How often do you hear the expression “as easy as breathing”? Breathing is pretty easy, but breathing well is a skill that requires practice! While reading Chi Running (al) this summer, I learned more about breathing and its importance not only for fitness but also stress management and focus.
Shallow breathing is stressful
Most people spend most of their time breathing shallowly. When you breathe from only the top of your lungs, you don’t get as much air as you can. Most oxygen exchange occurs in the lower lungs, so you must breathe deeply to get the most oxygen into your blood. This requires not only breathing in fully but also exhaling fully. Exhaling fully ensures that there is space for fresh air.
When you breathe deeply, you activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which is your “rest and digest” mode. You need to spend time in this state to properly absorb and store nutrients from your diet and regenerate your body. In this state, your body releases pleasure hormones, such as serotonin and endorphins, and your heart rate and blood pressure are reduced. This state is protective of your body and helps prevent disease.
Shallow, rapid breaths activate your sympathetic nervous system, which is your “fight or flight” mode. Most people spend most of their time in this mode! In fight or flight mode, you release stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, which increase your blood sugar for fuel and also store fat (rather than burning it). These hormones also increase blood pressure and heart rate. Over time, if you spend most of your time in this state, you will exhaust your adrenal glands, accumulate belly fat, and increase your risk of heart disease.
Learn to breathe well
So how do you spend more time relaxed and breathing deeply? Practice makes perfect! Just like any skill, you need to practice it to become better at it. The more you practice, the easier it will be and the more you will practice…
My favourite breathing exercise is alternate nostril breathing! If you do this exercise nightly before bed, you will soon notice improved relaxation and sleep as well as improved mental focus during the day! You can do this exercise anywhere at anytime – use it liberally.
Caution, do not practice retention of your breath if you have high blood pressure or are in the last trimester of pregnancy.
Alternate nostril breathing
- Energizing at the start of the day or relaxing before bed
- Reduced anxiety and stress
- Improved ability to fall asleep and improved quality of sleep (including dreams!)
- Clears sinuses
- Improved focus and mental clarity
- Balances left and right brain hemispheres
- Sit comfortably in a quiet place with your spine straight, crown of head raised toward the sky and buttocks rooted to the floor.
- Close your eyes and take a deep breath in and out.
- Close right nostril with thumb and inhale through left nostril to comfortable count of 4.
- Close the left nostril with ringer finger and hold the breath for a comfortable count of 4.
- Open the right nostril while keeping the left nostril closed and exhale through right nostril to comfortable count of 4.
- Hold the breath out for a comfortable count of 4.
- Repeat the procedure, this time inhaling through right nostril with left nostril closed and then exhaling through left nostril with right nostril closed.
- Once back to starting point (right nostril closed), you have completed 1 round.
- Begin with 3 rounds daily and work up to 6 rounds or more.
Take it to the next level:
- Create a mantra to repeat silently to lend a rhythm to your breathing. Choose a positive phrase to describe how you wish to feel or a goal you wish to achieve. Some examples: “I am rested and well”, “I am healthy and balanced”, or “I bow before my highest self”.
- End your practice by taking a deep breath in and chanting “Om”, ending with a long “mmm” sound that allows you to feel the vibration through your head.