5 Breathing Exercises to Relieve Stress
Control your breath, control your feelings
Have you ever noticed when you are in an emergency situation how you take quick, shallow breaths from your chest? This is a wonderful physiological response, called the stress response, which allows us to quickly fight or run away from danger. Most of us also breathe this way when we get into an argument with someone, have too much work to do, or get very upset. Many of us breathe this way all the time, which, over time, can take a toll on our body because of the host of chemicals released during the stress response. This is part of why chronic high stress contributes to disease. The good news is that you can instruct your body to get into a state of calm just by practicing some simple breathing techniques.
Belly breathing is a core exercise for calming the body and our emotions. Try all 5 techniques to see which ones you find most relaxing. Remember, while we emphasize movement of the belly while breathing, don’t think that your chest shouldn’t move at all, it should just move less than the belly. If you are accustomed to chest breathing, it might feel a bit awkward at first, but with a little practice, it can begin to feel natural.
How to Practice Breathing Exercises
If you want to master these techniques, practicing every day or several days a week minimally is important. If setting a rigid goal feels confining, set one that feels like a manageable, realistic one. For example, you might decide to try all 5 today after reading this article, and practice 2 that you like at least 3 times this week. Or, you might decide to try practicing your breathing before bed, or during your lunch break. Connecting a new habit to an existing habit is a great way to be sure you remember to practice.
For any given exercise, start by practicing for a minimum of 10 breaths, and work your way up to breathing for 3 – 5 minutes this way. As you see positive results, you will naturally want to do them more, and breathing exercises will be another tool in your coping toolbox.
For all 5 breathing exercises, you can sit in a comfortable seated position with your feet flat on the floor, or lie down on your back. You may either close your eyes, or pick a point in the room upon which to focus.
1. Basic Belly Breathing
Place one hand on your belly, and the other on your chest. Breathe naturally. After a few breaths, allow yourself to notice which hand is rising and falling more as your breath moves in and out. Invite the breath more fully into the belly as you inhale, feeling that hand rise, and then fall as you exhale. You may focus best if you close your eyes. Here’s a great video demonstration on belly breathing. This video combines techniques #1 and #2 and asks you to extend your exhale twice as long as your inhale, but I think that as a starting point, focusing just on the belly breathing is enough. You can play around and see what works for you and your body.
2. Counting Breath – Inhale 4, Exhale 6
You may place your hands on your chest and belly as in belly breathing, or gently place your hands on your lap, either palms up to feel more energized, or palms down to feel more grounded. You may also choose to close your eyes. Bring your awareness to your breath. Inhale for a count of four seconds, notice the small pause between the inhale and exhale, and then exhale for a count of six. Again notice the pause as your body transitions between inhale and exhale, and then inhale for a count of four, and so on.
3. Forward Bend Breath
This is the simplest breathing exercise on the list. Begin in a seated position and fold over so that your hands are on or near the floor, depending on your flexibility. Notice the weight of your chest and belly on your legs, and how you can easily feel the breath moving in and out. In my practice, I have found that people either love or hate this exercise. For myself, my love or hate of it seems to depend on my mood, so you might try it more than once. If you don’t enjoy the seated version, try a standing forward bend, or try it in chid’s pose.
4. Alternate Nostril Breathing
For this technique you will be blocking one nostril at a time while you inhale and exhale. Begin by using your ring finger to block the right nostril and inhale through the left nostril. Block the left also with the thumb, release the right nostril, and exhale. Keep the thumb blocking the left nostril and inhale through the right, block the right nostril with the ring finger, release the thumb, and exhale through the left. Continue this cycle for 10 breaths to start and work your way up from there.
There’s a video demonstration of this technique here. There’s also a nice scholarly article on how alternate nostril breathing improves brain function and reduces anxiety here, if you are into that scholarly kind of thing. 🙂
5. Ocean Breath (or Darth Vader Breath)
The last breathing technique is called an ocean breath, darth vader breath, or the ujayi breath. It’s an audible breath, which I think is great for continuously focusing your mind. Ocean breath is done through your nose, but you will start with your mouth open to learn the technique. Inhale, then exhale, and as you exhale, open your mouth and say “HHHHHHHAAAAAAA” as though you were trying to fog a mirror in front of your face. Inhale again, and now close the mouth, but continue to make the “ha” sound as though you could fog that mirror in front of your face. As you get it, you will begin to hear a sound on the exhale, and then also on the inhale. This one is a little harder to teach in writing, so I suggest you check out the video here.
All we can do is keep breathing …. check out this beautiful song, Keep Breathing by Ingrid Michaelson
Where is your breath taking you these days? What would it be like if you could harness it to have greater control over how you feel? Do you ever find yourself holding your breath when you are stressed out? Have I missed any of your favorite breathing techniques? Try the techniques and tell us about it in the comments.