So You Think You Can Breathe?
Updated: Jul 7
It may come as a surprise to most that they are not breathing well. Obviously every being breathes - if one could not, for an extended period of time, they would, by definition, no longer be being. But what if you could make your breath more effective? What if the way that you’re breathing is affecting your life? What if you could make your breath a tool to invigorate you, calm you, ground you, bring you into the present moment, and/or improve your focus and concentration?
Breathing Gives Back
Conscious breathing can yield many wonderful results. Breathing can induce relaxation. Conversely, breathing can be energizing. Breathing techniques have even been shown to directly reduce blood pressure. Breathing is indeed a mode of detoxification, and thus can have a cleansing effect on the body by expelling more C02 from the blood, as well as toxins (think breathalyzer test!).
And one of the more important functions of the breath is that focusing on the breath can bring you into the present moment. It is impossible to breathe a breath from the past, or a breath from the future. So if you are focusing on your breath, you will always be in the now. And the present is all we have- it is the only moment we have to make a difference. So be here for it, and make the most of it! Simple, right? In this way, the breath can be the focus for meditation, and a focus that will always be with you for exactly as long as you live.
Breath of (Modern) Life
In our society, we are accustomed to sucking in our guts, muscles tense as stress rises, unconsciously we constrict breathing, and thus breath inevitably suffers. People breathe shallow, inefficient breaths, using only a small part of their lungs and allowing the tension in their shoulders and clenched abdomen to destroy the role of their diaphragm (to open up the lungs).
Breathing is under control of your autonomic nervous system, meaning that it happens unconsciously. But the quality of your breath can be enhanced with the addition of that conscious control.
My Fellow Beings, Ask Not What Your Breath Can Do For You (because we already covered that), Ask What You Can Do For Your Breath
Even just small modifications to your normal breathing can greatly improve the quality of your breath. For example, just consciously slowing down or deepening your breath can decrease anxiety and tension. Breathing through your nose only (i.e. closed mouth) can have the same effect.
Even just paying attention to your breath can have immensely positive effects on it, since you’re bringing conscious awareness to the state of your breath, which can tell you something about your present state. Picture a stressful situation- you tune into the breath, you notice it is shallow and your shoulders are tight and raised, abs tight- since you paid attention, your reaction can now be to relax your abdomen, release your shoulders, and lengthen the breath. Relax. Doesn’t that feel better?
There are countless breathing exercises to make the most of your breath. I am going to cover just a few. In each, try to maintain focus on your breath. I would like to emphasize that if that focus goes astray, that is not only acceptable, but expectable - acknowledge the thought to which it went, then let it go, and gently return to the breath. Do not beat yourself up, losing focus is natural, but with practice you will lose focus less and less. In your efforts to maintain focus, you will be starting a meditative practice by consciously maintaining focus on one thing.
Deep Belly Breathing (AKA Diaphragmatic Breathing, Deep Breathing, Abdominal Breathing, etc.):
When your diaphragm contracts and is pulled downwards to open your lungs, what should happen to your abdominal contents? Should they be sucked in? No! That belly should protrude, exposing its beautiful self, proving to the world that the diaphragm is indeed doing its job.
Place your hand on your belly to feel its movement in and out. Take it slow. Integrate deep belly breathing into your daily breath, and all of the below breaths.
Focus On Breath:
Pretty straight forward- put your awareness on some part of the breath that you can sense- either the air entering and exiting the nostrils, or your belly or chest moving in and out.
Inhale deeply for a count of 4, then hold for 4. Exhale fully for a count of 4, then hold for 4.
The structured numbered approach is good for those that like something to concentrate on.
Again good for those that appreciate more structure, or something to concentrate on regarding the breath. On each exhale, count the number of that breath. After 10, return to 1.
So inhale, and on exhale, visualize “1”. Inhale, and on exhale, visualize “2”. Inhale, “3”. And so on. Complete three rounds of 10, or see how many rounds you can get to!
Alternate Nostril Breathing (Nadi Shodhan Pranayama):
A little more complex than the former exercises, this breath is deeply relaxing.
Lightly place forefinger and middle finger of your right hand, between your eyebrows. Close your eyes if you wish.
Press right thumb onto right nostril (occluding it), and exhale through left nostril. Inhale through left nostril.
Lift thumb and press right ring finger down on left nostril- exhale and inhale through right nostril.
Then lift ring finger, press down thumb, exhale and inhale from left nostril.
Complete 9 cycles through each nostril (i.e. 18 breaths).
Breathing can be quite simple, and it can also get very involved- just choose the path that fits you best. Yoga practice also puts a strong focus on breathing techniques (called pranayama) and is an excellent way to learn how to control and optimize your breath.
Breathing is the simplest task I could ask of you, yet paying attention to the breath can be extraordinarily difficult. Don’t give up, if your mind wanders, just bring it back to the breath once you’ve acknowledged that it has focused on another thought. With practice, you will find it easier and easier to focus on the breath. And with intentional practice, you will find that your daily life becomes more mindful without even trying, since you have trained your mind to live more in the present.