The lure of the quick-fix never really disappears. We know that the get-quick-rich scheme or the weight-loss miracle doesn’t really deliver. But we’re drawn to it (perhaps only slightly) nonetheless. It does leave the interesting question, however, as to whether or not there really are some effortless paths to great results.
I believe that mind-body techniques almost qualify. Some, like meditation, require a little more understanding. Others, like those that form the topic of this article, can be integrated into your life almost instantly, whether it’s to deal with day-to-day problems like stress or as part of a five or ten minute formal practice. It’s about having a set of natural tools and techniques that we can use to improve our well-being, without any change to our lifestyle or beliefs.
It’s easy to pass breathing exercises off as ineffective. At best they’re seen as secondary additions to more effective methods. Yet the benefits of conscious breathing are many. Properly understood and practised, they can act as a genuinely effective means of alleviating stress and improving health. In this article, the first of a two-part series on breathing exercises, I want to outline some foundational practices alongside the benefits of doing them.
We should, ideally, breathe so that our belly expands. Bad breathing is often a result of the tension that we carry about in our abdomen. Our nervous system, with it’s typical fight-or-flight response, is dealing with modern threatening situations – criticism, reprisals, social embarrassment – as it would a real threat in the jungle: by tensing up! Eventually, holding onto this tension becomes habitual.
You can observe the natural flexibility of the muscles in your stomach and chest by taking a breath, holding it, and gently pushing the air into your abdomen so that it bulges. Next, move the air into your chest by contracting your abdominal muscles. Try alternating a few times, up and down.
If you lie down flat on the floor, you can safely recreate a fight-or-flight response by gently lifting your head forward off the floor. Your abdominal muscles will contract as they do when you are in a situation that is perceived to be dangerous. You cannot breathe into your belly in this position.
1. Diaphragm Breathing
Diaphragm, or belly, breathing is well-known and widely recommended. It supposedly mirrors the natural process of human respiration. If you watch a baby’s breathing, you’ll see that their belly expands whilst their chest only moves slightly.
1. If you are trying diaphragm breathing for the first time you might find it easier lying on your back.
2. Place one hand on your abdomen (around the navel area) and the other on the middle of your chest (around the sternum).
3. Breathe into your abdomen, which should be loose and relaxed, so that your chest only moves a little. The majority of the movement should be in your abdomen.
4. On the next diaphragmatic breath, place your hands on the sides of your abdomen, where your rib cage meets your waist. Notice how your deep breath expands your belly out to the sides as well as forward.
5. Remember, everything should be done softly.
2. Coherent Breathing (Sama Vritti)
“Coherent breathing,” a technique developed by Dr. Patricia Gerbarg and Dr. Richard Brown, bears many similarities to the yogic exercise “equal breathing” or “”Sama Vritti.” It involves consciously making the in and out-breath the same length, usually at a count of four or five seconds.
In yoga it is traditionally seen as a calming, stabilizing breath. This view has recently been scientifically substantiated. “Heart rate variability” (HRV) is a measure of the variation in time between heartbeats. A higher HRV indicates, amongst other things, greater activity of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for recuperation and relaxation. Because of that, this technique provides an excellent way of managing stress and anxiety.
A count of five is optimal for most people. Be as mindful as you an of the pauses between each breath. You can begin at four and build up or dive straight in at five. If you find yourself breathless, start at a smaller number. Try to do it for five minutes.
Breathing in count one, two, three, four
Breathing out count one, two, three, four.
Breathing in count one, two, three, four, five.
Breathing out count one, two, three, four, five.
Just using these techniques alone will confer noticeable benefits. Stay tuned for next week’s follow-up article that includes some more advanced exercises.
The Healing Power of the Breath by Dr. Patricia Gerbarg and Dr. Richard Brown
Conscious Breathing by Dr. Gay Hendricks