Breathing is not only an essential part of life, but it is also an extremely useful tool that can be used to help regulate our nervous system and stress response. There are many different types of breathing techniques and breath focused exercises and they can be used for a variety of purposes. Breathing exercises can be especially helpful for preparing for yoga or meditation as well as for reducing stress.
The goal of this post is to introduce a few different breathing exercises and breath focused meditations that may become useful tools in your meditation or yoga practice.
Okay, let's get into it.
The diaphragm is the muscle that we use for breathing. Along with the lungs and heart, the diaphragm is a key oxygen generating part of the body. It is the dome-shaped muscle located underneath the lungs and above the stomach muscles. It pumps in oxygen when we inhale and releases carbon dioxide when we exhale.
Diaphragmatic breathing is a breathing exercise capable of regulating heart rate and blood pressure. We all may know that stress is relieved, and we are able to relax and calm the nerves, when heart rate and blood pressure are slowed down. Diaphragmatic breathing is able to do that and the process is simple.
Step 1.) Lie on your bed or on the floor. Make sure your head is rested on a pillow. The knees should be bent. Place a couple of pillows underneath the knees if that is more comfortable. Put your right hand below the rib cage. This will allow you to feel your diaphragm when it moves as you breathe. Your left hand should be on your chest.
Step 2.) Start to breathe in through your nose. It should be slow enough so that you can feel your belly move up as you breathe. Hold your breath for a couple of seconds. Do not move the hand that is on your chest.
Step 3.) Breathe out through pursed lips. Make sure to tighten your stomach muscles as you exhale. And also, ensure both hands do not move from their position.
For first timers, do not be surprised if at the first the exercise will be a bit tiring. With continued practice it will be a more relaxing experience as it is meant to be. To make the most of diaphragmatic breathing exercises, do it for 5 to 10 minutes 3 to 4 times a day.
It is alright to increase the frequency of going through the exercise every day. You are the best judge as to the most effective number of times diaphragmatic exercises should be engaged in a day for your needs.
As long as you are comfortable you can even start the day with it before doing yoga, then have another session during lunch time, and wrap up the day with another set in the evening just before going to bed or meditating. Once you get comfortable with diaphragmatic breathing you can set the pace and limits best for you.
Equal breathing is a very simple exercise. Anyone can do it. Even kids will find it very accessible.
The goal of equal breathing is to calm the body & mind by pumping the nervous system with massive doses of oxygen. It is a great way to still the mind during meditation as well as focus it during stressful situations. To practice equal breathing, find a quiet place in your office, house or wherever and whenever you can find a few minutes to yourself.
Step 1.) Sit down on a cushioned surface. Cross your legs together. Equal Breathing can also be done while lying down or sitting on a chair.
Step 2.) Close your eyes and notice the pace of your breathing. Take in five normal breaths first.
Step 3.) As you inhale, count to four. Pause for a second or two on top of the inhale. Feel the air that has filled up your lungs. Exhale. Count to four as you slowly release the air in the lungs. Pause for a couple of seconds after the lungs have been emptied of air.
Step 4.) Repeat until your mind and entire body feel calm and relaxed. The heart beat should also be slow and steady at this stage.
Equal breathing is a great exercise if you want to gather yourself before and after dealing with a stressful situation. Also, it works very well for those nights where you find it difficult to sleep.
When you are feeling anxious or tense, try going through some progressive relaxation breathing exercises. They involve flexing and relaxing one muscle group of the body at a time. Breathe in while flexing the muscle and breathe out when relaxing it. Like most breathing exercises, the process is easy.
Again, find a quiet space to do the breathing exercise. This is best done sitting or lying down. Start with the muscles in the feet. Inhale as you flex both feet. Keep it flexed for three seconds before releasing and exhaling at the same time. Then follow through with the leg muscles. Go through the same process of flexing while inhaling and relaxing while exhaling.
Don’t forget the three second pause with muscles flexed. Do not stop until you have covered all the muscle groups – knees, glutes, thighs, stomach, arms, chest etc. Feel the entire body relax after the exercise.
