We are alive as long as we breathe. Breathing is essential for us, so much so that that’s where our spirit, thought to be our essence by some, gets its name. The term “spirit” comes from the Latin word “Spiritus,” which means breath.
Breathing is something we all do constantly since the day we were born. Yet, we don’t generally pay attention to such a critical part of our lives. Mindful breathing is a way of bringing our attention to our breath, observing the air going in and out through our nose or mouth. Our breath can tell us a lot about ourselves if we just take the time to listen to it. It can be a grounding force through difficult moments as well as one that can enrich the vibrancy of joyful experiences. We can more easily overcome challenges and brighten our day as we breathe in and let go of things no longer serving us as we breathe out.
Breathing is a very unique physical activity, neither completely automatic nor completely intentional. Your breath is somewhere in between, our respiratory muscles working both voluntarily and involuntarily. Research says that there are at least two different paths that are responsible for these two types of breathing. Involuntary breathing never stops and keeps us alive from the day we’re born. Voluntary breathing lets us control the flow of air through our body.
- Quick, Easy, & Accessible
Sometimes, we need a quick and easy strategy in order to navigate life’s more difficult moments. One such method we can use when faced with a challenge, feeling stuck, or overwhelmed is: breathing. Focusing on your breath can provide some relief in seconds, grounding us in the present. Even one deep breath can be enough to help you relax and regroup at times.
And because our breath is always with us, it’s one of the most accessible ways to get back in touch with ourselves. Think of breathing as your superpower: Whenever and wherever you need it, it’s always there as an inexpensive source of strength and relaxation.
- A Trustworthy Guide
Think of your breath as a guide and translator, letting you know how you feel and what you need. Pay attention to the air travelling through your body and how it transforms with each moment, carrying different messages throughout your limbs. Are you breathing fast and shallow? Slow and deep?
Sometimes it can be difficult to listen to ourselves, our mind feeling like a giant dust cloud of information, and we can’t quite pinpoint our exact feelings or thoughts. In those moments, honing in on our breathing can help to clarify those emotions, giving us deeper insight into ourselves in the current moment. Another way to think of it is what you’re bringing in as you inhale -- maybe it’s compassion, love, and energy -- and what you’re letting go of as you exhale -- maybe stress, tension, and biases. Let your breath lead the way.
- Reduced Anxiety
Breathing can be especially helpful when we feel anxious. One study showed that regularly practicing mindful breathing reduced university students’ test anxiety, helping students to have more positive, automatic thoughts.
You may have noticed that your breaths get short and shallow when you’re nervous or anxious. Sometimes in these moments, we can feel overwhelmed by negative thoughts and unable to navigate through them in a way that allows us to locate their source.
Mindful breathing exercises can create a sense of stability and continuity through anxious, uncertain, or transitional periods. Taking long, deep breaths can help to ease the physiological response within your body, slowing your heart rate, relaxing your muscles, and calming your mind. Breathing can be your sanctuary during a storm. It doesn’t necessarily mean we’re ignoring those challenging emotions, but it gives you a space to stay there, observing them from a steady place and safe haven.
- Alleviated Shortness of Breath
You may experience shortness of breath when you’re anxious or excited, or after you’ve participated in an intense physical activity. It can sometimes feel like your lungs don’t have the capacity to take in more air or like there’s no more room within them for that breath you need. This is one way your body tells you that your resources are limited and that you may need more space. Your breath is a great tool to create space in your mind and body. Mindful breathing helps you tune into your breath, helping it to slow down and lengthen. As you get deeper in your breathing, you’ll encounter a peaceful, silent space between your breaths. The stillness there can help you cope with stress or anxiety-related shortness of breath, the air gently flowing into that empty space naturally.
- Pain Management & Relief
Life’s not always rainbows and sunshine. Sometimes our lived experience is bright with pain. Breathing is one tool that can also be used to manage that pain and hurt. In some physical exercises, therapies, and movement practices, we use our breath to lengthen and ground ourselves. Deep breathing exercises have been found to be effective in treating lower back pain as well as burn patients. Deep inhalation and exhalation is also very effective when it comes to reducing labor pain. This kind of focused breathing helps us observe and get to know the pain, accepting it so that we can move through it without resisting.
Try to breathe in when you feel stuck, in pain, or uncomfortable and visualize your breath going to the part of your body that aches, healing it with a gentle caress.
