitting behind a desk all day.

Challenge yourself to notice your breath five times throughout the day.


Balancing the Breath

Now that you have learned how to pay closer attention to your breath, let’s explore how we can control the breath to help us manage our most challenging situations. Our breath is closely linked to balance in our autonomic nervous system (ANS). The inhalation is associated with the sympathetic, or action-oriented, side, while the exhalation is closely connected to the parasympathetic, or recovery side. Research has shown that breathing with inhalations and exhalations of equal duration (also called resonant or coherent breathing) can support a calm focused mindset (Streeter et al., 2017).

Building Resilience – Practice balancing your breath as you prepare for challenging situations that demand steady nerves and close attention. Over time, this exercise can help you to build resilience and bring your A-Game when you most need it!


Letting Go of the Breath

Now that you feel a little more at ease tuning into the breath and controlling it to build calm focus, you can try using the breath to relieve stress and find greater contentment. Deep breaths into the belly and their complete release send powerful messages to the brain’s alarm centers that everything is OK and there is no need for “fight or flight”. This means our bodies aren’t flooded with stress hormones including cortisol and norepinephrine that keep the cardio gas pedal pressed down and compromise our physical and cognitive functioning over time. Deep breaths in and out help us release muscular tension and quiet our most persistent worries anchored in the past or future.

Stress-Relieving Breath Tips

  • Start this exercise breathing in and out through the nose. The nasal passageways clean and warm the incoming air, while also controlling with more precision the volume of the breath. Imagine sipping through a straw rather than taking a big gulp.
  • Allow your belly to gently expand as you inhale and freely release as you exhale. This movement in the abdomen stimulates the vagus nerve and activates the parasympathetic nervous system (rest-and-digest). This gives your sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight) a well-deserved break.
  • After you feel comfortable breathing in and out through the nose, try exhaling through the mouth and prolong the exhalation to deepen the relaxation response.
  • Produce an audible sigh, “aaahhhhhh…”, during the exhalation to enhance your awareness of the breath and its stress-reducing benefits.

The breath is our lifetime companion and always there when we need to hit the pause button, reflect for a moment and then proceed. We hope you are able use these conscious breathing exercises to take better care of yourself and those around you. Feel free to share with us any insights you have on your breathing journey moving forward!

Our breath is always there for us, 24,000 times a day.


References Hafenbrack, A. 2017. Mindfulness Meditation as an On-The-Spot Workplace Intervention. Journal of Business Research. 75, 118-129.

Heckenberg, R., Eddy, P., Kent, S. & Wright, B. (2018) Do workplace-based mindfulness meditation programs improve physiological indices of stress? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 114, 62-71.

Streeter, C. C., P. L. Gerbarg, T. H. Whitfield, L. Owen, J. Johnston, M. M. Silveri, M. Gensler, et al. 2017. “Treatment of Major Depressive Disorder with Iyengar Yoga and Coherent Breathing: A Randomized Controlled Dosing Study.” Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 23 (3): 201-207.

Tang, Y., Holzel, B. & Posner, M. (2015). The Neuroscience of Mindfulness Meditation, Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 16 (April 2015) 213-225.

Gentle Flow Yoga – May

May Classes: These classes have flexible attendance: buy a class card and attend any session that works for your calendar! This class is safe for all levels: whether you’re a total beginner, haven’t gotten to the mat in a while, or have a regular practice.

When: 

4 Saturdays / May 2nd – May 23rd / 11-12pm

4 Tuesdays / May 5th – May 23rd / 9-10am

4 Thursdays / May 8th – May 26th / 10-11am

Join one of the all levels Gentle Flow Yoga classes and explore:

  • Breath awareness and breathing exercises 
  • The connection between movement and breath
  • Stable alignment in classic poses, modified for your personal anatomy
  • Safe and fun transitions throughout gentle sequencing
  • The philosophy of yoga
  • Taking yoga off the mat into your everyday routine

Show up in whatever state you’re in, and be guided through an accessible fun sequence designed to connect mind, body, and spirit. Blocks and straps provided, and some extra mats available as well.

