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.

The Self-Care Mindset

Seated Meditation and Mindful Movement for All Levels

Wednesday October 2nd 6:00-7:00pm / Swarthmore Town Center / Fresh Air Fitness in Central Park ampitheater – Donation based


We invite you to “put on your own oxygen mask first!”

With the breath as the key to our self-care toolkit, we’ll be exploring simple tools to manage stress, become more present, and foster self-acceptance.

These include seated breath awareness and breath control exercises, breath-connected movement exercises, and a guided mindfulness meditation to finish it off.

Practicing these tools helps develop a mindset that encourages self-care. No experience in meditation or yoga needed. Bring a cushion to sit on, a blanket for your lap if we’re outside, and an open mind. All ages and levels of experience welcome.

Donation-based – pay what you can.

In case of inclement weather: inside Borough Hall

Learning to Breathe

One of the most effective tools for managing stress is right under your nose! The breath is one of the few automatic functions we have control over; and the benefits of taming the breath are endless. 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 many benefits, as listed below.

BENEFITS OF A Regular BREATHING PRACTICE:

  • Lower blood pressure and heart rate
  • Relief from stress, anxiety and depression
  • Increased detoxification
  • Improved memory and focus
  • Heightened metabolism

Ready to get started learning a few simple breathing techniques?

Explore more on the blogpost: Three Everyday Conscious Breath Exercises

Feeling out of balance? Try Balancing the Breath! By bringing equilibrium to your in and out-breaths, you can regulate your own nervous system.

Explore more on the blogpost: Thoughts on Finding Balance.

Feel free to browse Breath for more info.

Check out our Video Library!

Breath

Relaxed senior woman doing some breathing exercises

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

 

Stress Response

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.

para_sympathetic

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!