What is there to learn about breathing?
Don’t we all do it naturally, from the moment we come into the world until the moment we take our last breath? Well it turns out, there is quite a bit to learn about mastering the art of breathing.
Try this experiment in bad breathing technique
Many of us have poor breathing technique for various reasons–stress, desk jobs, and poor posture are among the top culprits. To understand what poor breathing technique feels like try this: shrug your shoulders up as high as you can towards your ears. Hold your shoulders there and breathe in and out as deeply as you can through your nostrils. You will find that your breath stays in your upper chest, your breath sounds weazy, and the breath feels very week. This is the type of breathing of the majority of people in our stressed out world.
The way to better breathing
Our breath is easy to overlook as a tool for positive change in our lives because it happens naturally and is always with us. Yet working with our breath can be a deeply transformational experience. The benefits of certain breathing techniques include lower blood pressure, a steady mind, strong will-power, sound judgement, and a reduction in stress. Just as we can fine tune our aerobic capacity or our posture, we can improve our breathing.
Our breath and our emotions are like a school of fish swimming together, they influence each other. If we are emotionally uneasy, our breath tends to be short and uneven. On the other hand, if our breath is uncomfortable, we are uncomfortable. If our breath is easy and calm, we tend to be emotionally calm. Since our breath affects our emotions, it naturally makes sense to improve the quality of our breathing.
A large number of exercises have been developed throughout history, particularly in the east, to work with the breath. In fact there is a whole thread of yoga practice called pranayama, which focuses on breathing. This article will focus on some of the techniques for how to breathe that I have found to be beneficial. Except for pilates, which typically teaches inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth, for all exercises in this article, see if you can maintain your breathing through your nostrils. This may not be possible if you have a cold or a deviated septum, but nose breathing accentuates the calming effects of these practices.
Observing Your Breath
Paying attention to your breath is, perhaps, the most basic technique and a good place to start. You can do it at any time, including right now. There is no control of the breath with this method, you simply begin with observation. Pick a specific part of your breath to focus on—a good place is watching the breath as it enters and exits your nostrils. The tendency is for your mind to quickly drift away to other things. This is common and to be expected. You simply drop the thoughts once you notice what is happening and return to watching the breaths as they enter and leave your nostrils.
In the beginning, start with just a few minutes. Over time you can work up to 5, 10, and even 20 minutes with this technique. The sensations of the breath with this technique can become increasingly subtle, including noticing the temperature of the air, the movement of muscles within the nose, and often, an increasing sense of calm paired with improved mental focus.
Counting Your Breaths
A second technique I often recommend is counting your breaths, which is a type of mantra. It is one of the most simple methods for developing mental focus. It consists of counting to four in rhythm with your inhales and exhales. I count the inhale as on and the exhale as two, so that counting to four takes two breaths. Once get to four, repeat.
With counting the breaths, I also recommend beginning with short periods of practice, gradually building up to about 20 minutes per session. With this technique it is also common to lose track of where you are, suddenly finding yourself counting to 6, 8, or even 10 before realizing where you are. When you find this happening, simply return to one and start over.
The practice is not only about increasing concentration with respect to counting numbers. Equally important is the opportunity you have to practice how you deal with mistakes. It is surprisingly common to find that you are incredibly hard on yourself or you become increasingly frustrated when you make a mistakes in counting. Since you are only counting numbers to yourself, why are you getting so upset and frustrated?
This technique has the ability to expose our self-critical natures
We sometimes don’t even realize we are being self-critical until we start doing these practices. This is good! It becomes both an opportunity to become aware of our self-critical nature, and an opportunity to break the habit. What you are trying to do is realize that making a mistake is no big deal, and the practice becomes to let go of frustrations and negative thoughts.
Another common experience is to get frustrated at getting frustrated. If you find this happening, great! You have found the beginning of circular thinking, which is a major source of internal pain and suffering. Circular thinking can easily become a never-ending cycle of negative thoughts about negative thoughts. Bringing this cycle into awareness is the first step in breaking the cycle. If you become aware of this cycle, realize that it is natural, common, and not needed. Do not try to force it away, as it will only become an internal battle. Rather, see if you can accept it, because it has already happened anyway, then allow yourself to let go of it, and start counting again from the beginning.
Another way to do this practice is as part of a walking meditation. You can find my article on walking meditation here.
Lengthening and deepening your breath during exercise
The method of lengthening and deepening the breath during exercise involves concentrating on your breaths to make them longer that what initially seems natural during physical activity. This method can be practiced during just about any type of repetitive physical activity such as a physical yoga practice, pilates, walking, running, biking, or skiing.
With yoga and Pilates, since the physical movements tend to be slower, the method involves linking one breath to one movement. The linking is done such that exhales occur when the body’s core is contracted and inhales occur when the core is expanded. This works naturally with our anatomy. Think of doing a crunch—when you crunch up it makes sense to exhale, as energy is being expended and the contraction of your core decreases the internal space in your body. The reverse can be said for coming down out of the crunch. Less energy is being expended and more internal space is being created, so the inhale is natural at this point. Most yoga and Pilates classes follow these methods, and I recommend taking some classes in order to get the principles down.
For activities such as walking, running, biking, or cross-country skiing, the method involves decreasing the number of breaths per physical repetition. For example, with running, if you would typically take one breath per two strides, try taking one breath per four strides or one breath per six strides. If you feel like you are struggling to maintain a calmness in your breath, you have extended the breaths too long—shorten them up until the point that your breathing feels comfortable again.
