“There is one way of breathing that is shameful and constricted. Then there’s another way; a breath of love that takes you all the way to infinity.” — Rumi
Take a moment to observe your breath. Don’t attempt to change or alter its rhythm, simply notice. How am I breathing? This question should be asked of oneself often; when you’re doing a household task, walking in the street or in nature, or anytime you may have disconnected from the constant yet essential act of the lungs taking in air and expelling it. You know, that thing all humans do to keep us alive, mostly unconsciously, and often taken for granted? Let’s pause and check in . . . how are you breathing, friend?
Because our readers love a healthy combination of science and spirituality, today we’re bringing you a little of both, in the hopes you’ll start making deep breathing your immune system’s BFF once again. Your body’s built-in stress reliever (your sacred breath) is the ultimate mind-body boost.
Here’s how to make the most of it.
WHAT THE SCIENCE SAYS
Heart disease a.k.a. cardiovascular disease is still the leading cause of death in the US today. Chronic stress is one of its most menacing underlying factors, which leads to high blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Many turn to pharmaceuticals to reverse the effects of substance abuse and improper eating, drinking, and even attitudes/mood. But deep breathing can eliminate stress even more powerfully than synthetic drugs can, and it’s an immediately accessible tool that takes just minutes to have a positive, calming impact.
In 2019, the Journal of Neurophysiology published a study linking the activation of multiple regions of the brain (emotions, attention span, body awareness, etc.) to paying attention to our breath, noting that particular breathing strategies can help manage not only stress regulation, but also thoughts, moods, and experiences. Previously, researchers demonstrated that focused attention and regulation of the nervous system are additional benefits of paced breathing exercises. This wisdom has also been employed for centuries in yoga, meditation, tai chi and other mindful and trauma-informed movement practices.
Abdominal pain, constipation, and bloating are just a few more of the silent menaces that are also associated with chronic stress, leading to indigestion and other tummy troubles. To promote absorption and digestion, registered dietitian Mandy Enright, MS, RDN, suggests that slow, deep breathing can relax muscles in the intestinal tract, increase oxygen intake, and stimulate blood flow. Overall, mindful eating can reduce digestive function, but more specifically, diaphragmatic breathing can trigger relaxation responses for better mental and physical health. In short, diaphragmatic breathing is a tool to “rest and digest”, creating a gentle massage for your internal organs and alleviating stomach tension.
Have you ever considered your breath as a type of preventative medicine? Most of us know that the higher our stress levels, the more hyperactivated our “fight, flight, or freeze” mode, which leads to a weakened immune system. But, right under our noses, there is an incredibly accessible way to moderate and even heal our programmed stress response: controlled, conscious breathing. Biohacker and Primal Health Coach Charlene Gisele shares: “Breathwork can be a form of preventative medicine because breathing is directly related to lymph flow, and lymph flow is directly related to immunity. The immune system being our protection mechanism defending us against viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens.” The more we practice, the better allies we are to our own immunity. So, take a look at the three breathwork exercises below to integrate into your daily flow.
CALMING BREATH: 4-2-4
1. Sit comfortably: upright in a chair with feet firmly planted on the ground, or cross-legged on the floor or any other stable place where you can be still.
2. Breathe normally, close the eyes, and “drop in” to the present moment.
3. Take one slow breath in through the nose (4 seconds).
4. Suspend (hold) the breath for 2 seconds.
5. Exhale slowly through the mouth (4 seconds).
6. Pause and observe the body for a few moments, focusing on the heart’s rhythm. Relax any tension, and begin again.
7. Repeat for 6-8 cycles, or approximately five minutes when first starting. You can try one to two times a day in the beginning of this practice, then use the gentle Calming Breath Technique anytime you feel anxious or in need of relaxation.
1. Set up for Mantra Breath in a comfortable seat, just like Calming Breath above.
2. While there are many mantras you can choose from, here is a simple phrase to begin with (or substitute with another that resonates more with you):
3. On the in-breath, say silently to yourself: Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in. Slowly take in air through the nostrils as you say these words.
4. On the out-breath, say silently to yourself: Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out. Slowly release the air through your mouth as you say these words.
5. Mantra Breath can be not only calming, but also hypnotic or trance-like. Take your time going through a few cycles, perhaps for 3, 5, 7, or even 10 minutes. It can be helpful when first starting out to set a timer, so you can focus solely on breathing.
1. Some people like to be seated, while others prefer lying down for Belly-Heart Breath. Often, yoga teachers will incorporate this practice into the opening or closing of their classes, which is something you can also consider: adding Belly-Heart Breath at the end of your own personal yoga or mindful movement practice during savasana.
2. In whatever comfortable position you find yourself, gently place one hand over your heart, and the other hand over your belly.
3. Take a few moments to “settle” any waves of the mind, drop into the present moment, and simply observe the weight and warmth of your hands. Try not to force anything, but slowly begin to mindfully soften the hands, heart, and belly.
4. As you inhale slowly through the nose, imagine gathering the breath from the low belly (underneath the belly button) up through the chambers of the abdomen, filling the lungs and finally arriving at the heart, filling it with a white light.
5. Next, exhale slowly through the nose, imagine the white light washing down the belly into the lower hand and lower abdomen.
6. Repeat the cycle of breathing from belly to chest, chest to belly, with an optional pause (as in Calming Breath) or optional mantra (Mantra Breath) to accompany the soft, intentional flow of air from one hand to the other.
7. If it feels right in your body, after a few rounds (10-12 breath cycles or about 5 minutes), simply rest the palms on the knees (if seated) or on the floor, palms facing up (if laying down on your back) and allow yourself to observe how you’re feeling. Has anything shifted, softened? How is the rhythm of your heart? Is there any remaining tension you can release, starting in the face? Let go and be breathed.
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