Breathing meditations are often seen as a great catalyst to deeper relaxation. This deeper relaxation assists us in experiencing a deeper and sometimes more meaningful meditation. One of the reasons why breathing is such an important factor in achieving relaxation is from the energy content being exchanged with each breath.
It's not just the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide, there is another layer. Seen from an eastern perspective each breath also contains Qi or universal energy, which is essential to our life. This energy supports us in many ways.
In addition, breathing is a great indicator of how body and mind are feeling at any given moment. Are we stressed, upset, happy, nervous, or putting in too much effort, just notice your breathing and you will get a clearer idea.
On the other side of that is the ability to counter balance those states through the use of different breathing exercises. These exercises can usually be done anytime or anywhere and regardless of circumstances most of the time.
Another advantage to doing breathing meditation exercises is improving our breathing in everyday life. There is a carryover effect. It's like we are training our breathing 'muscles' during our meditation and that muscle memory also improves our breathing in the rest of our life.
In this post we will take a closer look at the different aspects of breathing and how to breath more effectively as well as a couple techniques to improve breathing.
How Does Our Breathing work?
With every breath, we provide the body with oxygen which is passed into the blood by the lungs. Through the blood, the oxygen reaches the rest of the body where the oxygen is transformed into energy. In reverse order, waste products are transported back to our lungs where they are breathed out, mainly in the form of carbon dioxide.
In general, we can breathe in two ways. In the first place, we can breathe through our diaphragm and abdomen. Secondly, we can breathe through our chest, also known as chest breathing. Normally speaking, our breathing is a combination of the two. In actual practice, we see that many people use chest breathing more often than not. This breathing is relatively superficial, uneven, and also often a bit tight. When we are tense, it is often recommended to breathe from the abdomen.
The diaphragm is a thin muscular partition between the chest and the abdomen. The diaphragm is sensitive to tension and strongly reacts to psychological disturbances. A cramped abdomen results in a cramped and compromised way of breathing.
When we use abdominal breathing, the diaphragm contracts and moves down, which results in air being pulled into our lungs. The deeper the diaphragm is pushed down during breathing, the more air that will enter our lungs. It is the same for breathing out; the diaphragm relaxes, moves up, and maximum discharge of the air contents in the lungs is the result.
A combination of chest and abdominal breathing enables us to breathe in a maximum amount of air and breathe the used air out again. It is obvious that when you only use chest breathing, you can inhale less oxygen and transport less used air.
Breathing is a continuous, vital function that works automatically and with which, in principle, we need not occupy ourselves with. At the same time, it is also a function that we can actually control consciously and gain benefit from that.
It is, however, true that many people get confused when trying to follow or change their breathing. This is normal and with some exercise and patience, almost everybody succeeds in learning to breathe actively and consciously. This is good news because, in general, our breathing changes according to circumstances.
When angry or upset, the frequency and power of our breathing will increase. When sleeping or in a very deep state of relaxation, we will, most of the time, breathe more slowly and exhale longer. This makes sense because when the body needs more energy because of, for instance danger, breathing will increase. When needing only little energy, breathing will decrease.
Our breathing tells us much about the state of our mind at this particular moment. When breathing quietly, deeply, and evenly most of the time, we really are in a relaxed state of mind. When the breathing is unquiet, superficial, and uneven, we are often irritable, tense, and we find it difficult to concentrate.
To check how your breathing is going at this very moment, just sit down and put a hand on your belly. Put your other hand on your chest where your breastbone is. Which parts of your belly and chest are moving when you breathe?
When you breathe optimally, you feel your stomach muscles expand first, then the chest and finally the upper part of your chest. Don't worry if you notice that you are only breathing from your chest, you are not alone. Just realize that there is still progress to be made and that you will get better at it with each passing moment or attempt.
Is There a Right Way To Breathe?
The idea of having to spend time learning how to breathe properly probably sounds strange. After all, you have known how to breathe since the moment you were born.
It is something that your nervous system does for you automatically, no matter what you are thinking about – and it is something that you (literally) do in your sleep.
So what is there to learn?
The fact is that learning how to breathe properly is a good investment of your time. Once you learn how to breathe, you will find that you have more energy, can focus better, and generally feel better because you are taking deeper breaths and your body is getting more oxygen.
Once you practice it for a little while, it will become second nature – just like having good posture is – and you will find that the benefits impact your whole life.
Breathing improperly can have a negative impact on your digestion, your focus, your ability to sleep, your mood, and your heart rate.
Once you figure out how to breathe, you will find that you put less stress on all of those systems, and you feel much better.
Most people either breathe too much, take breaths that are too shallow, or keep holding their breath without realizing that they are doing it.
This has several impacts on your body. Improper breathing leaves you feeling stressed and tense.