Where: Wallingford Presbyterian Church 110 E. Brookhaven Road
Wallingford, PA 19086 Free Parking on the premises

12 classes for $120, 8 classes for $100, 4 classes for $55, drop in for $15

Not all monkeys bite

Santosha, or contentment, is one of the five niyamas or personal observances that we vow to explore in yoga. I think the idea is to practice being content with whatever you’re experiencing in any given moment.

Practicing contentment doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with being unhappy; instead we are invited to train in being content with our unhappiness. That might go something like this:

  1. Acknowledge sadness (or whatever emotion we’re experiencing.)
  2. Recognize that it’s a turbulence that will eventually pass.
  3. Perhaps even develop some gratitude towards our ability to feel so much.
  4. Look at that emotion like it’s an old friend who’s stopped by for lunch.

You already have everything you need.

It’s said that our basic nature as human beings is joyful; that we are happy without even trying to be. I recently learned that as babies, we are born breathing naturally into our bellies; taking deep breaths that utilize our full lung capacity. As adults, we get so disconnected from our bodies, so stuck in our minds, that we develop a tendency towards chest breathing, and must relearn full belly breathing, which can help reset the nervous system and manage stress. (But that’s a blog post for another time.) How do we get so far away from our natural state of being, from being able to take a deep breath?

Get off the rollercoaster of liking and disliking everything.

As we grow up and have our vast and quotidian experiences, we learn to ascribe value to everything. We categorize everything, and naturally move towards the things we like and away from the things we don’t. We make split second judgments based on our layers of experience, our culture, our upbringing. Everything we come into contact with throughout our entire day might get put into some kind of category!

  • Like / Dislike
  • Friend / Enemy
  • Feels Good / Hurts
  • Pretty / Ugly

How can we possibly be content in this digital age? While it is worthwhile on many levels, I believe social media breeds so much discontent and snap judgment. Is it a thumbs up, or a thumbs down? From our brave digital distance it’s also easier to express the flames of hatred…and even our own president does it!

We get caught in a loop of holding on to what we think is good, and we only tell the stories that sing our perfections. We avoid what we think is bad, choose to omit narratives that might bring shame. In all that grasping for the good and rejecting of the bad, we lose our clarity. We lose equanimity. We lose contentment. We forget how to breathe.

Not all monkeys bite.

Weird story: I got bitten by a monkey when I was little, and not only was it physically painful but I got into some trouble for wandering into the yard of the stranger who owned the monkey. (I was raised with a parenting style known as benign neglect, popular in the 1970s.) Now I’m kind of afraid of monkeys, and in particular, sharp little monkey teeth. When I go to the zoo or see monkeys on tv, I have a bit of a reaction. Not a big fan. I’m looking through the lens of my painful memory and putting monkeys into the category of “dislike” or “avoid at all costs.” Which makes sense, like it’s rational to avoid putting your hand into a fire because you will get burned. The process of distilling everything into categories gets dangerous, though, because it leads to the rollercoaster of needing to satisfy our likes and dislikes all the time. We might miss out on the possibility that not all monkeys are going to bite, and maybe some are actually cute. There are other more painful stories I can’t really share here, so the monkey story will have to do.

It is what it is.

When I worked in television, I must have heard that sentence a million times, “It is what it is.” It used to drive me crazy! It seemed to me a copout for not trying harder to make things right. But maybe, in fact, it was the ultimate santosha.

Acceptance of our present moment is one way to get off of the rollercoaster of liking and disliking. In our search for happiness, we ignore the possibility that happiness is already happening right here and right now. We also presuppose it will come from outside of ourselves. If we aim to practice santosha, we must stop seeking it and rest in the moment, whatever it brings. Even if it’s monkeys.

“Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.”

― Lao Tzu

Gentle Flow Yoga * Spring Thursdays!

“I like to watch things grow. They grow and bloom and fade and die and change into something else. Ah, life. I should like to change into a sunflower most of all. They’re so tall and simple.” 

– Maude, Harold and Maude

When:  Thursdays / March 5th – April 23rd / 10-11am

Our class will explore:

  • The cycles of the breath via awareness and breathing exercises 
  • The connection between movement and breath
  • Stable alignment in classic poses, modified for your personal anatomy
  • Safe and fun transitions throughout gentle sequencing
  • The philosophy of yoga
  • Taking yoga off the mat into your everyday routine

Show up in whatever state you’re in, and be guided through an accessible fun sequence designed to connect mind, body, and spirit. Blocks and straps provided, and some extra mats and kneeling pads available as well.

