Breathing is something special. Very often, when we take a good look inside, when we spend some time being really mindful, we get to glimpse at how incredible it is to be alive, and to observe ourselves living can be an awe-inspiring and beautiful thing to do.
It is those moments that I assure myself that I’ll never take anything my body does for granted. As I sit here typing this, my heart is beating, I blink on occasion, I am digesting my breakfast, I am regulating my body temperature (I have a stoked metabolism following an arduous gym session this morning) and of course, I am breathing.
I think the word ‘breathing’ is actually a term that simply does not do justice to the wonder of breathing; we inhale air into our lungs, we extract the oxygen and it oxygenates the blood and is sent through the body fueling our organs, muscles and more. Even this is a highly simplified version of events.
Without wanting to sound like the guy from the 90s comedy programme ‘The Fast Show’ who always said “it’s brilliant!” But seriously, breathing is brilliant. Ok, so if you are now scratching your head trying to make sense of my TV reference, here is the character, played by the hilarious Paul Whitehouse, and in this snippet it is old people who are “brilliant.”
So yes, breathing ,right… breathing is brilliant.
We can marvel at our body when it does the breathing for us, and enjoy watching our breathing during mindfulness sessions, but today I wanted to demonstrate a number of ways that breathing can be done consciously, with purpose and with a view to creating a specific effect.
For example, falling asleep is not always easy for some of us, especially if you are living with high levels of stress. One way to combat the problem is to practice breathing techniques that slow down the breath and help you relax.
We typically breathe about 20,000 times per day, so imagine the impact that breathing can have on daily living if you take control of it on occasion with the aim of increasing well-being — it can also have a knock-on effect with regards to our habitual posture, our repetitive movements, and almost anything else that influences our body’s ability to move and perform.
In recent weeks here on this blog, I have written about stepping out of your comfort zone, problem solving, having an emotional Spring clean and I wrote about one area that tends to advance all of these things; creativity. Research (study entitled Effects of oxygen concentration and flow rate on cognitive ability and physiological responses in the elderly) shows that relaxation and breathing training have a positive impact on our creativity. Low oxygen levels in the blood have been shown to decrease brain function. By breathing deeply through the nose you can improve the functioning of your brain immediately. Effectively deep breathing put more oxygen in the blood and, therefore, in the brain. Relaxation training in a wide variety of forms appears to increase creativity by reducing anxiety and freeing the mind from negative thinking.
“One way to break up any kind of tension is good deep breathing” —Byron Nelson
Whether you are in bed, sat at your desk or any other place in your life, do consider these basic breathing techniques to help enhance creativity, cognitive ability as well keeping calm and carrying on when you need and want to do so.
Yoga Breathing: There are many versions of yoga breathing and I could not exhaust the topic in a single article, let alone a paragraph snippet, but here is a classic generic approach to practice.
Lay down on a bed or other comfortable surface and close your eyes, arms at your sides and legs relaxed naturally. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth a few times, then begin to constrict your throat slightly so you can hear your breath coming in and going out. Almost like what happens when someone relaxes prior to sleep and is verging on snoring. Start by breathing in for a count of 4 and breathing out for a count of 4 for a few breaths, then lengthening the breaths in and out to 6 counts. Increase to 8 counts and then 10 counts – whatever is most comfortable for you – and repeat at the top of your comfort level for a few breaths before working your way back down to an 8-count breath cycle, then a 6-count breath cycle, and then a 4-count breath cycle.
4-7-8 Breathing: This simple and well-known breathing technique is done while you are sitting up in bed or upon the floor, legs crossed and back straight. Push the tip of your tongue against the ridge behind your teeth and gently hold it there throughout the exercise. Start by emptying your lungs by exhaling through your mouth. Close your mouth and inhale for a count of 4 through your nose, then hold that breathe for a count of 7. Exhale for a count of 8 through your mouth, keeping your tongue in place, making a “whooshing” sound. Repeat this cycle 4-6 more times.
