“Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts. Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as the means to take hold of your mind again.”
- Thich Nhat Hanh
Consider the profound significance of breathing, not only for our physical well-being but also for our mental and spiritual harmony. Our breath is the initial reflex in response to various emotions and experiences. For instance, when we’re startled or frightened, we instinctively take in a sharp breath as a gasp. During moment of panic, hyperventilation often ensues. And in times of sheer joy, we release exuberant sounds like “eeeeee,” expelling air in celebration.
Breathing is a fundamental and often overlooked aspect of our lives. We do it automatically, without giving it much thought. However, the simple act of breathing can have profound effects on our physical, mental, and emotional well-being. In this blog post, we will explore the incredible benefits of conscious breathing, how it can positively impact your life, and we will introduce some effective breathing exercises.
1. Stress Reduction
One of the most immediate and noticeable benefits of focused breathing is stress reduction. When we’re stressed, our bodies enter a “flight or flight” mode, causing shallow and rapid breathing. This, in turn, sends signals to our brain that something is wrong, intensifying our stress response. However, taking slow, deep breaths activates the body’s relaxation response, calming the nervous system and reducing stress hormones like cortisol.
Practicing deep breathing techniques, such as diaphragmatic breathing, or the 4-7-8 technique can help you manage stress more effectively.
Diaphragmatic Breathing Technique (Jewell & Hoshaw, 2023)
Find a comfortable, flat surface and either sit or lie down.
Ease your shoulders, lowering them away from your ears to promote relaxation.
Place one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach.
Inhale gently through your nostrils without any force until your lungs feel full.
Observe the flow of air as it enters your nostrils and fills your abdomen, expanding your stomach and the sides of your waist. Your chest should remain relatively still.
Imagine sipping through a straw as you purse your lips. Exhale slowly through your lips for a count of 4 seconds and notice the gentle contraction of your stomach.
Repeat these steps several times to achieve the best results.
Figure1: [Diaphragmatic Breathing]. (2023). Retrieved September 18, 2023, from https://www.healthline.com/health/get-serious-about-severe-asthma/breathing-exercises-severe-asthma
2. Improved Mental Clarity
Conscious breathing can also enhance mental clarity and focus. Oxygen is essential for brain function, and when we breathe deeply, we support our brain with more oxygen. This can help improve concentration, memory, and cognitive performance. If you find yourself feeling mentally foggy or overwhelmed, taking a few minutes to focus on your deep breath can help clear your mind and boost your productivity.
White (2021) suggests that for optimal mental clarity through deep breathing, one can practice certain breathing techniques during different times throughout the day. For example, pranayama (such as the 4-7-8 technique) is optimal in the morning, before sunrise (Satchithanantham, as cited in White, 2021). This recommendation is based on the notion that the cool morning air offers an ideal environment for the respiratory system (White, 2021).
4-7-8 Technique (Jewell & Hoshaw, 2023)
The 4-7-8 technique finds its roots in an ancient yogic method known as pranayama and was originally formulated by Dr. Andrew Weil.
Begin by slightly parting your lips, allowing an audible whooshing sound as you exhale completely through your mouth.
Close your lips gently and inhale silently through your nose, mentally counting to four, ensuring your lungs fill entirely without any strain.
Hold your breath for a duration of 7 seconds.
Exhale once more with a whooshing sound through your mouth, lasting for 8 seconds.
Repeat this sequence for a recommended 5-10 cycles.
3. Better Sleep
Many individuals struggle with sleep-related issues, such as insomnia or restless nights. Practicing relaxation techniques like deep breathing before bedtime can promote better sleep. Slow, rhythmic breathing helps calm the mind and body, making it easier to drift into a peaceful slumber. If you have trouble falling asleep, try incorporating a bedtime breathing routine into your nightly rituals.
Bhramari Pranayama is a breathing technique rooted in the yoga discipline of pranayama (Vierra et al., 2022). Specifically, it is a pranayama variation where individuals cover their eyes and ears to produce a humming or buzzing sound (Hamzeh & Iyo, 2022).
Hamzeh & Iyo (2022) summarize several steps to this breathing exercise:
Find a comfortable seating position and use your thumbs to block external noises by covering your ears.
While keeping your thumbs in place, position your index fingers above your eyebrows, and use your remaining fingers to gently close your eyes.
Inhale deeply, then exhale slowly through your nose, all the while creating a humming or buzzing sound. Concentrate your awareness on the region between your eyebrows.
Repeat this breathing exercise whenever desired to induce relaxation.
4. Emotional Balance
Our breath is intimately connected to our emotions. When we experience strong emotions like anger, fear, or sadness, our breathing patterns change. By consciously regulating our breath, we can gain greater control over our emotional responses. Deep breathing can help reduce feelings of anxiety, anger, or frustration, promoting emotional balance and well-being.
To achieve rapid stress reduction through a breathing exercise, consider a technique developed by the US Navy Seals. These elite professionals often use the box technique to quickly lower their stress levels due to the nature of their work (Nestor, 2020).
Box Breathing Technique
Nestor (2020) indicates one should consider the sides of a square while you practice your breath control:
Take a 4-cound inhale; hold for 4 counts; exhale for 4 counts; hold for 4 counts; repeat. For a greater parasympathetic response, try the following:
Take a 4-count inhale; hold for 4 counts; exhale for 6 counts; hold for 2 counts; repeat.
Figure 2: [Box Breathing]. (n.d.). Retrieved September 18, 2023, from https://gutperformance.com.au/box-breathing-for-better-gut-health/
5. Stress-Related Health Benefits
Chronic stress is linked to various health problems, including cardiovascular issues, digestive disorders, and weakened immune function. By practicing deep breathing and reducing stress levels, you can lower the risk of these health issues and improve your overall well-being. Breathing exercises can also help manage chronic pain conditions by promoting relaxation and reducing muscle tension.
Breathing is a powerful tool that we all possess, yet it is often underutilized in our daily lives. The benefits of conscious breathing are numerous and encompass physical, mental, and emotional well-being. By incorporating deep breathing exercises into your routine, you can reduce stress, improve focus, enhance physical health, enjoy better sleep, and achieve emotional balance. Breathing is a simple and accessible practice that can lead to profound improvements in your quality of life. So, take a moment right now to take a deep breath and start reaping the benefits of this natural and incredible resource.
Always remember, just breathe.
“Breathing is your life force energy. When we breathe deeply, we make space for connection to ourselves, others, nature and our interconnectivity with something bigger than ourselves. Our most important connections to life and living come through breathing. It is the first gift that connects us to the world, and it will be our last step as we leave the world. Honour your breathing and you honour yourself, you honour every person that lived before you and those- yet to come”
- Dr. Patricia Miller