Where: Wallingford Presbyterian Church 110 E. Brookhaven Road
Wallingford, PA 19086 Free Parking on the premises

8 classes for $80, 4 classes for $55, drop in for $15

Winter Support Herbal Tea

Lately there seem to be a number of family and friends with colds and coughs, and I started to feel a bit under the weather myself. So I got out my books, created some lists, looked in my herb cabinet, and came up with an all-around yummy tea for winter support. This tea contains herbs to boost immune function, soothe sore throats, suppress coughs; and tastes delicious. When steeped long enough, it’s also a beautiful ruby red color.

The herbal tea you get from a store in a tea bag and steep for a couple minutes is fine (and I drink quite a bit of it,) but it’s probably not going to be quite as effective as loose dried herbs sourced responsibly and infused for a longer period of time. Also bulk herbs are much less expensive and don’t have all the packaging. Here are the gifts of the garden I chose for my precious winter blend.

Why I Chose These Herbs:

  • Licorice Root…..soothes sore throats and is a natural sweetener
  • Dried Lemon Peel + Lemongrass leaves…..adds Vitamin C and tart taste
  • Peppermint Leaves…..tastes good and invigorates
  • Echinacea Root…..provides immune support
  • Astragalus Root…..provides immune support
  • Ginger Root…..eases nausea and digestion and adds spice
  • Hibiscus flowers…..adds Vitamin C, tang, and deep red color
  • Wild Cherry Bark…..acts as cough suppressant
  • Dried Rose Hips…..adds Vitamin C and color

After doing my research I love to shop at Penn Herb here in Philly. Some other great online sources for herbs are: Mountain Rose Herbs, Gaia Herbs, Starwest Botanicals, and Frontier Coop. Check out my friend Elvira’s shop: Green Cottage Creek. We used to work together at the New York Botanical Garden many moons ago and she continues to inspire my herbal education!

How to Make a Good Cup of Herbal Tea

  1. Mix your herbs together in a bowl. Enjoy the diversity of appearance.
  2. Boil water in a pot or in a tea kettle.
  3. After it boils, add 1-2 teaspoons of dried herb material directly to your pot or into your tea infuser.
  4. Cover immediately and steep for at least 5 minutes – longer for stronger infusions.
  5. Drink it while it’s hot. (Pouring through a strainer if steeped directly in your pot.) Store the remainder in the fridge and heat up later.

“While there is tea, there is hope.”

Sir Arthur Wing Pinero

There’s nothing more soothing than a hot cup of tea, in my opinion. While I’m no herbal expert, I know what I’ve tried and what seems to work for me. When you blend your own herbal tea, choosing herbs for their various effects and tastes, you have empowered your own self-healing. This simple act of kindness towards oneself (and others, if you’re willing to share) goes a long way! Happy sipping.

Student Spotlight: Evan

Yogas citta vrtti nirodhah: Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind. from The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, 1:2.

  • Name: Evan Silverstein
  • Age: 38
  • Length of Practice: 16 years, most active over past two years.
  • Most Gratifying Pose: Triangle
  • Most Challenging Pose: Crescent Moon
  • Pets: 3 Dogs, Sweet Potato (Beagle Mix) 14, Rosie (Poodle Mix) 12 & Tina (Poodle Mix) 7.
  • Favorite Philly Bike Excursion: Schuylkill River Trail

Curiosity

Improvising a triangle variation to build strength, flexibility and self-awareness

Evan was one of the first curious souls to join our Men’s Yoga class here in South Philly. He brings a sense of fearlessness to his practice, constantly setting new goals for himself and exploring ways to integrate yoga and mindfulness into his everyday activities at work, home and everywhere in between.

Determination

Evan building core strength while flying high in a variation of Locust Pose

Evan brings a quiet intensity to his practice, exemplifying the yogic metaphor of heating the iron in order to shape it. I admire his determination to develop the strength, flexibility and focus needed to find stillness in even the most advanced postures.

