How often do you notice that you are breathing? How many times a day do you pause in your busyness and take a deep breath, feeling the oxygen and life energy move through and revitalize you? If you answered “rarely” or “never,” you are missing out.
Scientific research is confirming again and again what wisdom traditions and indigenous people around the world have always known – that breath is the key to life. So much more than just a physiological exchange of gases, breathing is the most important healing tool that we have. Breathing deeply makes all the difference for our mental, emotional, and physical health, affecting everything from brain chemical and hormonal balance to heart rate and stress levels to digestion and fertility. If you are not in touch with your breathing, you are missing a key, and easily accessible, component for a healthy life.
If you are unsure how to open your breathing or just curious about some more techniques, here are 10 simple exercises to help you access your own elixir of life.
Count Your Breath
This is a great way to engage your mind just enough to keep you focused on breathing, while also helping you relax. Naturally bringing your breath into synchrony like this is very soothing to the nervous system.
- As you inhale, silently count up from 1 in a slow, steady pace as you draw the breath into your lower belly.
- As you exhale, silently count down from whatever number you reached as you inhaled. For example, if you naturally reached 7 as you were inhaling, you would count down “7, 6,5…” as you exhale and feel the belly relax.
- As you relax into the exercise, the numbers will probably naturally go up. Do not force or try to lengthen your breath, just allow it get longer naturally if it does, and keep the exhalations the same length. Always let the breath drop into your lower abdomen to get the full benefits of breathing.
This is another way to develop mental quiet and focus. The idea is make the breath as deep and subtle as possible. This exercise can be done sitting or standing.
- Place one hand on your lower belly and one hand on your chest just below your collarbone.
- Exhale completely emptying all the air from your lungs and letting your shoulders and chest relax.
- Inhale deeply into your lower belly. Feel that hand rising as your belly fills.
- Everything else is in stillness. Keep the shoulders and chest relax so that they the upper hand does not rise as you inhale, though you may feel a little spreading under your hand at the top of the inhalation. The only thing moving in a big way is your lower abdomen.
- Continue for several minutes.
While eventually we want to be breathing deeply in any position or situation, at first it can be helpful to make the body very comfortable, to help us focus completely on our breath and receive its full benefit.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent, soles of your feet on the ground. You can also place a large pillow, rolled blanket, or bolster under your knees so your legs can relax completely.
- Place your hands on your lower belly, just below your navel.
- First simply notice what you feel. Where is the breath in your body? What parts of your body respond to the breath?
- Then consciously direct your breath into the space under your hands. Focus on the exhalations first, emptying the belly as much as you can each breath. Then feel the belly fill up beneath your hands, rising like a mountain peak.
- Continue for several minutes.
A lot of our lung capacity is in the back of our lungs. At the same time, chronic stress and bad posture can make us collapse in the chest and crunch our backs. This exercise cultivates breath, spaciousness and relaxation in the back. This exercise is best practiced on an empty stomach, at least an hour or two after eating.
- Lie face-down on a comfortable but firm surface, like a yoga mat or thin blanket placed on a wood floor.
- Bend the elbows and bring the palms under the head. There should be enough lift that you can rest on your forehead and have space for your nose. You do not want to have to turn your head here, so if your stacked palms do not provide enough support you can place a thin blanket or towel on top of your hands.
- Let your body relax as much as possible, including your neck and back, and breathe deeply. Your breath may feel constricted at first, but as you relax here it will open up.
- Draw your inhalations into your lower belly/back, and allow yourself to melt on your exhalations.
- Continue for several minutes.
This position is the yoga pose Makarasana, Crocodile pose, and mimics the way crocodiles seem to be able to stay low and steady as they breathe on the water’s surface.
This is a standing breathing exercise that is very energizing and great for helping you wake up in the morning.
- Stand tall and strong, with your feet planted on the ground and parallel. Soften your knees a little, and lengthen up through your spine, chest, and crown of head. Relax your shoulders and your jaw.
- As you inhale, reach your arms out the sides and up overhead as you draw the breath into your lower belly. Extend through your fingertips the whole time, but keep your shoulders relaxed.
- As you exhale, bring your hands down in front of your body and out the sides again.
- Repeat for several deep breaths.
Earth to Sky
This is an even more active breathing exercise to really invigorate you and even get your heart pumping a little, while encouraging your deep belly breath.
- Stand as in the previous exercise, but have your feet hip-width apart.
- As you inhale, reach the arms out to the side and up overhead.
- As you exhale, bring the hands down the midline and fold all the way forward until you are in a comfortable and safe stretch.
- As you inhale, bend the knees and rise up as you reach your arms out and up.
- If you have back challenges or want a more vigorous exercise, instead of folding forward bend your knees and come into a squat as you exhale, keeping your spine tall.
- Continue for several breaths.
Four Eight Breath
This is a more measured exercise that helps gently elongate the exhalations. Lengthening the exhalations is particularly helpful relaxing the nervous system and gently warming the body. This exercise can be done in any position.
- As you inhale, slowly count up from 1 to 4. Go at a natural pace that allows you take a deep inhalation but does not feel forced or rushed.
- Hold the inhalation in for a count of 2.
- As you exhale count from 1 to 8. Go at the same pace you used when you inhaled.
- Hold the exhalation out for a count of 2.
- Continue for several deep breaths.
Some people are more visual and so benefit from working with energy while breathing deeply. Color therapy can also be very soothing and healing, depending on the individual.
- As you inhale deeply into your lower belly, imagine your favorite color being drawn into your body on the breath. You may also choose a color you feel like you are missing, or could use more of in your life.
- As you exhale, imagine grey or cloudy air leaving your body on the breath.
Another way to engage the mind while also cultivating relaxation and breath awareness is the use of simple positive affirmations. Originally drawn from the use of Buddhist koans, this technique is a great way to both repattern your breath and bring more positivity into your life.
- As you inhale, focus on a quality that you want to bring into your life. Some potentials are happiness, joy, health, prosperity, and love. There are many ways you can phrase this, find a simple statement that feels true and natural to you, something like “I breathe in joy,” or “As I inhale, I become healthier.” Say this statement silently, inside only, as you inhale.
- As you exhale, release whatever feels stuck or unhelpful in your body. Again, keep it simple and natural. Some examples include fear, loneliness, greed, anger, despair, and revenge. Simple statements you could silently say as you exhale include “I breathe out any fear in my body,” or “As I exhale I release rage and despair.” Continue for several minutes, as long as you can remain focused on the exercise.
Another evolution of using silent internal sounds to focus the mind and assist deep breathing is the use of mantras. Mantras are sacred sounds that are connected to heightened states of consciousness and inspiring archetypes.
* You can work with any mantra you like, hearing it inside your head as you breathe. One of the simplest and most universal is the sound OM, which in your mind would sound something like Aahh-oooo-mmmm. Focusing on this silent sound as you inhale and exhale as deeply as possible can be profoundly relaxing.
Deep breath may be one of the most important healing tools we have. Thankfully, it is also one of the most accessible. Anyone, of any age, at any time can begin to improve their health and wellbeing by breathing deeply. Recent studies have shown that deep controlled breathing can affect our immune systems, metabolisms, and many other systems because it alters gene expression. Though the ancient might have phrased it more simply: Breathe deeper and live longer.