Alternate Nostril Breathing
Another yoga breathing technique is alternate nostril breathing. It is also referred to as nadi shodhana. If ever you are in that situation where your nerves are rattled and anxiety starts to creep in. Find the space to do this exercise. Give alternate nostril breathing a few minutes of your valuable time. You may find that it has a very balancing effect on your nervous system. The process goes something like this:
Step 1.) Find a chair with a high back. Make sure it is comfortable to sit in. It should be high backed because the spine needs to be straight and the heart open while going through the deep breathing exercise.
Step 2.) Place your left palm on your left lap. Position your right hand in front of your face.
Step 3.) Place both your pointer finger and middle finger between your eyebrows. They will be the anchor for your ring and thumb. The ring finger and thumb will be used to cover your right and left nostrils as you breathe alternately.
Step 4.) Close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths.
Step 5.) Place your thumb on your right nostril. Inhale through your left nostril. Do it in a slow and steady pace.
Step 6.) With the ring finger, close the left nostril. Both nostrils should be closed at this point as you hold your breath for a couple of seconds.
Step 7.) Open your right nostril and breathe out. Pause after the exhale.
Step 8.) Inhale through your right nostril. Again breathe in a steady and relaxed pace. At the top of the inhale, close both nostrils.
Step 9.) Release your left nostril and exhale from it. Pause after the exhale.
Step 10.) Repeat 5 to 10 times. Make sure your mind is focused on each inhale and exhale.
With alternate nostril breathing, a complete breathing cycle is when both nostrils have completed a set of inhale and exhales each. To get the most benefit from the exercise, make sure the pace of the inhales and exhales are the same. In order to ensure regular pace of breathing, count five seconds for every inhale and five seconds for each exhale.
A few minutes of alternate nostril breathing is sure to still the mind and is excellent preparation for yoga and meditation. Some of the other benefits are:
- Removes toxins from the body
- Refreshes the nervous system
- Strengthens the lungs and respiratory system
- Clears the energy channels in the brain
- Restores balance in the left and right side of the brain
- Focuses the mind
Skull Shining Breath
A more advanced yoga deep breathing technique is the skull shining breath. Skull Shining breath is a deep breathing exercise that warms up the internal body, wakes up the brain and shakes off nerves and feelings of negativity.
All of which are possible through a combination of slow inhales and explosive exhales while the lower belly is contracted. With this exercise, not everyone is able to isolate the lower belly muscles and contract them while exhaling. If that's the case for you, then placing your cupped hands on your lower belly and pushing into it as you exhale will do.
Step 1.) Assume a comfortable sitting position in a quiet place. Shoulders back and spine straight. Place cupped hands on lower belly. If you can contract your lower belly as you exhale cupping the lower belly is not necessary.
Step 2.) Inhale in a normal manner. Pause for a second.
Step 3.) Exhale fast. It is alright to make an explosive sound as you do so. In fact, it is recommended. Contract your lower belly as you exhale. Or push with cupped hands on your lower belly.
For beginners, start slow by going through one exhale – inhale cycle every two seconds. Repeat 8 to 10 times. Once you get a hang of the process increase the number of exhale – inhale cycles per second.
Note: Every time you release that explosive exhale, imagine the inner lining of your skull ‘brightening’. And to make the most of a skull brightening breathing session, go through 25 to 30 cycles at first. Then increase as you see fit.
This is a breathing technique that combines visualization and deep breathing. It is a very effective as a stress relief technique. All it takes is 10 minutes of your time every day. When faced with a stressful situation use the quieting response breathing technique to instantly alleviate stress. Here is how it goes.
When feeling stressed, stop what you are doing. Take a deep breath. Release the tension by smiling inwardly with your eyes and your mouth. Keep smiling as you breathe out. When doing so, straighten your shoulders and assume a comfortable posture. This should be the case even while sitting down or standing up. Feel all the tense muscles in your body relax in the process.