We are not holding the breath with any of these exercises
We are attempting to keep the breaths long and fluid and free. The air intake should be smooth and consistent. Same for the exhale, smooth and consistent. The only way to accomplish this is to expand your lungs as much as possible. The benefits are such that as you get experience with the practice, no matter the physical activity, the size, strength, and capacity of your lungs increases. At the same time, to someone observing your physical activity, your breath will sound surprisingly calm and fluid.
As you continue this practice over time, you will find that your breaths will work as a calming force in the face of stressful physical activity. These long deep breaths act to lift you and carry you comfortably through your physical challenges. If you continue the practice long enough, you will find this type of breathing will naturally carry over into other parts of your life. It will become natural when exerting physical or mental energy to take some nice, long, deep breaths.
From chest breathing to stomach breathing
Many of us spend our days rushing and feeling some level of stress throughout the day. The breath at these times, which is most of the time for many people, tends to be shallow and takes place in the upper chest. Changing this breath structure can literally change your mood.
The exercise here is to practice getting the breath deeper into the body. You can do this practice at any time, standing up or lying down, but I recommend starting lying down as it makes it easier to feel what is going on.
Lie down in a comfortable position, preferably on a fairly firm surface, such as a carpet or a yoga mat on a wood floor. If you feel any back pain, you may want to experiment with supports, such as pillows, folded towels, or bolsters under your knees and head until you feel comfortable. If you put support under your head, it should be modest, 1 or 2 inches (2 to 5 cm) in thickness.
Place the palm of one hand on the center of your chest and the palm of the other hand on your stomach. Begin by taking breaths such that just the hand on your chest moves. Next, try to expand your breath so that both hands move. Eventually you want to get to the point where both hands are moving significantly during breathing.
Once you get the technique down, you can play with getting the lower hand to move first, then the upper. Then try the other way around. Then try getting both hands to move up and down at the same time. I have heard some teachers recommend that the breath should start in the chest first and others the stomach first. I have experimented quite a bit with this, and what I like best is when both hands move equally at the same time, my chest and stomach expanding and contracting at the same rate. Whatever feels comfortable for you is probably what you should do.
From stomach breathing to back breathing
Once you get the hang of breathing fully in your chest and stomach, you can try back breathing. Back breathing involves taking the same large breaths that you were taking in the chest and stomach breathing exercise. However in this exercise, we use the muscles of the chest and abdomen to hold the front of our ribs and stomach in a constant position. When we hold the front of the body steady with these deep breaths, expansion has to take place somewhere, and it happens in the back.
Back breathing is foreign to most people, so it can take a while to get the hang of it. One experiment you might want to try when starting out is to do the practice lying on your stomach. This makes it easier to sense and control any movement in the front of your body, so that the expansion can happen in your back.
To back breathe effectively, you need to learn to use the muscles of your back to breathe. The general motion is for your lat muscles to draw out and to the sides, while your trapezius muscles (the muscles on your back next to your neck) move out to the sides and slightly downward. This muscular motion helps draw air into the lungs, and is the opposite of the shoulder shrugging muscle movement in the bad breathing example at the beginning of this article.
I particularly like back breathing because it keeps the muscles around the spine, and the spine itself, in constant, gentle motion. For people with desk jobs, the spine tends to fixate over time with lack of motion. The spine gets stiff and compressed. With back breathing, the constant gentle motion in extremely beneficial for the spine, keeping it limber and lubricated.
Lengthening and deepening the breath during meditation
I love this technique, I find it helps me to get really, really calm. It can be practiced during meditation, but also during poses in a physical practice that are held for a longer time (more than two minutes), or as a break during any time on the day.
I find the method works best with your eyes closed. What you do is calmly count the length of an inhale for whatever natural length your breath is, say ‘one, two, three, four’, then exhale as you count to the same number, ‘one, two, three, four’. This equalizes your inhales and exhales.
Now try gradually extending the number on both the inhale and the exhale. Don’t over do it, but extend the breaths as far as you can comfortably and calmly. As your mind and body calm down, you will find you can extend the lengths of the inhales and the exhales. In the beginning you will only want to do the practice for a few minutes, but eventually, like the other practices, you can extend this exercise up to about 20 minutes.
I have learned to match my counting to the seconds of a clock. Not always, but often, I am able to smoothly inhale to the count of 15 and exhale to the count of 15. This means I am taking two breaths per minute. When you are taking two breaths per minute, believe me, you are in a very calm and relaxed place. On rare occasions I have been able to extend the count to 30, which means one breath per minute, but this has only happened a few times. Don’t let your ego get in the way, do what feels comfortable for you, and practice being ok with whatever number you happen to get to.
Calm breathing during stressful situations, bringing it to the real world
Once you have experience with some of these practices, it’s time to take them out into the real world. Any time you encounter a stressful situation, it is an opportunity to practice using long deep breaths. Over time and with practice, you will find that taking a few long deep breaths at any time will induce the feelings of calm awareness that you experience during your practice times.
You will begin to develop a sense of calm and control during stressful situations, and this will lead to being able to be more present in these situations. You will find that rather than reacting, you will be able to respond in a calm manner. One common result I have heard many times is with people driving in traffic. Where it might have been typical for someone to curse at other drivers, or shake their fists in anger, after practicing these breathing methods, people report reacting calmly to traffic jams or being cutting off.
There are many other types of breath practice that you can experiment and play with. Over time, your breathing capacity will increase, your breaths will become more fluid, and most importantly, you will find your emotional world coming into a more natural state of balance.
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