For a number of years now I have become more intentional in my breathing. The more I have learnt about the body-mind connection, the more I have aimed to incorporate simple practices in to my life to help me stay present, calm and able to think clearly.
Working with breath is an ancient art; one which many of us in the West have long forgotten. As we dash to work with a coffee in hand, or drop the kids off at school and walk-run back with a toddler in tow and 101 things to sort out at home, we are likely to be breathing too fast and too shallow – making our general sense of ‘too much to do not enough time to do it’ feel even more acute.
Being aware of your breath forces you into the present moment – the key to all inner transformation. Whenever you are conscious of the breath, you are absolutely present. You may also notice that you cannot think and be aware of your breathing. Conscious breathing stops your mind.Eckhart Tolle
A key way to help regulate our nervous system and help us move through difficult feelings and bodily sensations is through your breath. Building in a daily breath practice can help create a better sense of wellbeing and calmness. Breath is also where you can turn when you are feeling stressed.
Lower your blood pressure and release serotonin
Diaphragmatic breathing is the quickest and easiest way to regulate our mind and body and calm the brain. Alongside what it does to us biologically, it refocuses attention away from unproductive mind wandering as well as anxious thoughts about the past and future. Many of us, especially when we are anxious, are breathing in a very shallow way. By breathing with your diaphragm (sometimes mis-called belly-breathing) and having a longer exhale than inhale, you kick start the relaxation system. This: lowers blood pressure, pulse rate and respiration; cleanses lactate from the blood (lactate increases feelings of anxiety), increases alpha brain waves (making us more calm and alert), and releases serotonin (feel-good neurotransmitter).
A daily calming breath practice
To breath mindfully diaphragmatically for 1 to 2 mins in the morning and night sit or stand comfortably, look at something in the distance with a soft gaze and breath in slowly through your nose for the count of 4, pause, and then slowly out through your nose for a count of 6. You may want to experiment with the numbers e.g. in for 3 and out for 5 – whatever feels right for you.
The physiological sigh
At times of heightened anxiety and panic, doing two or three ‘physiological sighs’ is the most rapid way to calm the body and, in doing so, calm the mind. A physiological sigh is a specific breathing pattern of two inhales (ideally through the nose) followed by a long exhale. It’s something we do involuntary at times – particularly during sleep and when we cry.
Breath to increase energy
We can use our breath to increase our energy as well as calm us down. To increase energy we do the reverse: a longer inhale and shorter, vigorous exhale. Wim Hof is well known for his use of breathing exercises to support optimal immune function. If you suffer from anxiety or have certain health conditions I would advise against using the Wim Hof Method (WHM). When you use the WHM you may experience light-headedness, and tingling sensations in your fingers and feet. These side effects are completely harmless however they can be a bit disconcerting.
Lewis Howe has done a great short podcast explaining different breathing techniques that can help create a sense of calm and increase energy.
Deeper dives into breath work
If you’re interested in learning more about how your breath can truly transform your life, I’d recommend beginning with the podcast conversations below: