It’s automatic, if you don’t think about it, it still happens. And yet, it’s one of the very few things you can actually control in your life! It’s a critical link to our sense of inner peace. In yoga and meditation we often say our true essence is peace, we just need ways to remember this. Using the breath is and always has been the number one technique for cultivating inner peace, anytime, anywhere.
Breathing is the vehicle for our energy, our reactions, our thoughts. In yoga, the Sankrit word for what we call breathing techniques is pranayama, prana meaning “energy,” and yama meaning “control.” Control the breath, and it can positively influence mind, body, and emotions.
This piece will explore some of the foundations of a few breathing techniques. There is great power in simplicity. And, just because it seems simple, doesn’t mean it’s easy. However, everything gets better with practice and deepening awareness.
We are all familiar with the counsel that’s given during a stressful time, “Take some deep breaths!” And this deep breathing, diaphragmatic breathing, “three-part” breathing, or “belly breathing,” is when we expand the belly as we inhale, then the ribcage, and lastly the chest below the collarbone, without raising the shoulders. Essentially you could imagine a large balloon from the pubic bone to the collar bone, expanding in all directions.
When you are able to, practice belly breathing lying down on your back; this position induces relaxation almost immediately because we associate lying down with sleeping. (Sometimes if I lead a yoga class with this first, students get so relaxed, they don’t want to stand up!) Notice that even without deepening your breath, the navel rises and falls. Gently lengthen that inhalation and exhalation without straining, noticing those three parts expanding as you inhale: belly, ribcage, and the chest. Even when you are not able to lie down, you can remember what it felt like and translate that into your upright posture.
Also try inhaling through the nostrils, allowing that natural filtration to take place through the nose, and exhaling through the mouth, gently pursing the lips together making a gentle sound. Try a ratio of 1:2: however long your inhalation, make your exhalation twice as long. This has been shown to induce a sense of calmness. As many physical and occupational therapists coach, “smell the flowers” on the inhalation through the nose, and “blow out the candles” on the exhalation through the mouth.
Try practicing this technique for about 5-10 breaths, or more. Deep breathing brings so many benefits: physiologically, psychologically, spiritually, and in ways we are just discovering. Even if you are working on a computer, doing yardwork, working on a presentation, a creative project, employ belly breathing and feel the energy flowing.
Double Breathing, Tensing and Relaxing
Let’s also try a variation on belly breathing: double-breathing. A short, and a long “sniff!,” “sniffffff” inhalation (belly expands), followed by a short, and a long breathy “ha,” “haaaaaa” exhalation (belly draws inward). These are kind of like expresso shots of oxygen, or otherwise known as a great replacement for caffeine! Especially effective if you can be near a window or outside in the fresh air.
Then combine these double sniff, sniff inhalations with tensing the whole body with low, medium, and high tension, and then as you exhale with the double ha, haaaaa, relax the body from high back down to no tension. Imagine that you are wringing out the body like a sponge, completely ridding it of any lasting tension. Repeat three times, or more.
These are great to do when you feel your energy waning. Lead meeting participants in doing them, especially if coffee has run out! Better yet, convert the conference room meeting into a walking meeting, and do these to start out the meeting. Kids love these exercises too. I was once in a group with 20 kids and parents when our hayride got delayed by 15 minutes, and I led the kids in breathing/energizing techniques. They loved it, and were fired up with focused energy and yet amazingly relaxed when it was our turn do the hayride!
There is also costal or “ribcage” breathing, a kind of hybrid of belly breathing, where the core/abdominals are held inward and upward (stabilizing the core and low back) while doing strenuous or balancing exercises such a planks, or balancing poses. So, while the pelvic floor muscles at the base of the torso/spine draw inward and upward, the abdominals draw inward toward the spine, and the small muscles of the back lengthen and strengthen upward, the inhalation focuses on expanding the ribcage (instead of the belly), and then the exhalation relaxes the ribcage (and the belly and all the core muscles around it remain engaged).
Similar to belly breathing, it can be practiced lying on your back, with that imagery of all the core muscles pulling in and up gently (think about engaging those core muscles at 80% of maximum, not going all out), with your hands on your ribcage, feeling its expansion and contraction. You can also place a hand on the belly to try to keep it quiet during ribcage breathing. If you do challenging strengthening or balance moves or poses, you may be doing this style of breathing without even realizing it, and if you don’t already do this breathing, you will notice a huge improvement in strength and balance!
Watching the Breath
In contrast to belly breathing, double breathing, and ribcage breathing, there’s the natural, relaxed type of breath. It’s the background breathing that goes on during the day and when we sleep, which isn’t lengthened or controlled. This is the other side of the spectrum from belly breathing. The key is to observe the breath, without controlling it. Sounds easy, but it definitely takes some practice. The more you let go and don’t control or lengthen the inhale or the exhale, the more the breath becomes shallow and relaxed.
Try watching the breath after you have done some belly breathing or double breathing. Watch and observe the breath, without controlling it. Try this using nostril breathing, but if necessary, make adjustments if you have allergies or a cold. You know you are doing it correctly when there is no sound to the breath. The pauses at the top of the inhale, and the bottom of the exhale become longer; not because you are lengthening them, but because the breath is relaxing on its own, without your control.
This technique, a concentration technique on the breath, can be practiced to train and focus the mind. It’s useful to calm the mind when you are feeling fear, anxiety, or nervousness, especially because you can practice it and no one will know. Every time the mind gets distracted, and tries to think about something else, just bring it back as soon as you notice, without judgement, to observing your breath. Even if at first this is all you are doing: bringing back the attention to the breath, again and again.
Affirmations With the Breath
Once you are comfortable with watching the breath, you can add another layer of an affirmation, sometimes called a mantra. This is essentially a positive, uplifting phrase to further help concentrate the mind. One classic phrase is mentally affirming “I am” with the inhalation, and affirming “Spirit” with the exhalation; in Sanskrit, Hong Sau, and one of the meditation techniques introduced to the West by Yogananda. Or, you can substitute any positive quality, for example, “I am” with the inhale and “Peace,” with the exhale, or “Calm,” “Joy,” “Love,” etc. Very simple, yet extremely powerful.
Posture and Gaze
It’s also helpful to have the body in a good posture (spine lengthening upward through the top of the head, shoulders down and gently back, chin parallel to the floor) while practicing breathing techniques, and to have the eyes closed to lessen distraction, if you can. Whether the eyes are open or not, allow the gaze of your eyeballs to be lifted just above a mental horizon in the distance. Imagine looking just above the horizon line of the ocean or a mountain, which places your gaze at the same level as the point between the eyebrows. This is the same area of the brain that is lit up during functional MRI’s of meditators. The point between the eyebrows corresponds with the prefrontal lobes of the brain, the area of the brain responsible for our feelings of happiness, contentment, and inner peace.
Watching of the breath, with or without affirmation, can be done at anytime. If time allows, you can let the watching of the breath and the affirmation fade away and melt into inner stillness. In that stillness, feel the expansion of the soul, an immersion, an absorption into inner peace. Visualize and feel this peace, calm, or divine joy, filling every body cell, revitalizing the brain, the nervous system, the whole body, and the soul.
End your practice of any of these techniques, even a short one, with gratitude for the opportunity to recharge, relax, and reconnect the body and mind with our true essence.