Health & Wellness
Take a breath
One of the most powerful practices I have learnt through my journey of not only healing anxiety, but also finding a deeper connection to myself has been the power of the breath.
“Breath?” You ask.
Breathing is something we do every day without very much thought; yet the breath influences each and every function in our body, from the digestive system, the hormonal system, the immune system, the lymphatic system, the nervous system, and the list goes on...
We can live without food and water for a few days but we can’t last longer than about 15 minutes without breathing, yet we are more focused on getting in a good workout at the gym and eating healthy meals (all which are super important to living a healthy life of course), but, we’ve ignored something so important! Something that can change how we feel physically, mentally and emotionally, and we all have access to it! In fact, we can come back to it time and time again, whenever we want to improve our overall wellness. Plus there's no monthly fee. I'm talking about BREATHING.
Without breath we have nothing, yet studies show that over 80% of us are not breathing correctly. Are you one of them?
What is incorrect breathing and why are so many of us doing this supposed easy involuntary task incorrectly?
Before I answer that question I want you to find a comfortable seat and sit up nice & tall. Ready? Now take a big deep breath in ... and let it out... Once more, inhale... and exhale.What did you notice on the inhale? Did you feel yourself rising up slightly and then sinking back down as you exhaled? That my friend is something many call ‘vertical’ breathing.
What is ‘Vertical’ breathing?
We have this incredible organ called the diaphragm which has one job. Yup, only one job! And that is to help us breath, yet we often neglect it and we end up breathing from the chest all day instead of the belly. Our bellies are supposed to push out as we inhale and pull back as we exhale, instead we let the chest and upper body do all the work.
Our shoulders are not required to breath. Even though these incorrect movements are very subtle (you may not even notice you’re doing it), we all do them unconsciously thousands of times a day, which can result in a lot of tension in the shoulders and neck causing us to feel tightness and strain.
Most of us are breathing shallow, short breaths only from the chest. When we breathe this way we are automatically sending signals to the brain that we are in a state of panic. We have a vagus nerve running from the base of the skull all the way down the spine, which splits off across the body picking up stimuli to report back to the brain. When we breathe short, shallow, chest breaths we tell the brain that we are feeling stressed and we need to take some sort of action. This triggers the nervous system and turns on the fight/flight/flee response making us feel uneasy and often times anxious! Most of us spend the day breathing the same way we would in a stressful situation and therefore our bodies stay in this highly anxious and tensed state searching for danger.
Why are so many of us breathing incorrectly? Well let’s take a look at how we spend most of our day, hunched over our phones and desks squishing our stomachs giving our poor diaphragm very little room to do what it does best. Our entire bodies need oxygen to function and if we spend most of our day seated and hunched over, we aren’t able to send the breath to those areas that need it. Makes sense right?
These are some very simple issues that we can fix if we become more aware of how we are breathing. So right now, I want you to relax the shoulders, keep the spine nice and long and focus on slow, relaxed, deep belly breathing... Take your time. Feel it...
That’s it! Feels so good, doesn’t it?!
I’m going to be like a cheesy sales commercial...BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE!
"I haven’t even got to the cool part about breathing! Breathing mindfully helps us send signals to the vagus nerve to kick the body into rest and digest. The brain sees that we are as cool as a cucumber and we can just relax and let the body do what it needs to do to run optimally. The body is just so darn cool!"
We can even rev the coolness up a little more and make little changes to the way we breathe in order to manipulate how our body operates and how we feel physically and mentally:
The Relaxing Breath
The Relaxing Breath also known as 4-7-8 breathing helps to slow down and calm the body. It slows the heart rate, brings our consciousness to the present moment, and slows the nervous system, bringing a feeling of calm and peace. This breath is ideal when you are feeling overwhelmed, anxious, angry, triggered, and have trouble sleeping. It has the added bonus of teaching the body to take in less (in a culture where we saturate the mind and body with external stimulation); to create space between inhale and exhale; and how to release excess energy from the body.
How To Do It:
The traditional way of doing 4-7-8 breathing is to empty the lungs of air, breathe in through your nose for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 7 seconds, exhale out of the mouth for 8 seconds, and repeat at least 4 times. As you breathe in, imagine the grounded and nourishing energy of the earth, mountains, trees, plants, flowers, fruits, vegetables, and herbs coming up into your body. As you hold your breath, visualize the breath spiraling up the center of your body (through the 7 chakras/energy centers) and pulling any energy or thought that does not serve you.