This increases your cortisol levels, tightens your muscles, and increases fatigue as well. It also makes the airways tighter, which means that it is harder for air to get to the lungs – you then have to work harder to breathe, which makes your breathing even less efficient, creating a vicious cycle.
You will end up getting less oxygen in your body, and this will leave you feeling tired and foggy (your brain uses about 20 percent of the oxygen that you take in).
Your heart will have to work harder, and you may find you suffer from cold hands and feet because it cannot pump blood to the extremities as efficiently as it used to be able to.
Oxygen shortages make your muscles stiff and make you tire faster – and this is one reason why athletes tend to put so much effort into learning good breathing techniques – but the fact is that everyone can benefit from these techniques, not just athletes.
How to Breathe
You take 25,000 breaths per day, so learning how to breathe more effectively is a skill that you will get a lot of benefit from. It is easy to breathe well, once you get the hang of it.
Firstly, make sure that you are breathing through your nose – treat your nose like a filter that will process the air you take in – removing impurities, and warming it before it hits the lungs. Your lungs do not want to take in air that is dry and cold, and full of pollutants, so let your nose clean the air before it gets there!
Try to spend a day or two practicing breathing through your nose. After a couple of days, your nose will relax and your nostrils should open again, so you will find breathing through the nose more natural.
Focus on Using Your Diaphragm
Breathe in through your nose and let the air go all the way towards your belly. Use your diaphragm when you are breathing – this will help you to get deep, high quality breaths.
Using the diaphragm helps with gas exchange – since you get more air into your lungs and the lower lungs are very effective. In addition, the movement of the diaphragm helps to massage the liver, stomach and intestines, thereby promoting better digestion.
The lymphatic system gets help to get rid of waste, and the pressure in your chest and belly is briefly reduced, meaning that the heart is not forced to work as hard.
You will find that you don’t have to recruit as many muscles to breathe well, so you won’t tire as quickly, and you will find that your chest relaxes – reducing neck and shoulder pain.
At first, while you are thinking about breathing you will feel pretty tense. Try to focus on relaxing. If you are tense, your breath will be stilted and shallow, and this will make you feel more stressed.
Focus on taking a few long, slow breaths and then falling into a rhythm with your breathing, then forget about it for a while. Re-assess every now and then until breathing well becomes second nature.
Everyone will most likely have a slightly different rhythm when they are breathing. Find your rhythm, and then stick to it. If you are talking, slow down and take a breath every now and then.
If you are stressed and panicking, remind yourself to take a nice deep breath.
Three Breathing Techniques for Quick Relaxation
When we end up in a fight-or-flight situation, the sympathetic nervous system will make sure that the metabolism, breathing, and blood pressure will increase, several hormones will be released (for example adrenaline) and that muscle tension increases.
Fortunately, nature has seen to it that we still use another part of our nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system, which mainly deals with relaxation. This system works best when we are relaxed and is mainly responsible for the recovery and growth of our body cells, assimilation, and building up our reserves.
When these two aspects of the nervous system are in sync and communicating they will help bring the body to balance. Through our breathing and meditation we can generally speaking activate a relaxation response that helps our body to return to the proper balance and to relax again.
We can use our breathing to relax quickly and to get more control over the situation:
1.) Deep and regular breathing
When under heavy pressure, this will help to change your tight, superficial, and often short breathing into a deep, even, and constant breathing. Start your inhalation from your belly, to your ribs and diaphragm, and finally up to the upper part of your chest. For breathing out, do the same in reverse - from your chest to your belly again.
This type of breathing makes sure that the energy that you need to get things under control again flows into you. Your breathing is not superficial, high, and uneven anymore. While you may still be in a state of agitation, you are still in control.
2.) Long exhalations
Often only a few deep, long exhalations are needed to relax. The exhalations must be longer than the inhalations. Through this type of breathing, we trigger the relaxation response that should slowly take us back to the balance in which normally, we are relaxed. Do not get alarmed when sometimes emotions are released or we start to feel tired when we start to relax. This is a transitional phase.
3.) Natural, relaxed breathing
Here, we let the breathing have its way to do whatever it likes. We observe without controlling it. There should be no tension and everything goes nice and smooth.
You can use this routine throughout the day as often as you like. When you feel your breathing is superficial and tense, just perform step's 1,2, and/or 3 and this should help to reduce or eliminate stress in no time!
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.
It is unfortunate that most people don’t learn good breathing techniques at a young age, because bad habits are hard to break, and many people aren’t willing to put in the time to break the habits by re-assessing how they breathe regularly over a period of several weeks or months. However, it is well worth doing.
You can concentrate so much better when your brain is getting the oxygen and energy that it needs, and your body doesn’t feel tense and tired all the time.
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.