Balance

Grounded and focused in Extended Hand to Toe Pose

Evan demonstrates a quiet confidence moving into challenging poses and holding them while focused on his breathing. Evan enters AND exits these postures with the same degree of grace and focus, remaining centered and grounded.

Present Moment Awareness

Evan reflecting on how to pay closer attention to his breath, both on and off the mat.

Our Men’s Yoga class focuses on building the core strength needed to keep doing all the things in life we love doing. We break down traditional yoga postures into basic physical movements that can be applied to our everyday work-life routines. Evan exemplifies this integration of mindful movement into our everyday activities at work, home and everywhere in between. It is perhaps his present moment awareness that makes Evan such an inspiring student. He follows his breath through each posture and then applies what he learns on the mat to reach his full potential off the mat. I cannot wait to take his class when he completes his teacher training!

Yoga for Healthy Aging

Swarthmore Public Library – February 5th 2-3pm – FREE – Join us for a combined lecture and movement session, safe for all bodies. REGISTER HERE.

Age is not a disease. It’s a state to which we aspire. Yet slow-moving age-related changes such as loss of muscle mass, kyphotic posture, and lack of flexibility can leave us feeling frail, off balance, and unable to live as independently.

photo by Ben Zuckerman

Often the very thing that many of these age-related changes react positively to is activity – and the RIGHT activity. And when we make lifestyle changes to counteract the effects of aging, it helps us find a sense of control over what may seem like an overwhelming decline. Yoga is one such activity, found to counteract many age-related changes that reduce your health span.

Whether you’re looking to strengthen bones + muscles or improve flexibility and balance, there is a safe yoga practice for every level of fitness and mobility. While we may not have control over certain aspects of the aging process, we do have control over our lifestyle and activity levels. Beyond the physical postures, the mind/body connection created during yoga helps foster awareness and acceptance towards our aging bodies so we can practice safely and with compassion towards ourselves. 

Ann and her grandmother, Ellie

About the instructor: Ann Grace MacMullan, E-RYT 200, has been teaching yoga to older bodies for almost 5 years. Her oldest student was her grandmother – at age 98, she was one of the most active participants of her chair yoga class! She now teaches a range of ages and mobility levels in her Gentle Yoga, Chair Yoga, and Balance classes in the Wallingford-Swarthmore community.

A New Decade, More Healing

This coming decade is a big one for me: I’m turning fifty. That number seems incomprehensibly large when describing my own years on the planet, and yet many of my yoga and balance students are well over that age and as active and vital as ever; I consider them tremendously young. Nevertheless, fifty does seem an age where one should have it all figured out – and I’m still working on that.

Why I Love Yoga

I practice and teach yoga because it’s one of the tools of wellness that’s become necessary to my own daily functioning. I have personally experienced the healing power of this mind-body practice on many levels: regulation of my own turbulent emotions, freedom from anxiety disorder, mobility in my spine despite disc herniation and stenosis, and an overall sense of well-being. My wellness is something I actively pursue, and yoga makes me feel good all over!

Teaching yoga is a job where I get to be my 100% authentic self. I set my own schedule. I form deep connections with interesting and genuine people. Best of all, I’ve witnessed yoga’s myriad benefits in students: improved posture and balance, stronger bones, pain management, better flexibility and strength, and an ability to interpret the body’s signals without too much mental chatter.

Bridging Yoga and Healthcare

As I reach my fifth decade, it’s time to go “all in” with this healing art! Or at least, keep walking the yogic path in the way that honors my own experience; and that means more formally approaching yoga as a therapeutic means of healing mind and body. Thanks to the kind folks who gifted me with the Yoga for Osteoporosis training, I’m starting my journey towards certification as a yoga therapist, and could not be more excited to have been accepted by Prema Yoga Institute to begin my training in February of 2020. I’m pushing my roots down farther into the world of yoga, and into the somewhat new field of yoga therapy.

At PYI, we believe that yoga teaching and Yoga Therapy can empower the body/mind to heal itself. The role of a Yoga Therapist or teacher is not to diagnose or to treat, but to empower the client to participate in their healing process.

