When we practice mindful breathwork, instead of simply observing the breath, we are actually directing the breath. We can lengthen, deepen, increase the tempo, and/or hold our breath depending on what we need.
Breathwork can be a powerful way to relax, to release negativity, to boost our immune system, to let go of habits that aren’t working, to reduce reactivity and resistance, to integrate aspects of ourselves that we judge and reject, and to liberate energy when we need to focus and perform.
All of this may sound a bit too good to be true, but keep in mind that the body and the brain are constantly speaking to each other. This isn’t “new age, touchy-feely mumbo-jumbo” — this is good ol’ fashioned biology. In fact, the majority of neurological information is traveling from the body to the brain. This means that we can use how we breathe to shift the way we see and respond to the world and to optimize the way our body operates.
Breathing is an autonomic function. This means that if you do nothing, your body will continue breathing on its own. Other autonomic functions include blood pressure, heartbeat, digestion, immunity, and hormone secretion. The activity of many autonomic functions fluctuates depending on your environment and whether you perceive what is happening as safe or threatening.
Breathing is the only autonomic function you can control directly. This makes it a lever for influencing how you are doing physiologically, psychologically, and emotionally. It is also a window of insight into all three.
While there are several ways to work with the breath, there are some basics for developing healthier breathing habits. Paying attention to these three can have an immediately positive effect throughout the day.
Breathe through your nose rather than your mouth. While there are some therapeutic exercises that include breathing through the mouth, in general, nasal breathing should be our default. This simple shift can have a huge impact in a short period of time. If you find that your nose is congested often, there is a simple exercise for decongesting below. For most people, the shift to breathing through your nose more of the time will actually reduce congestion and sinus issues in general.
Breathe using your abdomen rather than your chest. In order for the main breathing muscle — the diaphragm — to work effectively, we need to allow it to move. By softening our abdomen and leaving our chest relatively still, we begin to restore tone to the muscles that allow our diaphragm to work effectively.
Imagine your lower ribs flaring out with the in-breath and the ring of muscles around your entire mid-section expanding away from your center. You are not pushing out your belly — you are allowing the diaphragm to expand as it moves downward. As your diaphragm moves upward on the out-breath, your mid-section should contract inward.
Breathe slow and deep rather than loud and large. A deep breath is a slow, gentle breath that has time to make its way down to inflate the lower lobes of the lung and allow for the transfer of oxygen into the blood. This takes time. Think of long, slow sips rather than chugging.
What we usually think of as a deep breath is often a large breath — it moves a large volume of air quickly. You can hear it rush through the nostrils or into the mouth. Ideally, the breath moves so gently and slowly that we cannot hear it, and we can just barely feel the air moving.
If you wait until you are stressed or anxious, it is tough to get in enough breathing practice. You can also fall into the trap of using breathwork like a weapon to be wielded rather than a skill to be strengthened. Therefore, it is helpful to set aside some time at the beginning or end (or both!) of each day to practice.
Equally important is the integration of short moments of breathing practice throughout the day — whether you are stressed or not. Your breath can become a welcoming refuge where you can go when storms are raging around you.
There are some simple practices to start leveraging the power of the breath. These practices are exactly that — practices. The more you engage in them, the more you will build your own sense of how your body breathes best.
A calming breath is light, not audible, and long, not large. It can be helpful to think of savoring, rather than devouring the air you breathe — more like sipping a fine wine than chugging a beer. This nasal, abdominal, slow, gentle breathing pattern triggers the “rest and digest” portion of your autonomic nervous system. This means you are more relaxed and your cardiovascular, nervous, immune, digestive, reproductive, and endocrine systems can all operate more effectively. It also helps you self-regulate your emotions and be less reactive.
An easy way to begin is to set a timer for 3–5 minutes. Sitting upright or standing, rest one hand on your chest and one hand on your stomach. Practice relaxing your abdomen and allowing your chest to remain stationary. Gently inhale on a count of 4–6, gently exhale on a count of 4–6. This puts you in the optimal relaxation breathing pace of 5–6 breaths per minute.
While I have provided some numbers for reference, they are not the most important aspect. As you are beginning, the act of counting can help you keep your attention on your breathing. If you lose count, don’t worry, just return your attention to the breath and begin again.