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5 Simple Breath Techniques To Reduce Stress &, Improve Mood, Energy & Cardiovascular Strength

Written by: Tracy Renee Stafford, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

 

It’s kind of ironic that the fastest way to change our state and calm the body & mind is to slow down the breath.


This is because the breath is one of the only actions in our body that is both automatic (we don’t need to think about breathing throughout the day or when we are sleeping) and that we can also voluntarily control — varying the speed, intensity, and rhythm of our breath. By working consciously with the breath, we can simply, quickly & directly affect our nervous system, which, in turn, will affect body systems that are not normally in our conscious control. Digestion, immunity, circulation, cognition, sleep, mood, & libido can all get a boost, and pain, inflammation, blood pressure, & emotional reactivity can all be dampened just by slowing down the breath.

Shallow, fast breathing = fight or flight


When our nervous system is in stress, called the ‘sympathetic’ or ‘fight or flight’ state, our breathing is shallower & faster. In this state, more cortisol (the main stress hormone) is released, and the blood & nervous energy goes away from the vital organs and instead to our limbs in order to fight or flee from potential danger. This works when we are in actual danger, but more often, our bodies are in a chronic state of fight or flight due to chronic stress, which can then lead to chronic issues through the body & mind.

Slow, deep breathing = rest & digest


The complementary state is the parasympathetic nervous response, often called the ‘rest & digest’ state. This is when the body is calm, allowing for maintenance, cellular repair, and restoration to occur. When we consciously slow our breath down, we are sending the message to our nervous system that there is no danger and that the focus can shift to well-being rather than to protection. Blood pressure lowers, digestion & elimination improve, inflammation is reduced, immunity is strengthened, hormone levels are balanced, sexual energy flows in a more harmonious way, we are in a less reactive state emotionally, and our mind is more oriented towards curiosity & being present, rather than looking out for potential threats.


Slowing down the breath, in general, has been shown to be very effective in bringing the body into the ‘rest & digest’ state, but here I will show some more specific yet simple techniques that are not only ancient (falling under the branch of Yoga called Pranayama), but that has also been shown by modern science to be beneficial for the body & mind.

The Breathing Body


On the inhale, the body expands as air enters. This expansion often happens in the upper chest, neck & shoulders, which is shallow breathing. While breathing here might be helpful when actually stretching this area, it has been shown that it is MUCH more beneficial, especially when the goal is relaxation if the expansion of the breath is in the belly and even all the way down to the pelvic floor. The belly and the pelvic floor receive the inhale by gently expanding, and release the exhale by gently relaxing and drawing in. You may notice other places expanding and relaxing in the body as you breathe, which can allow the simple practice of breathing to have quite a lovely massage effect throughout the body.


Emotions live in the body.


Keep in mind that because emotions live in the body, we may stir them up as we breathe. While it can be very good to release emotions that are ‘stuck’ in the body, and the breath can be a fabulous way to do that, it is very important that it is done with the proper dosage. If you notice that emotions are being stirred up in a way that feels uncomfortable or unmanageable, within the practice itself or later in the day, it may be a good idea to ease up and perhaps seek guidance from a trusted breath coach, therapist, bodyworker, or primary health care practitioner. If you notice that emotions are being stirred up in a way that feels manageable —that they can move through you with relative ease & comfort — then enjoy this therapeutic effect of the breath practice.

Breathwork or Meditation?


Meditation usually begins by creating an ‘object of attention’: some point of focus to help steady the mind and bring attention to the present moment. The breath is a very common object of attention. The difference between breathwork and meditation is that in most meditation styles, the common instruction is to keep the breath natural, whereas, in breathwork, we are consciously (and gently) manipulating the breath.


Breathwork can be a great substitute if traditional meditation techniques don’t feel quite right for you. While meditation has also been shown to help bring the body into the ‘rest & digest’ state, working with the breath is much more immediate, without the need to delve into any philosophy or study. For this reason, I often recommend that people start with breathwork in order to address the chronic state of physical, emotional & mental stress that we are often in. Meditation works best when it is accompanied by some teaching in the philosophy behind it, whereas breathwork is something that we can all access, just for being human.


And now, here are the techniques!