Then as you exhale over 8 seconds, imagine that excess energy-releasing out of the mouth, and visualize light pouring through the top of your head back down to your feet and the earth below you.
While our natural tendency is to breathe at a rate of two or three seconds per minute, Coherent Breathing, or the 5-5 breath - is a controlled and conscious breathing practice that slows down our breathing to 4 seconds and then 5 seconds per minute. The 5-5 breath is ideal for an overall sense of calm and can be practiced throughout the day.
How To Do It:
To start, focus on the natural rhythm of your breath to obtain a baseline length of each inhale and exhale. Then for 1 minute, breathe in for 4 seconds, and exhale for 4 seconds. Then repeat for 5 seconds, then repeat for 6 seconds, and if you want to, gradually expand to 10 seconds.
Start with 5 minutes total and work your way up over time to 20 minutes. Imagine the earth's energy rising up into the body, and then the thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations in the body that you no longer want to hold on to, releasing out of the body through the exhale.
The 'Getting Worked Up' Breath
When You're Looking For A Balance Of Calm And Focus:
Nadi Shodhanana, also known as Alternate Nostril Breathing, is a powerful breathing practice with wide-reaching benefits. Nadi is a Sanskrit word meaning “channel” or “flow” and shodhana means “purification.” Therefore, Nadi Shodhana is primarily aimed at clearing and purifying the subtle channels of the mind-body.
How To Do It:
Choose a comfortable sitting position—either cross-legged on the floor (with a cushion or blanket to support the spine), or in a chair with your feet flat on the floor. Allow the spine to lengthen so that the back, neck, and head are erect throughout the practice. Gently close the eyes.
Begin by taking a full, deep inhalation followed by a slow, gentle exhalation.
Fold the tips of the index and middle fingers inward until they touch the palm at the base of the right thumb (Vishnu mudra). You will alternately use the right thumb to close the right nostril and the right ring and pinky fingers (together) to close the left nostril.
Use the right thumb to close the right nostril. Exhale gently, but fully, through the left nostril. Keeping the right nostril closed, inhale through the left nostril and deep into the belly. As you inhale, allow the breath to travel upward along the left side of the body. Pause briefly at the crown of the head.
Next, use the ring and pinky fingers of the right hand to gently close the left nostril and simultaneously release the right nostril. Exhale through the right nostril, surrendering the breath down the right side of the body. Pause gently at the bottom of the exhalation.
Keeping the left nostril closed, inhale once again through the right nostril, allowing the breath to travel up the right side of the body.
Then again, use the right thumb to close the right nostril as you release the left nostril. Exhale through the left nostril, surrendering the breath back down the left side of the body. Pause gently at the bottom of the exhalation.
This completes one round of Nadi Shodhana. The same pattern continues for each additional round: inhale through the left nostril, exhale through the right nostril, inhale through the right nostril, exhale through the left nostril.
Repeat this alternating pattern for several more rounds, focusing your awareness on the pathway of the breath—up one side of the body (from the pelvic floor to the crown of the head) and back down the other side of the body (from the crown of the head to the pelvic floor). Keep the breath slow, gentle, fluid, and relaxed throughout the practice.
Nadi shodhana can be immensely rewarding, even when practiced for as little as five minutes on a regular basis, but practicing daily for ten to fifteen minutes offers even deeper benefits.
When you are ready to close your practice, complete your final round of nadi shodhana with an exhalation through the left nostril. Relax your right hand and place it comfortably in your lap as you take several Full deep breaths.
Allow your breath to return to normal. As you do, notice your state of mind. How are you feeling? What sensations are present in your body? Quietly observe the effects of the practice. Then, gently open your eyes, continuing to focus some of your awareness within. When you feel ready, slowly get up and offer your full presence to the rest of your day.
Breathing Practice Tips:
Always practice breathing techniques on an empty stomach
Make sure you're comfortable.
Let go of expectation
The best way to know which technique is right for you is to first identify what you are struggling with and what you are seeking. These are suggestions, but as with any healing modality, it is best to experiment with each form to see which one feels most aligned with where you are. Remember, your breath is your inherent healer and guide inside of you.