“He who controls the breath controls life.” Buddhadasa
“Counting” or “sama vritti” has to be one of the simplest breath-based exercises. It’s also one of the most practical. You can use it to ease anxiety and stress, heighten your mood and improve your alertness. You can also incorporate it into your daily sitting practice where it’s useful if you’re struggling to focus.
Long breathing is common to most spiritual traditions. In Buddhism, the fourth of the sixteen stages to realization outlined in the Anapanasati Sutta specifically involves relaxing the body by extending the breath. Pranayama, which literally means lengthening of life force, is one of the eight limbs (areas of discipline) of yoga.
If you only learn one mind-body exercise for coping with the turbulence of day-to-day life, make it this one.
The Practice: Sama Vritti
This deep breathing exercise involves lengthening each breath by counting to a number through its duration. You may find it helpful to repeat each sequence several times before moving onto the next one. Alternatively, you might find that you’re able to begin counting to five immediately.
The numbers should be said silently to yourself. I remember a teacher using the analogy of a pebble dropping softly into a pond.
Breathing in, count two, three.
Breathing out, count two, three.
Breathing in, two, three, four.
Breathing out, two, three, four.
Breathing in, two, three, four, five.
Breathing out, two, three, four, five.
Try to be aware of how each inhalation and exhalation affects your body. There are many subtle characteristics of each breath. Length is perhaps the most prominent, but can you also notice the smoothness or bumpiness, the depth or shallowness. Each of these qualities, when they are present, will have a different emotional and physical effect.
Through gaining an intuitive understanding of the inter-relatedness of your breathing pattern and your bodily state in any given moment, you will arm yourself with a potent tool.
You can combine this counting exercise with the cultivation of mindfulness in your working day. Whenever you notice negative emotions arising, try lengthening your breath to a count of four or five for a few minutes.
A Drop of Science
This breathing exercise works because it indirectly stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, the calming part of your autonomic nervous system which is responsible for regulating automatic bodily functions. The activity of this system (also called the “rest and digest” system) is indicated by what’s called heart rate variability (HRV), a measure of the variation in the time between each heartbeat.
In a nutshell, your brain is constantly receiving sensory feedback. It interprets this information, of which breathing-pace is one input, and responds appropriately through either the sympathetic or parasympathetic nervous system. By relaxing our breathing pace we trigger parasympathetic nervous system activity, and the entailing positive emotional responses.
Deep breathing of this sort has been shown to increase HRV. People who suffer from anxiety, depression and low concentration tend to have lower HRV measurements. (1)
1. Gerbarg, P.L. and Brown B.P. The Healing Power of the Breath