Breathing is one of the simplest tools we have at our disposal to combat stress, anxiety, rage, and whatever other negative emotions crop up at work, home or in the car.
Breathing properly has a host of benefits, from delivering more oxygen to the brain to stimulating the parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) nervous system, lowering blood pressure and making us feel more present. These can be done anywhere from your desk to the office loos if you prefer some privacy (and a bit of peace and quiet)!
With any of these: BREATHE INTO YOUR BELLY!! Put your hand on your belly and encourage it to rise and fall as you breathe. So many of us are breath-holders and don’t breathe deeply enough. A lovely benefit of breathing into your belly is that it sends more oxygen to the abdomen and helps digestion (which of course is curtailed in “fight or flight” mode (sympathetic nervous system).
1. Box Breathing, or Tactical Breathing – regulating your breath
Taught as part of military combat training, this is a simple exercise.
Hand on your belly.
Breathe in and count 1-2-3-4.
Hold your breath and count 1-2-3-4.
Breathe out and count 1-2-3-4.
Keep your lungs empty and count 1-2-3-4.
2. “Floating” breathing – finding moments of blissful stillness
This is a self-coined term for a method I’ve adapted from the above.
It’s the same as box breathing, but I found that while I like the rhythm, the counting has a jarring effect and is not particularly soothing.
Instead, once I’ve got the rhythm going I focus on the feeling between the in and out breaths, when I’ve paused and am in complete stillness.
I focus on this stillness which feels to me like floating, with time suspended. It feels utterly peaceful to me. I focus on the feeling of utter relaxation inside my head and face.
As an aside, I get the same effect when doing breast-stroke. In that fleeting moment between strokes, before I push out again with my arms and legs, when I’m floating through the water but not moving my limbs, time stands still and something magical happens.
I am not alone in this. My beloved Dr Wayne Dyer created a meditation around ‘Getting in the Gap’, the idea being that “everything emerges from that gap — the void … “It’s the silence between the notes that makes the music” is an ancient Zen observation, which clarifies this idea.” He explains the philosophy and technique in more detail here.
Nevertheless, the same feeling is available to you right now, in the space between your breaths!
3. Alternate nostril breathing – for focus, and to balance your right & left brain
Did you know that your right nostril feeds the right side of your body but the left hemisphere of your brain, and vice versa for the left nostril, as the nerves from the two brain hemisphere’s cross at eyebrow level?
This is very useful to know if you are feeling stuck and want to energise your right (creative) brain hemisphere or your left (logical) side.
I use this technique a lot to improve overall focus and to balance out both sides of my brain. If I am in need of focus, energy and clarity, I find that dabbing a spot of peppermint oil on the hand that I’m using for this exercise really helps so that I can inhale it while I breathe – in fact I carry peppermint oil in my handbag for this purpose (don’t put the oil on your fingertips if you’re prone to eye-rubbing as it will not end well!).
I hated this exercise when I first learnt in yoga class. I am often congested so reducing breath to one nostril made me feel panicky. I now love it and I find that a good nose-blow beforehand, along with peppermint oil to inhale and clear my passages, both really help.
- Take your right hand. Tuck index and middle fingers down. Thumb and ring finger out. Other hand on your belly for good measure!
- Use ring finger to close left nostril. Inhale through right nostril. Hold it.
- Switch sides. Release left nostril, exhale.
- Inhale through same (left) nostril. Close it off and hold breath
- Release right nostril and exhale. Inhale back through same (right) nostril
I am not known for my coordination skills and found this really tricky at first but the muscle memory kicks in quickly. The level of focus it requires also helps in quieting the mind.
I find it helpful to focus on the trajectory of the breath rather than the finger movements! Think of your breath as an arc or an upside-down U, or even a tennis rally. You are breathing in through one nostril, sending it over the top, and down the other side. Then back up, over the top, and back down the original side. The tennis ball’s journey back and forth in an arc is what you are aiming for.
There are tons of You Tube tutorials on this if you need to see it in action.
4. Ujjayi breath – slow it right down
Ujjayi (pronounced oo-jai-ee) is a hugely popular yoga breath, and its main benefits are building heat in the body as you do your yoga and and also slowing your breath right down so that you can match one inhale / exhale to each pose without rushing your poses. It also helps you to focus your mind and bring consciousness to your practice, and it really helps me get through painful stretches or exhausting poses too.
I use it a lot outside of yoga, including to get to sleep. You’ll notice it feels one step away from closed-mouth snoring!
Ujjayi involves taking really deep inhales through the nose which fill the lungs, but by constricting the muscles in the back of the throat you make the inhalation and exhalation processes much slower.
Again there are tons of videos online on how to do this.
- Hold your palm in front of your mouth, open your and breathe out as if you wanted to heat up your palm. Like a ‘ha’ sound under your breath
- Close your mouth and do the same thing. It feels like of like a dog growling
- You’ll notice that you’ve managed to constrict your throat muscles. Can you feel that you’ve slowed your exhale right down?
- This is all Ujjayi is – you are aiming to inhale and exhale like this, matching the lengths of your inhalations and exhalations. It should be possible to make each breath last for a count of 10 or more.
This breath is sometimes called Ocean breath, as the low sound it makes sounds like the ocean!
Enjoy and I hope one of these resonates with you.