Inhaling and exhaling in equal lengths can help soothe our body and relax. Often, when we’re not paying attention to our breathing, our exhales are a bit shorter and more shallow. Square or box breathing is one of the most efficient techniques for lengthening our exhales, making them just as long as your inhales.
The way it works is that you begin by inhaling for four seconds, holding your breath for four seconds, exhaling for four seconds, and then holding your breath again for four seconds before your next inhale. As you do this, it may help to imagine a square or even trace its shape in the air with your finger along with your inhales and exhales. The beauty of this technique is that it allows you to feel the quiet place between your breaths, observing how they flow naturally as you repeat each square cycle.
Lion’s Breath is one of the best exercises you can do to release tension, relaxing your face while also having fun. Lion’s Breath gets its name from the resulting sound that comes with a powerful exhalation, much like the roar of a lion.
To practice this technique, find a comfortable position in which to sit. Open your mouth, stick your tongue out, and exhale loudly, as if you were trying to make a “Ha” sound. The feeling should be akin to the incredible happiness of a dog sticking its head out the window, its tongue lolling in the wind as it grins.
If you’re not comfortable doing this exercise in front of other people, you are more than welcome to try it when you’re alone. You can also try this with a loved one, sharing a laugh together as you get lighter and more comfortable in your bodies.
Lion’s Breath is meant to be loud, giving you confidence as it’s an opportunity to tell the world you’re present, you’re here. Sometimes we may feel unheard and it can be more difficult for us to see our own worth in the rush and chaos of our daily lives. Use Lion’s Breath as a strategy to speak up for yourself, reminding yourself and the world that you have a voice and you deserve to take up space.
Lion’s Breath can be fun, allowing your inner child to run free. When adulthood feels boring or exhausting, try this loud and silly-looking Lion’s Breath to inject some fun into your world. They say laughter is the best medicine. Sometimes, laughing at yourself can be even better. Giving yourself permission to get silly once in a while can lighten the burdens of your life, even if just for a moment.
Research shows that Alternate Nostril Breathing has been associated with greater calmness, has a relaxing effect on our sympathetic nervous system, and increases the parasympathetic nervous system activity, which is responsible for our body’s rest and relaxation.
This technique requires the use of your fingers and nostrils in an alternating pattern. First, put your right-hand thumb on your right nostril with your right-hand ring finger on your left nostril. Press down with your ring finger to seal the left nostril as you lift your thumb to inhale through your right nostril. Now, alternate the process by pressing down with your thumb to seal your right nostril as you lift your ring finger to exhale through your left nostril. You’ll continue this technique by inhaling and exhaling from both nostrils in this alternating pattern, grounding yourself in the repetition.
Belly Breathing is also known as diaphragmatic breathing, which is basically intentionally focusing on our diaphragm while we breathe. The diaphragm contracts and moves downward as we inhale, returning to its neutral shape as we exhale. When we think about Belly Breathing, we can imagine the air filling up not only our lungs but also our stomachs as well.
Lie down on a flat surface and if it’s comfortable for you, put one hand on your belly and the other on your chest while you breathe in and out, trying to feel the air flowing. Belling Breathing is deeper than regular breathing, so as you inhale, draw as much air in as possible to “fill your stomach,” then empty it out fully as you exhale. You can repeat this exercise as many times as you need as your body relaxes and you connect more with yourself.
The 4-7-8 breathing technique is one of the pranayama (yogic breathing) exercises that can help to release tension, slow down, and ground yourself. It gets its name based on the time inhaling, exhaling, and holding your breath. Begin by inhaling through your nose as you count to four. Then, hold your breath while you count to seven. And finally, you’ll exhale while counting to eight.
Sometimes exhaling for a count of eight can be challenging as we generally breathe out in shorter intervals. That said, the exercise does tend to become easier with practice over time.
Each technique described above can be included in your meditation practice, as well. Actually, focusing on your breathing is one of the most used methods during mindfulness meditation. Being fully present can be challenging sometimes, regardless of how experienced you are in mindfulness. During those moments where our minds begin to drift, following your breathing can be very handy. You’ll see how your connection to your breath transforms in time and how that deeper sense of self reflects back to you through changes in your body and mind.
Meditopia offers a broad repertoire of meditations that use breathing techniques. You can use them to fall asleep more easily, or when you need to calm down a bit, or when you just want to savor the present moment.