Alternate Nostril Breathing: Hold your hand up in front of your face so you can see your fingers and palm. Extend your pinky finger and thumb. Place your thumb against one nostril, closing it, and then inhale through the open nostril. When you are ready to exhale, move your hand so your thumb releases one nostril and your pinky blocks the other nostril, and release your breath. Do this for a count of 4 on each side, then a count of 6, then 8, and then 10, keeping your eyes closed. Then reverse the count, down to 8, then 6, and then 4.
Chest Breathing: Rather than breathing deeply through the belly using the diaphragm as is usually instructed for effective breathing, you can also breathe through the top of the chest, which forces the body to rely on other muscles not usually employed as much when breathing. When you breathe through the chest, you’re using a lot of ancillary muscles, such as those in the neck that you really don’t usually need to use. So they get a workout. However, do get into the habit of breathing from the diaphragm as too much chest breathing can reinforce neck and shoulder tension common among office workers, for example. Likewise, following the age-old principle “use it or lose it,” this reliance on ancillary muscles also weakens the diaphragm. A weak diaphragm will fatigue easily during exercise for example, meaning your muscles won’t receive the optimum amount of blood flow during your next gym session or exercise.
Double Exhale Breathing: If all the counting in and out is not your thing, try simply exhaling for twice as long as you inhale. Sit or lay down however you are most comfortable. Count or just gauge how long it takes you to inhale and then exhale for twice that count or period of time.
Meditative Breathing: Meditative breathing gives you an opportunity to remove the counting completely. All you do is sit comfortably with your legs crossed and back straight, hands resting gently on your knees. For 10 minutes, your sole focus is just noticing your breath. As you have thoughts, allow them to pass and return to noticing how your lungs fill with each inhale and empty with every exhale. If you prefer, you can find an app, YouTube video, or other source of guided meditation that will help you to relax before bed.
The key here is to watch the breathing and pay attention to it and not to try to change it. That is, don’t try to change it and also do not try to stop it from changing, sometimes things change just by being observed. Just let the body do the breathing and you simply tune into it and enjoy it.
Progressive Relaxation: To release any tension from head to toe, close the eyes and focus on tensing and relaxing each muscle group for two to three seconds each. Start with the feet and toes, then move up to the knees, thighs, rear, chest, arms, hands, neck, jaw and eyes — all while maintaining deep, slow breaths. Anxiety and panic specialist Dr. Patricia Farrell suggests we breathe in through the nose, hold for a count of five while the muscles tense, then breathe out through the mouth on release.
Every time you release the tension in the muscles, exhale and let the muscle loosen and go soft before you move on to the next muscle. You can be general or more specific as you practice to vary it, you can also mix in some visualisation as mentioned next; you can imagine colours or sensations moving through the muscles as you exhale and the muscles soften.
Guided Visualisation: Imagine yourself in a safe and comfortable place as you breathe and associate your pleasant breathing with a relaxing environment in your imagination. Then, step it up and start to imagine being in certain life situations or challenging environments and continue to breathe in that relaxed fashion. Not only will this help you to desensitise tension or anxiety about some events, it will also give you an importable tool to engage in when that situation actually occurs – you simply start to breathe in the way you have practiced and your intensity levels will balance and be optimum.
Hypnotic Power Breathing: This is something that I have been researching and experimenting with that I am writing about here on the blog next as well as mentioning the ‘Breath of Fire’ for energising oneself. It is whereby self-hypnosis is combined with controlled breathing to mobilise effort when needed. (Read it here: The Hypnotic Power Breath)
The best way to get the most out of any breathing technique is to use the one that works for you. Try the practices suggested above, look for others online, or create your own. There’s really no way to do this wrong, unless you start stressing about it – and then clearly that is not the right one for you. If you notice that happening, take a deep breath and remember that even though it’s easy to breathe, it’s hard to remember to breathe with purpose. Fortunately, you can start again at any moment.
Be patient when breathing and as I said right at the top of this article, marvel at how utterly amazing it is to simply breathe! Go and see if you can derive as much joy from breathing as a dog with his head out of the car window…..