Now close your eyes and as you breathe in imagine hot air sipping through the soles of your feet. Imagine tiny little holes where the hot air can pass through underneath the soles of your feet. Imagine the hot air move from your feet, up your legs, and through your stomach. Feel it warming up your entire body as it continues to go up through your diaphragm and into your heart, and eventually up into your brain.
As you breathe out imagine hot air traveling in reverse from the head, to the heart, the diaphragm and then finally released back out again through the holes in your soles. Repeat the breathing exercise throughout the day when you want to feel relaxed and calm.
Sudarshan Kriya (Sky)
SKY is a breathing exercise that has roots in yoga. It was first developed by the non-profit group Art of Living Foundation. It is a cyclical form of breathing with varying techniques:
Victorious Breath or Ujiya: The technique is to breathe slow and do it four times in the span of one minute. Notice how the breath courses through the body during the four times you breathe in and out. Make sure to prolong the breathing so that only four breaths are inhaled and exhaled in the span of 60 seconds. Be very aware of your breathing. Continue victorious breathing until you experience a heightened sense of awareness and a deep sense of calm.
Bellows Breath or Bhastrika: In the span of a minute, inhale and exhale 30 times. Inhale with force. Exhale rapidly. After rapid breathing, you should experience a sense of excitement at first. Then it leads to the calming of emotions, while at the same time letting the mind peak which allows you to be more alert.
Going through regular bellows breathing exercises has the same effect on the brain and nerves as physical exercises. It can elevate your mood and keep you on a positive note all day.
Om: Again within the span of a minute, chant the mantra ‘om’ as you exhale. Only three breaths while chanting ‘om’ in 60 seconds. The ‘om’ should be a very prolonged sound as you exhale. Make sure to feel the reverberations of the sound waves on your mind and body as you say ‘om’ while exhaling. The sound of the ‘om’ is what’s supposed to release the tension and make you relax.
Continue with the breathing exercise until you feel an increase in mental focus, a heightened sense of awareness and a deep sense of relaxation in your entire body.
Count your Breaths Meditation
This is a simple and easy breathing meditation you can use at any time. It is a good exercise to help clear your head and reduce stress and tension.
Do not be alarmed if you find that your mind wanders during this exercise. This is quite normal and just goes to show how active our mind is. Over time you will gradually get better at focusing your attention on your breathing for longer periods of time. It may help your concentration if you pronounce the number during the whole length of your breathing in or breathing out.
After some time it is possible to do this exercise by just counting your breathing in or your breathing out. You may also find this exercise easy enough at some point that you want to stop counting and just think of the words "in" and "out"
- Sit down, close your eyes and concentrate on your breathing. Be aware of every breath in and out.
- Breathe automatically and freely, do not try to control your breathing. Pay attention to how the air slowly passes through your nose, fills up your lungs and goes out again.
- Notice whether you are breathing through your belly, your diaphragm or the upper part of your chest.
- After taking a few breaths, start your count:
- Breathing in, one
- Breathing out ,two
- Breathing in, three
- Breathing out, four
- Breathing in, five
- Breathing out, six
- If you start to notice your mind wandering away from the awareness of your breathing, just notice it and return to your breathing
- Breathing in, seven
- Breathing out, eight, etc.
- Notice the sensations of your breathing. the depth, the speed, etc. See if your breathing becomes increasingly slower and quieter or from your chest or more from your belly.
- Breathing in, 49
- Breathing out, 50
- Breathing in, 51
- Breathing out, 52, etc.
- Try to become integrated and as one with your breathing.
- If you notice any sensations in your body that pull your awareness away, let it be okay and return to your breathing.
- Breathing in, 88
- Breathing out, 89
- Breathing in, 90
- Breathing out 91, etc.
- All right, now slowly bring your awareness back to the rest of your body and the sounds in the room. Move a little, stretch your muscles a little and open your eyes.
Having a few breathing techniques in your meditation or yoga toolbox can be very helpful in finding peace and relaxation as well as in overcoming challenges that can get in the way of having a deeper experience.
Try a few out for yourself and see which ones you resonate with more. You may find that after going through the exercises a few times that you get a better understanding of how they work and how you can better use them in your life.