Breath is such an automatic part of our existence that it is easy to let it remain an unconscious part of life. I hope I don’t sound to hippie here but, breath is the manifestation of our life-force. Without it we have none. We can actively control our breath by simply directing our attention to it. How do we go about making ourselves more conscious of our own breath and what are the advantages of doing so?
Becoming Aware of Breath
Stop for a moment and shift your attention to your breath. Are you breathing through your nose or your mouth? It’s important to breath through your nose as it will filter more of the particles from the air that can harm our lungs. Nose breathing causes you to inflate all of your lungs and activates a parasympathetic response in your nervous system that naturally lowers your heart rate leaving you feeling more relaxed and focused.
Focus Your Attention
As you are focused on your breath, feel the air passing through your nostrils slowly expanding and contracting your abdomen. In our most relaxed state our breathing is slow, deep, and consistent. It’s impossible to be actively conscious of our breath throughout the entire day which is why I think it is important to practice breathing exercises. When we regularly focus our attention on our breath we are training our physiology to be more relaxed and conditioned for slower, deeper breathing without us even thinking about it.
Dr. Andrew Weil
Most of what I know about breathing so far I’ve learned from Dr. Andrew Weil in his audiobook Breathing: The Master Key to Self Healing. It’s a great listen and has some enlightening research in it. He describes several patients with physiological disorders like atrial fibrillation, cold hands, chronic insomnia, circulatory problems, and panic disorders, that were all able to improve or completely cure their maladies through the continued use of breathing exercises.
The 4-7-8 Breathing Exercise
This breathing technique is extremely relaxing and also very simple to do. Start by exhaling completely and then breathing in through your nose for a count of four. Then hold your breath for a count of 7 and exhale through your mouth for a count of 8. The fact that the exhale is twice as long as the inhale is what really causes this sense of peace to come over you. When you exhale, try to be consistent across the length of the count and empty your lungs of all of the air in them. Try four cycles of this breath. The speed at which you count is really not critical… it’s the ratio that matters. With practice you will be able to count slower and you can try other
In this video Dr. Weil describes the relaxing breath and demonstrates how to perform it. Do it with him a few times so that you get the hang of it. Then you will be all set to practice it yourself.
This is another technique that I love to use for a boost of energy through the day. In yoga it is known as the Bellows breath or bhastrika. It is based around a short inhalation/exhalation cycle. This particular exercise is adapted from that but involves making these cycles very short. Here’s how to do it. Breathe in and out throw your nose with consistent and powerful breaths at a rate of about 3 cycles per second. This is a noisy exercise and sounds a bit like an excited dog that has caught the scent of something intriguing and is trying to sniff it out.
Try to do it for 15 seconds at first and over time you can increase the duration to 60 seconds. Go ahead and try it now. 15 seconds of fast and consistent breaths through your nose.
How do you feel after that? It makes me feel more alive and ready to tackle whatever I am working on. It’s also a great way to shake off a sleepy feeling while driving during long road trips.
Make Breathing Exercises a Part of Your Life
I think regularity is the key point of breathing exercises. Dr. Weil says it best, “Breathing exercises are like water carving the Grand Canyon.” Make it a regular part of your routine for at least 6 weeks to discover if you notice the benefits. Any time I’m starting a new routine I feel like it is difficult to do it regularly at first but with time and repetition my body gets used to doing it and I’m less likely to forget.
Try to do 4 to 8 cycles of the 4-7-8 breath first thing in the morning and then again at night just before going to sleep. Then through the course of the day I will do the invigorating bellows breath on an as needed basis to invigorate my body.
If you aren’t ready to make breathing exercises a regular part of your daily routine then at least give the 4-7-8 breath a try the next time you are feeling stressed out or any time you can remember to. In fact try it again now… how does it make you feel?