Breathing is a natural part of life. It’s necessary for survival. Breathing in oxygen helps keep your blood circulating, allows your organs to work properly, and eliminates toxins and waste. No one will argue the importance of breathing.
While breathing came to us automatically at birth, it can be difficult to perform “breathing exercises.”
If you don’t think breathing techniques can be challenging, then try this exercise. Inhale through your nose for 10 full seconds. Remember that one second is marked as “one Mississippi.” No cheating! Then, exhale out through your nose, for 10 seconds. If that was easy, try retaining your breath for a count of 10 before exhaling. Find the toughest person you know and give them this exercise. See how they do. I’ve completed 200 hours of yoga training, and while we definitely covered all the poses, the majority of it was learning how to breathe.
Because breathing techniques are surprisingly difficut, it takes work. Here are some simple ways to get better.
Begin by sitting cross-legged or upright in your chair. Inhale, bring your hands into prayer position, thumbs resting at your chest. Exhale here. As you take your next breath in, raise your hands up overhead, keeping your palms together. On your exhale, flip your palms and spread your arms out to your side in a big circle, and ending with your hands back at prayer position where you started. Repeat this five times. Each time, remember to take one long inhale as your move your hands up, and one long exhale as your spread your arms out. Let the breath move you.
The point behind ratio breathing is counting your breaths. It gives you something to focus on, so it’s especially helpful when your mind is scattered or you are thinking too much. This technique helps guide your breathing pattern into a relaxed state. There are many different ways to count your breath, but we are going to practice 4:4:4:4, or square breathing. The ratio is between inhalation, retention time, exhalation, and retention.
Step 1: Find a comfortable seat with your spine straight. You can close your eyes if it is comfortable. Take a couple of deep breaths to clear your mind. Then, settle into the natural rhythms of your breathing.
Step 2: Slowly inhale through your nose as you silently count to 4.
Step 3: Pause and retain your breath as you count to 4
Step 4: Gently exhale out your nose as you count to 4.
Step 5: After your exhalation is complete, pause as you count to 4.
This concludes one full breath. Practice the cycle for a total of 4 rounds.
Diaphragmatic Breathing (or Belly Breathing)
This breathing lesson is best done lying down. Rest your palms on the sides of your belly, fingertips slightly touching. As you inhale, fill your belly full of air. Notice how your fingers expand as your belly rises. Slowly exhale out through your nose, drawing your navel in towards your spine. Imagine as you inhale, you expand and fill up your belly like a balloon ready to pop, and when you exhale you sink deeper into the earth. Deep, slow breathing in this fashion calms the nervous system and relaxes the body. Can’t go to sleep? Try diaphragmatic breathing for several minutes. You might add a mantra: “As I breathe in, I relax my body. As I breathe out, I calm my mind.”
Ocean Breath (or Ujjayi Pranayama)
If you’ve ever been to a yoga class, you’ve probably noticed an audible sound coming from seasoned yogis next to you. Ocean breathing is named after the rhythmic, tranquil sounds of ocean waves.
Here’s how to practice. First, place your right hand out in front of you, a few inches from your mouth, symbolizing a mirror. Then, pretend you are trying to fog up the mirror with your breath. Exhale out through your mouth, constricting the muscles in the back of your throat, making a subtle “ahhh” sound. Now, try the same exercise, but this time, keep your mouth closed as you exhale. As you inhale, see if you can also maintain a slight constriction at the back of the throat, making the breath audible, like a light snoring sound.
The slow and steady sounds of ocean breathing helps calm the mind and block out recursive thinking. It helps to relieve insomnia and can be useful to do just before sleep. You can combine ocean breathing with other types of breathing exercises, like three-part breathing.
Three-Part Breathing (Dirga Pranayama)
Step 1: Choose a comfortable seated position or lie down on your back with your arms along your side. If it’s comfortable for you, close your eyes. If you want to keep your eyes open, direct your eyes down towards the floor in a soft gaze.
Step 2: Focus on your natural breathing without changing it. Just be aware of it. Breathe like this for a couple rounds of breath.
Step 3: Then, on your next inhale, fill your belly full with air, like a big balloon.
Step 4: Exhale through the nose, pulling your navel in towards your spine.
Step 5: Repeat three times.
Step 6: Continue the above deep breathing, this time filling first your belly and then your rib cage full of oxygen.
Step 7: Exhale, pushing air out from your rib cage, then from your belly.
Step 8: Repeat three times, allowing a sense of wellbeing and peace to fill you up.
Step 9: Now inhale, filling your belly, your rib cage, and your upper chest, causing it to rise.
Step 10: Exhale, lowering your upper chest, and emptying your rib cage, followed by your belly.
Breathing is automatic – we do it without trying or thinking about it. Yet, there are so many different ways of breathing that can help calm the mind, reduce anxiety and stress, help with insomnia, reduce high blood pressure, release tension, and relax the body. Learning breathing techniques is easy, it just takes time. Better start practicing now!