I remember my anatomy professor telling us that the only thing humans can actively ‘control’ in their bodies is the movement of voluntary muscles. I tuned out the rest of the class trying to disprove him as I scanned my body. What a shocker, he was right.
Lucky for us one of those muscles is the diaphragm – it’s how we can consciously regulate our breathing. When you contract your diaphragm, it creates more space in your chest and your lungs expand right into the space. Usually we don’t even think about breathing, but we breathe 22,000 times a day and if you’re looking for a self-therapy to bring calm and energy to your body this is a great place to begin. Plus, it’s free! All you need is a few minutes, a chair and some air!
Here are a few breathing techniques based on pranayama (yogic breathing) that I recommend to clients for additional support for anxiety, depression, fatigue, brain fog, balance issues, spiritual connection and more. It’s also helpful for sufferers of seasonal affective disorder or seasonal blues.
This easy breathing exercise will quickly calm your nervous system and help clear brain fog (it’s a great way quiet yourself for meditation). First a little background. We don’t breathe equally through our nostrils and every few hours the airflow actually shifts from one nostril to the other. Plus, each of us naturally favors one side or the other. In yogic breathing, it is taught that breathing through the left nostril benefits the right brain (emotions, intuition, creativity, feelings) and through the right nostril aerates the left brain (logic, analysis). Alternate nostril breathing supports balance between the two hemispheres of your brain.
Sit with your spine straight and one hand in your lap (I like to do a mudra pose with the hand I’m not using for further support). Using your other hand there are two ways to open and close the nostrils. One is to use your thumb and index finger to alternately hold the nostrils closed. The other uses a mudra (an Indian hand yoga pose for healing) on the active hand. Close your pointer and middle fingers into your palm, leaving your last two fingers and your thumb open. Use the thumb and ring finger to alternately close the nostrils.
Start by closing one nostril and breathing out and in through the other. Release that nostril and close the other one breathing in and out before switching again. Do this for one to two minutes.
This breathing exercise brings calm and energy at the same time.
In a sitting position on a chair or on the floor, take a few deep (but not uncomfortable) breaths just to get yourself settled. Next, breathing through your nose, inhale halfway and then exhale forcefully while pulling in your diaphragm. Do this for 10 to 30 breaths, then rest a moment. You can repeat this up to three times.
When you’re done, don’t immediately jump up. Allow yourself some time to feel into the shift in your body – the calm and energy that can come together. This breath is not advised if you have heart problems, high blood pressure, diabetes, a virus or infection, plugged sinuses, or spinal problems. Give your doc a call to make sure it’s okay to do this.
Another easy breathing practice for restoring emotional balance in times of stress or anger. It’s also helpful if you suffer from insomnia or jet lag. If you practice yoga, you are probably familiar with this breath.
Start with a full inhale through your nose. When you exhale (mouth closed), tighten your throat muscles so your out breath (through the nose) sounds like the ocean. Now breathe in the same way. If you’re having trouble, think of it as shifting and constricting the muscles at the top of the throat to create some resistance to the movement of air, not your whole neck.
There was a time I was afraid of flying – right after my youngest son was born (oh the hormones!!). That was my first experience with Deepak Chopra. I found and loaded an audiobook of his on my phone and listened to it. When I listened to the So Hum Breathing Meditation, it was life changing. It worked like a charm, allowing my muscles and mind to relax. What I didn’t realize then was the sacred nature of this mantra – it reminds us that we are spiritual beings connected to the Divine.
Start by bringing your attention to your breath and feel into the rhythm of your breathing – notice the in breath and the out breath. On the in breath silently say “so” and on the out breath silently say “hum.” Breathing is always through the nose. You can do this as long as you want and as mindfully as you want. This can be a quick calming technique or a full meditation.
I’m really excited about a new book coming out in March by Danny Penman, PhD, called The Art of Breathing: The Secret to Living Mindfully. As simple as breathing is, there’s always more to learn!