It might not sound very important, but learning how to utilise our breath is essential to the health of our body and mind. Think about it: we take care of our body by providing it with nourishing foods, so why don’t we bring the same nourishment to our body using our breath? Breath is necessary to our life just as food is necessary to our body, so it makes sense to ensure that we are aware and conscious of it.
Managing your breath has a positive impact on your sympathetic nervous system, taking it from an elevated fight or flight response to a calm response of the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system controls your rest, relax and digest response. Continued deep, controlled breathing exercises teaches your body to engage the parasympathetic nervous system, resulting in low blood pressure, less stress, and an overall relaxed feeling.
As Sheila Patel, M.D says in her article Breathing for Life: The Mind-Body Healing Benefits of Pranayama, “Deep breathing can help calm and slow down the emotional turbulence in the mind.”
1. Nadi Shodhana or Alternate Nostril Breathing
This exercise is brilliant if you’re feeling worried or you need an energy boost. Nadi Shodhana is said to clear the channels and lower your heart rate. You might feel a bit odd doing it at first, but I can assure you, it feels good!
- Hold your right thumb over your right nostril and inhale deeply through your left nostril.
- At the peak of your inhalation, close off your left nostril with your third and fourth fingers, then exhale smoothly through your right nostril.
- After a full exhalation, inhale through the right nostril, closing it off with your right thumb at the peak of your inhalation.
- Continue this for as many breaths as you like. Your breathing should flow effortlessly while your mind gently observes your flow of breath.
This exercise helps harmonize the left and right hemisphere of the brain and ensures that prana (force of life) flows smoothly. Here is the Chopra Centre’s guide to Nadi Shodhana breathing.
2. Sama Vritti or Equal Breathing
This breathing technique is very simple and can work anytime, but it’s been found to be super effective before bed. This exercise will introduce some balance to your breathing which will do wonders for your body and mind. It keeps your mind focused but calm, reduces stress, and calms the sympathetic nervous system. It’s also a useful technique if you have a presentation coming up or a big day at work looming. This exercise is ideal to do for a few moments before the event to just balance and ground yourself.
Inhale for a count of four, then exhale for a count of four. Inhale and exhale through the nose. As you get used to this exercise you can gradually increase the amount of breaths from four to six to eight.
Check out Dr. Robin Burzin’s article on how simple breathing calms your mind.
3. Complete Belly Breath
This one is ideal if your mind feels non-stop and overactive. It brings your focus within and allows you to learn how to control your breath and anchor yourself. As Thich Nhat Hanh says “Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.”
Check out this article How to Breathe Correctly for a more extensive guide about similar breathing exercises.
You can do this one laying down and sitting. I prefer to do it laying down because I can really feel my belly expanding, like I’m supported by the earth.
- Get into a comfortable position and place your hand on your belly, relaxing your abdominal muscles.
- Inhale deeply, feeling your abdomen rise. This breath expands your lungs so you should feel your rib cage expand and your collarbone rise.
- At the peak of inhalation, pause for a breath (or longer, if you’re a pro!) then gently exhale with ease and fluidity.
- To ensure any air left in your lungs completely gone, contract your abdomen muscles slightly.
You can do this exercise anytime you wish. I find it’s an awesome one to do after some yoga, especially during savasana. If you don’t do yoga, this one is excellent at the end of the day or when you’re feeling tired and want to feel supported.
4. Ujjayi or Ocean Breath
I love this breathing exercise. It really allows you to let go of all the problems of the day. It is absolutely ideal if you feel angry or frustrated as it’s extremely cleansing.
Pronounced “oo-jai”, many say this breath allows cooling pranayama to flow, which immediately settles and refreshes your mind.
- Inhale deeper than you normally would.
- With your mouth closed, breath out through your nose while constricting your throat muscles. You’ll know you’re doing it right when your breath sounds like waves in the ocean – hence the name ocean breath!
This breathing exercise can be tough to get the hang of. Sheila Patel says that, if you are having difficulty, then something you can do is to try exhaling the sound “haaaaaah” with your mouth open. Next, make a similar sound with your mouth closed and feel the air come through your nose. Once you’ve got the hang of it on the exhale, try it on the inhale using the same method.
Practise this exercise for 5-10 minutes in the morning and evening. It’s an excellent way to start the day. You can even set an intention for the day while using this breath in the morning, and in the evening you can allow this breath to wash the problems of the day away.
5. Mindful Breathing
This exercise is excellent if you’re feeling overwhelmed or stressed. By bringing your attention to your breath, you allow your mind to become still and peaceful. It’s a chance to give your mind a rest and then carry on the day feeling refreshed and energized.
- Sit comfortably.
- Inhale deeply through your nose.
- Exhale through the mouth.
- As you inhale and exhale, bring awareness to how the in-breath and the out-breath feel.
For beginners, I recommend doing this for five to ten breaths. It doesn’t sound like much, but the aim is to become aware of the aliveness of the breath and the vitality it gives to you and your body. If mindful meditation sounds like your cup of tea, then Thich Nhat Hanh has some excellent meditations you can do.
All of these breathing exercises can be done for three minutes or three hours — it’s up to you. It’s suggested that beginners start off by practising controlled breathing for a few moments and then gradually increasing the time. Eventually, you’ll find yourself unconsciously incorporating these exercises into your daily life. This will lead to improved overall health, a quieter mind, and a better way to approach the stresses of life. For more breathing exercises and tips, read Jordan Shakeshaft’s article 6 Breathing Exercises to Relax in Ten Minutes or Less
Ensure that you remain aware at all times of how your body is feeling. If you start to feel light-headed or uncomfortable, stop for a while and proceed with a less intense breathing exercise.
Remember: don’t pressure yourself. You can’t do breathing wrong!
“You are breathing in, and while breathing in you know that you are alive.”
– Thich Nhat Hanh