-Prema Yoga Institute Handbook

Yoga therapy integrates traditional yogic concepts and techniques with Western medical and psychological knowledge. Whereas traditional Yoga is primarily concerned with personal transcendence on the part of a “normal” or healthy individual, Yoga therapy aims at the holistic treatment of various kinds of psychological or somatic dysfunctions ranging from back problems to emotional distress. Both approaches, however, share an understanding of the human being as an integrated body-mind system, which can function optimally only when there is a state of dynamic balance.

It feels so right to be pursuing this through Prema Yoga Institute (PYI,) an International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT) accredited school. The kind teachers there opened their doors to me in November and gave me a small peek at this field of work, and at how much there is for me to know! Here is the course work I will do, once I figure out how to afford it all:

  • Yoga Therapeutics Essentials – starts in February, all signed up!
  • Embodied Philosophy
  • Yoga Sound Therapy
  • Ayurvedic Yoga Therapy
  • Functional Anatomy 1+2
  • Yoga in Health Care
  • Yoga for Back Care
  • Yoga for Cardiac Care
  • Advanced Yoga Therapy
  • Yin Yoga Therapeutics
  • Immersion Courses (already did the Osteoporosis course)
  • Practicums 1-3, one is in a clinical setting – hopefully with Dr. Fishman!

I am simultaneously terrified and thrilled for this next decade. May it be filled with presence, kindness and honesty lighting the way forward!

Thank you to family, friends, students and teachers who have shown their support along the way. I look forward to empowering self-healing in myself and those around me, and continuing the dance of yoga.

If you’d like to contribute to my cause, please visit my GoFundMe page.

Yoga Gift Cards

Looking for that last minute gift? Why not give the gift of yoga to a loved one – or better yet, to yourself!

Personalized virtual gift cards can be created within a few hours of your purchase, along with instructions on where and when classes meet or how to set up a private session. Here’s an example:

Whether it’s chair yoga, mat yoga, or private sessions, we have you covered. Shop our gift card collection:

Balance Workshop

Join us for a fun workshop all about balance!

  • Thursday December 12th, 10-11:15am / Wallingford Presbyterian Church / $25

There’s a real “use it or lose it” component to maintaining your balance. Whether you’re looking to prevent balance issues or to reverse them, you need to challenge your balance on a regular basis. In our class we’ll be learning safe, effective exercises that can improve your balance, flexibility, and strength. With practice, almost anyone can achieve better balance.

While it’s true that our muscles, joints, and bones change as we age, and are no longer as elastic or strong as they once were, and we may also experience more issues in the vestibular system, or may be taking medications which affect balance, it doesn’t mean our balance is only going to get worse.

I believe that if we have regular doctor’s checkups, stay active and mindful, have good posture, and continue to challenge our balance, we can maintain and even improve balance. I have seen improvements in balance firsthand with regular practice in my balance and yoga classes. Being more active seems to go hand in hand with maintaining or improving balance.

In this workshop, we’ll:

  • Evaluate our balance using a timed exercise.
  • Get mindful: create a mind-body connection by focusing on the breath to improve awareness.
  • Get in touch with our feet, the foundations of balance.
  • Learn new postural habits: good alignment means stability.
  • Stretch and strengthen muscles used for balance.
  • Learn new visual habits: lift the gaze to encourage use of peripheral vision.
  • Practice increasingly difficult balance challenges in a supportive, non-judgmental environment – such as: standing yoga balance poses, walking a balance beam, ball-handling, and other exercises that challenge our balance.
  • Explore the “edge” of our balance ability.
  • Celebrate our victories no matter how small by supporting and encouraging each other!

Participants of all ages and mobility levels welcome. Chairs will be provided, and if you have a yoga mat, please bring one. (Or borrow one from Team Sun Wellness, supplies limited) We will be placing chairs on the mats to create a non-slip surface. Class size limit 20. Pre-purchase your spot by clicking below – credit card and PayPal accepted. Or bring a check or cash to class, but email to hold your spot: info@teamsunwellness.com

About the Instructor: Ann MacMullan Jeans is a certified yoga instructor (E-RYT 200) and teaches yoga, meditation, and balance classes in the Philadelphia area with her company Team Sun Wellness.