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

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.

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.

Gentle Flow Yoga – December

When: Saturday December 14th + Saturday December 21st / 11am-12pm

Connect mind, body, and spirit during a series of accessible yoga poses linked together with breath and focus. Blocks and straps provided, extra mats available as well.This class is safe for all ages and bodies: whether you’re a total beginner, haven’t gotten to the mat in a while, or have a regular practice.

FIRST CLASS IS FREE if you’ve never attended a Team Sun Wellness class before! Hold your spot by emailing: info@teamsunwellness.com / 2 for $25, drop in for $15 / Class size limit: 35.

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

____________

About the teacher: Ann MacMullan Jeans, E-RYT-200, has been teaching a range of community driven yoga classes in the Wallingford Swarthmore area for almost 5 years. Here is what one student says: “I have been a grateful student in Ann’s yoga classes for a couple of years. As an older yoga practitioner who has worked with other teachers in the past, I have especially appreciated her non-judgmental and very encouraging approach. Her classes offer increasing challenges for students to stretch their bodies and their repertoire of yoga poses, but always in a compassionate, supportive, and peaceful atmosphere. In addition, her subtle humor and intention to connect personally with her students makes practicing yoga just plain fun. As Ann expands her teaching opportunities, I hope to follow her for as long as I can move my body!”

Student Spotlight: Judy

  • Name: Judy
  • Age: 71 (she adds, “old enough to know better and young enough to do it anyway!”)
  • Sun Sign: Aries
  • Pets: Two long-haired black cats, Amos and Pinkerton
  • Favorite Sweet Treat: anything chocolate

Interoception

One thing I’ve noticed about Judy since I met her in 2016 (besides her lovely posture!) is her ability to open herself up to whatever she’s experiencing, and I can tell she’s really listening inward during class. She has been a fixture in my group classes since then, adding her special brand of graceful goodwill and lightheartedness.

Grace

Warrior Two Pose

Judy’s been practicing on and off since 1998, but in 2000, she needed spine surgery in her neck to repair a serious bone spur that was interfering with her range of motion and causing numbness down her arm. They took the discs out of C6+C7 and replaced them with bone from her left hip. While she suffers from arthritis throughout most of her joints, Judy has learned that she feels much better if she keeps moving.

“If it hurts, it means I’m still alive.”

-Judy s.

Currently, she practices yoga about 2-3 hours each week, which has also helped strengthen her bones as we reported earlier this year. (Her improved Dexa Scan scores contributed to the blogpost I wrote on Yoga for Stronger Bones.) In fact, I blame Judy and another student for getting me interested in yoga for osteoporosis, and I’m only at the beginning of that journey, so thank you…

Effort

Extended Side Angle Pose

Judy came to my house for a special one-on-one session – or an osteocyte party as I like to say! Osteocytes are important building blocks of bone synthesis, but we need to practice the right poses with proper alignment and work hard within the pose (hold for at least 30 seconds, for one!) in order to put enough stress on the bone to get that bone-building party started. She even got into an Extended Side Angle Pose, great for stimulating the femurs and spinal vertebrae – the areas where Judy has thinning bone.

Centering

With her weak ankles and neuropathy in her feet, Judy’s toughest challenge is balancing poses like Tree. “Balance is hard for me, and it makes me feel less successful, though it does get somewhat easier with practice!”

“Let go of your judgments and just do what you can, but make it a regular part of your routine.”

-Judy S.

Because of Judy’s regular yoga practice, she experiences less arthritis pain, stronger bones, and feels more centered in her daily life. Yoga class provides her with a social connection with like-minded people. I’m so grateful to have Judy’s beaming smile in my classes, along with her humor and present-moment insight into her own practice. I hope she will consider the yoga dose response study with Dr. Fishman and keep those BMD scores improving!

It’s truly an honor, Judy!

Meet more of our students

Gentle Flow Yoga – Winter

“The posture of yoga is steady and easy. It is realized by relaxing one’s effort and resting like the cosmic serpent on the waters of infinity.”

– Patanjali, Yoga Sutras

January/February Classes: These winter 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: 

Saturdays / Jan 4th – Feb 1st / 11-12pm

Tuesdays / Jan 7th – Feb 11th / 9-10am

Thursdays / Jan 9th – Feb 13th / 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

Note: Gift Certificates Available, just add a note to the seller and a virtual card will be created and emailed within 24 hours of your purchase.