Take 10 minutes out of your day to really focus on breathing. Breathing has been shown to reduce stress and promote full body relaxation and awareness. You can do these exercises almost anywhere, but it helps to have a quiet open space. These exercises are derived from traditional Yoga positions and many of the philosophies are the same. Below you will find a variety of simple go-to routines if you need a moment to regroup and relax, or a great substitute to a cup of coffee.
Many people use Yoga or mediation to connect with themselves and find a rhythm with their breathing. To get started with your breathing routine, sit up straight. Try not to arch your back. In this first exercise, exhale completely through your mouth. Place your hands on your stomach, just above your waist. Breathe in slowly through your nose, pushing your hands out with your stomach. This ensures that you are breathing deeply. Imagine that you are filling your body with air from the bottom up.
Hold your breath to a count of two to five, or whatever you can handle. It is easier to hold your breath if you continue to hold out your stomach. Slowly and steadily breathe out through your mouth, feeling your hands move back in as you slowly contract your stomach, until most of the air is out. Exhalation is a little longer than inhalation.
After some practice you don’t need to use your hands to check your breathing.
You can also do the above breathing exercise lying on your back. Deep breathing exercises can help you to relax before you go to sleep for the night, or fall back asleep if you awaken in the middle of the night.
Deep breathing can also be practiced in standing, sitting in traffic, or standing in a line at the grocery store. If this exercise is challenging and you feel tense or as if you are holding your breath, simply concentrate on slowly breathing in and out. Think about your chest expansion and counting your breaths.
With the deep breathing you have just learned, the following three exercises give variety to your breathing practice. Practice one, two or all three in any combination. These exercises are all recommended by Dr. Andrew Weil, a specialist in integrative medicine.
#1 The Stimulating Breath (also called the Bellows Breath)
The Stimulating Breath is adapted from a yogic breathing technique. Its aim is to raise vital energy and increase alertness. Inhale and exhale rapidly through your nose, keeping your mouth closed but relaxed. Your breaths in and out should be equal in duration, but as short as possible. This is a noisy breathing exercise. Your goals should be three in-and-out breath cycles per second. This produces a quick movement of the diaphragm, suggesting a bellow. Breathe normally after each cycle.
Do not do for more than 15 seconds on your first try. You may become light headed if you hyperventilate.
Each time you practice the Stimulating Breath, you can increase your time by five seconds or so, until you reach a full minute. If done properly, you may feel invigorated, comparable to the heightened awareness you feel after a good workout. You should feel the effort at the back of the neck, the diaphragm, the chest and the abdomen.
#2 The 4-7-8 (or Relaxing Breath) Exercise
Sit with your back straight while learning the exercise. Place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue just behind your upper front teeth, and keep it there through the entire exercise. You will be exhaling through your mouth around your tongue; try pursing your lips slightly if this seems awkward.
Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.
Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
Hold your breath for a count of seven.
Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight.
This is one breath. Now inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breaths.
Note that you always inhale quietly through your nose and exhale audibly through your mouth. The tip of your tongue stays in position the whole time. Exhalation takes twice as long as inhalation. The absolute time you spend on each phase is not important; the ratio of 4:7:8 is important. If you have trouble holding your breath, speed the exercise up but keep to the ratio of 4:7:8 for the three phases. With practice you can slow it all down and get used to inhaling and exhaling more and more deeply.
This exercise is a natural tranquilizer for the nervous system. Unlike tranquilizing drugs, which are often effective when you first take them but then lose their power over time, this exercise is subtle when you first try it but gains in power with repetition and practice. Do it at least twice a day. You cannot do it too frequently. Do not do more than four breaths at one time for the first month of practice. Later, if you wish, you can extend it to eight breaths.
#3 Breath Counting
This last exercise is more challenging and is a deceptively simple technique much used in Zen practice.
Sit in a comfortable position with the spine straight and head inclined slightly forward. Gently close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Then let the breath come naturally without trying to influence it. Ideally it will be quiet and slow, but depth and rhythm may vary.
To begin the exercise, count “one” to yourself as you exhale.
The next time you exhale, count “two,” and so on up to “five.”
Then begin a new cycle, counting “one” on the next exhalation.
Never count higher than “five,” and count only when you exhale. You will know your attention has wandered when you find yourself up to “eight,” “12,” even “19.”
Try to do 10 minutes of this form of meditation.
Other Breathing Exercises
If you have a foam roller handy at home or at the gym, try this simple maneuver.
Lie vertically on the roller so that your head and your tailbone make contact with the roller. Take deep relaxing breaths. Open up your arms to either side and let them hang out. You can make snow angel motions to increase your stretch. Focus on chest expansion and loosening up the shoulders. If your head does not comfortably touch the roller, try tucking your chin to create more extension in your neck, or place a rolled up towel there. This stretch is especially useful for countering all the sitting people do throughout the day. Reverse those anteriorly protracted and rounded shoulders and gain better posture instantly!