It’s actually alarming to me that we don’t have an app on our phones that tells us when we’re stressed - but we actually do have a clear way of knowing! Notifications are turned off but it is our breath! Harnessing your breath is kind of a super power. Aside from the necessary responsibilities of keeping our bodily systems active and alive, our breath is a direct reflection of how our internal landscape is doing. When our breath is shallow or jagged we’re often in fight or flight and in a sympathetic nervous state. When we’re breathing slow, fuller breaths, we’re likely to be more open and relaxed. Keeping our lungs healthy and our immune system responses at the ready is obviously imperative in this day and age and breathwork is a powerful tool to uphold that. When I did my first yoga training and understood the mechanics of breathing and the beneficial effects of diaphragmatic breathing, I was actually amazed. No one ever really teaches you this stuff.
Diaphragmatic breathing if you aren’t familiar, engages the abdominals and the diaphragm with assisting bringing in deeper breaths. The diaphragm sits in between the lungs and the stomach. As you inhale and fill the lungs, the diaphragm billows downward like a parachute and expands your mid section. You might have also heard it called “belly breathing” where the belly widens out like a balloon. Psychological studies have shown that breathing exercises are an effective, non-pharmaceutical option for anxiety, depression, burnout, emotional regulation, and stress for the average, healthy adult. Cognition, attention, and mindfulness have also shown improvements after brief mental training in addition to reducing fatigue and enhancing memory. Physiologically, breathwork significantly reduces blood pressure, increases heart rate variability, enhances pulmonary functions, and improves cardiorespiratory fitness and respiratory muscle strength. A regimented breathing practice, speaking personally, was supportive to my yoga practice, healthy lifestyle, and overall well being. It felt like a natural high without the comedown. This was especially helpful in my twenties so that I was intentional with what I partook in at festivals and parties, rather than ingesting anything and everything I could get my hands on. I knew that wasn’t going to be sustainable in the long run.
So how do you do it? It’s quite simple:
Find a comfortable place to sit or lay down. Set the mood! Turn off any distractions, light a candle, and place a blanket over yourself.
Keep one hand at your belly and another at your chest. Keep eyes softly gazing or closed. Let your belly relax.
On the inhale, through the nose, imagine that the breath is pooling at your lower belly and lower back and then fill upwards, into the side ribs, chest, even back ribs. Keeping everything relaxed and easeful
On the exhale, breathe out slowly through the nose, ideally at the same amount of counts, if not more than the length of your inhale.
It’s a one way ticket to manipulating your nervous system into relaxing when you’re stressed or overwhelmed. Think about it: if you observe your own breath patterns, how is the breath flowing? And how is your body receiving the breath? Are you more of a chest or belly breather? Are you sucking in your stomach to appear slimmer and breathing mostly into the upper chest? Are you favoring more of the inhale vs exhale? Are you being too forceful with expanding the belly as opposed to allowing a natural breath? It obviously changes and varies throughout the day, but if you consider your posture, and how shallow or deep the breath feels, it can be quite telling of how your current mood and what emotions are sitting in your body. I have built up a natural check in with the rhythm of my breath throughout the day, and it’s helped me keep stress at bay. Once I feel the irregularities, I take notice to slow down and approach what I’m doing smarter or more wholesome so I’m not miserable and grouchy until it’s over. Some people do fine with a small hum of stress, and I’m not going to lie, it does help light a fire under my ass to get something done, but who wants to be stressed out 24/7, 365 days a year? Also, don’t you want to enjoy your life? This is one of those moments that the phrase, “enjoy the journey, not the destination” rings true for me.
There are tons of available resources now for breathwork, through workshops, pranayama classes at your local yoga studio, breathwork facilitators, and more renowned figures such as Wim Hoff. Like everything, I highly recommend checking in with your doctor and certified breathwork facilitator if you have a pre-existing condition or working with a current illness. Certain breathwork practices can be aggravating and more anxiety inducing so it is important to take the necessary precautions to make the experience work for you.
Below you find a few of my go-to breathwork exercises perfect for a beginner and even for the seasoned practitioner.