Breathing is an incredibly powerful tool that we often take for granted. As humans, we can generally survive days without food or water, but only minutes without fresh air. As an often anxiety-prone kid, it’s a technique I’ve used since childhood thanks to my mother calmly repeating, “in with the good air, out with the bad air,” and the use continued well into my professional years where I seemed to be surrounded by a lot of “bad air.”
These days there is a lot more official information regarding the benefits of breathing techniques as it relates to stress and inflammation reduction, digestive aid, energy booster and so forth. I also love that my iWatch reminds me throughout the day to stop, take a moment to breathe, then return to the business of life with a greater sense of focus and calm. It’s also helpful before takeoff as a somewhat reluctant business flier – an unfortunate trait I picked up after becoming a mom for fear of leaving my daughter motherless…I’ve heard that other parents can relate.
In my corporate workshops, I have sometimes kicked off exercises that require focus and deep consideration with a short 5 minute meditation guided by the app “Insight Timer” and encouraged everyone to find their preferred breathing technique (if the workshop is right after lunch, it helps to digest too!) Did you even know there were different ways at breathing? Me either. But, in my health coach instruction and personal research I’ve learned that you have a lot of choices. I’ve boiled them down to 5 that I personally find most interesting and useful as a busy professional, depending on the time and place I choose to practice my focused breath exercise. Here are a few guidelines to get started before we get into the specifics:
- Begin with just 5 minutes a day and increase your time as the exercise becomes easier and more comfortable. If 5 minutes feels too long, start with just 2 minutes.
- Practice multiple times a day at set times or simply use conscious breathing as you feel the need.
- Find what exercise feels best to you – different techniques may be better at different times of day or by situation.
- Use in combination with a guided meditation, music, silence, or perhaps seated in nature.
Here are my 5 favorite to experiment with and/or practice regularly – see what works best for you:
1. Diaphragmatic breathing
Belly breathing can help you use your diaphragm properly. Do belly breathing exercises when you’re feeling relaxed and rested.
Practice diaphragmatic breathing for 5 to 10 minutes 3 to 4 times per day. When you begin you may feel tired, but over time the technique should become easier and should feel more natural.
To do it:
- Lie on your back with your knees slightly bent and your head on a pillow.
- You may place a pillow under your knees for support.
- Place one hand on your upper chest and one hand below your rib cage, allowing you to feel the movement of your diaphragm.
- Slowly inhale through your nose, feeling your stomach pressing into your hand.
- Keep your other hand as still as possible.
- Exhale using pursed lips as you tighten your stomach muscles, keeping your upper hand completely still.
You can place a book on your abdomen to make the exercise more difficult. Once you learn how to do belly breathing lying down you can increase the difficulty by trying it while sitting in a chair. You can then practice the technique while performing your daily activities.
2. Equal breathing
Equal breathing is known as sama vritti in Sanskrit. This breathing technique focuses on making your inhales and exhales the same length. Making your breath smooth and steady can help bring about balance and equanimity.
You should find a breath length that is not too easy and not too difficult. You also want it to be too fast, so that you’re able to maintain it throughout the practice. Usually, this is between 3 and 5 counts.
Once you get used to equal breathing while seated you can do it during your yoga practice or other daily activities.
To do it:
- Choose a comfortable seated position.
- Breathe in and out through your nose.
- Count during each inhale and exhale to make sure they are even in duration. Alternatively, choose a word or short phrase to repeat during each inhale and exhale.
- You can add a slight pause or breath retention after each inhale and exhale if you feel comfortable. (Normal breathing involves a natural pause.)
- Continue practicing this breath for at least 5 minutes.
3. Resonant or coherent breathing
Resonant breathing, also known as coherent breathing, is when you breathe at a rate of 5 full breaths per minute. You can achieve this rate by inhaling and exhaling for a count of 5.
Breathing at this rate maximizes your heart rate variability (HRV), reduces stress, and, according to one 2017 study, can reduce symptoms of depression when combined with Iyengar yoga.
To do it:
- Inhale for a count of 5.
- Exhale for a count of 5.
- Continue this breathing pattern for at least a few minutes.
4. Deep breathing
Deep breathing helps to relieve shortness of breath by preventing air from getting trapped in your lungs and helping you to breathe in more fresh air. It may help you to feel more relaxed and centered.
To do it:
- While standing or sitting, draw your elbows back slightly to allow your chest to expand.
- Take a deep inhalation through your nose.
- Retain your breath for a count of 5.
- Slowly release your breath by exhaling through your nose.
5. Dr. Weil’s 4-7-8 Breathing Technique
The 4-7-8 breathing technique is a breathing pattern developed by Dr. Andrew Weil. It’s based on an ancient yogic technique called pranayama, which helps practitioners gain control over their breathing. When practiced regularly, it’s possible that this technique could help some people fall asleep in a shorter period of time.
How does the 4-7-8 breathing technique work?
Breathing techniques are designed to bring the body into a state of deep relaxation. Specific patterns that involve holding the breath for a period of time allow your body to replenish its oxygen. From the lungs outward, techniques like 4-7-8 can give your organs and tissues a much-needed oxygen boost.
Relaxation practices also help bring the body back into balance and regulate the fight-or-flight response we feel when we’re stressed. This is particularly helpful if you’re experiencing sleeplessness due to anxiety or worries about what happened today — or what might happen tomorrow. Swirling thoughts and concerns can keep us from being able to rest well.
The 4-7-8 technique forces the mind and body to focus on regulating the breath, rather than replaying your worries when you lie down at night. Proponents claim it can soothe a racing heart or calm frazzled nerves. Dr. Weil has even described it as a “natural tranquilizer for the nervous system.”
Over time and with repeated practice, proponents of 4-7-8 breathing say it becomes more and more powerful. It’s said that at first, its effects aren’t as apparent. You might feel a little lightheaded the first time you try it. Practicing 4-7-8 breathing at least twice per day could yield greater results for some people than for those who only practice it once.
To do it:
To practice 4-7-8 breathing, find a place to sit or lie down comfortably. Be sure you practice good posture, especially when starting out. If you’re using the technique to fall asleep, lying down is best.
Prepare for the practice by resting the tip of your tongue against the roof of your mouth, right behind your top front teeth. You’ll need to keep your tongue in place throughout the practice. It takes practice to keep from moving your tongue when you exhale. Exhaling during 4-7-8 breathing can be easier for some people when they purse their lips.
The following steps should all be carried out in the cycle of one breath:
- First, let your lips part. Make a whooshing sound, exhaling completely through your mouth.
- Next, close your lips, inhaling silently through your nose as you count to four in your head.
- Then, for seven seconds, hold your breath.
- Make another whooshing exhale from your mouth for eight seconds.
When you inhale again, you initiate a new cycle of breath. Practice this pattern for four full breaths.
The held breath (for seven seconds) is the most critical part of this practice. It’s also recommended that you only practice 4-7-8 breathing for four breaths when you’re first starting out. You can gradually work your way up to eight full breaths.
This breathing technique shouldn’t be practiced in a setting where you’re not prepared to fully relax. While it doesn’t necessarily have to be used for falling asleep, it can still put the practitioner into a state of deep relaxation. Make sure you don’t need to be fully alert immediately after practicing your breathing cycles.
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If your organization would like to inspire its team members to bring more well-being to their personal and professional life, let’s schedule a presentation and/or workshop together! You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Testimonials of recent events are readily available in the comments section of posts on on my LinkedIn page here.
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Reference Sources – Healthline: https://www.healthline.com/health/4-7-8-breathing#1 and https://www.healthline.com/health/breathing-exercise
Photo credit: iStock.com/peshkov