It’s powerful if these can be done for 5 minutes or longer, while seated or lying in a comfortable position with no distractions, but it’s equally powerful when these are done ‘on the spot,’ i.e., at different points in the day when we might be feeling impatient or not fully present, such as when waiting in line at the supermarket, or even right at the moment when the body is ‘triggered’ from a potentially stressful occurrence. Running late for a meeting, waiting for results from a job interview, or even just reading the morning news, are a few examples of when the body might be tempted to go into ‘fight or flight.’ While these examples might be cause for some mild stress, they are not life-threatening, and they happen often enough that we need to train the body not to treat them as cause for alarm but as an opportunity to connect more deeply to our inner reservoirs of calm.


1. Noticing the breath. The first step in ‘working’ with the breath is to simply notice it. With relaxed but curious attention, simply notice where you feel the breath in the body the easiest — perhaps at the nostrils, the feeling of the air entering and leaving. Perhaps you notice more the rising & falling of the chest or the expansion and relaxation of the belly. Perhaps you notice a whole sense of the body breathing. Let your attention rest wherever in the body you can feel the breath, and just watch it like you would watch the waves of the ocean. You may notice that it takes some effort to keep the attention on the breath and that the attention wants to wander. This is totally natural. When you notice that the attention has wandered, simply & kindly return the attention to the sensation of the breath at the nostrils, the belly, or wherever it is easiest for you to feel it. After a few moments, you might gently guide the breath to drop down into the belly, pelvis, and hips, inviting a feeling of expansion on the inhale and softening on the exhale. Continue watching the breath there, noticing the effects on the body and the mind.


2. Inviting the inhale and exhale to be the same length. Once you have taken a moment to notice the breath, now count it, to notice its length. For example, a normal, relaxed inhale might be 2-3 seconds, and a normal, relaxed exhale the same. First, intend that the inhale and the exhale have the same length. Gently guide, rather than force, the breath to do this. After a few moments, gently lengthen the inhale perhaps to 4 or 5 counts, and then exhale, the same. Keep the body as relaxed as possible. Place the attention as fully as possible on the sensations of the body breathing, with the invitation that each breath is of equal length, value, and quality.


3. Inviting the exhale to be longer than the inhale. Start by noticing the breath (practice no 1) and perhaps doing practice no 2 for a few moments, so you can count the breath. Then gradually intend that the exhale becomes slightly longer than the inhale. For example, inhale for 4 counts and then exhale for 5, noticing how the body & mind respond. After a few rounds of this, once it starts to feel comfortable, the exhale could be extended to 6. Get comfortable with this rhythm for a while before increasing the length of the exhale to eventually be double the length of the inhale (i.e., inhale for 4, exhale for 8). There are many studies that show that having an exhale that is longer than the inhale triggers a very immediate response of the parasympathetic nervous system to calm down the body, mind & heart.


4. Box Breathing: inhale — hold — exhale — hold. I find this a challenging technique to leap right into, and for that reason, I have it as the 2nd last one on my list. In this technique, the ‘box’ describes the pattern of breathing: there is an inhale, a hold, then an exhale, and a hold. They are all of equal length, like the 4 sides of a box. To start, I actually recommend ‘rectangle breathing’ so that the inhale and the exhale are longer (4 counts, for example), and the ‘holds' are shorter (2 counts). This ensures that the heart and nervous system are not too stressed, and therefore not triggering anxiety or overwhelm. The hold could even be 1 count, like a small pause at the top of the inhale and the bottom of the exhale. The image that I like of the ‘hold’ is of a ‘suspension,’ like at the top of a rollercoaster, with just a slight pause. Keep the neck & shoulders, jaw, hips, and the whole body as relaxed and comfortable as possible. Notice the response in the body, mind & heart.


5. The 3 Part Breathing The ‘3 parts’ refer to directing the breath to 3 different places in the body: the abdomen, the lower ribs, and the upper chest. This allows us to take advantage of deep abdominal breathing while still invigorating the upper body with the breath. Begin with a few moments of just noticing the breath, as in practice no1. Then, inhale from bottom to top: first expanding the belly & pelvic floor, then the bottom ribs, then the upper chest, so the whole body expands from bottom to top as it fills with air. Then, exhale from top to bottom, first relaxing the upper chest, then the bottom ribs, and then the belly and pelvic floor muscles gently relax inwards as the air leaves the body. Keep all of the movements of the body and the breath very gentle. I also recommend incorporating this breath technique with the other ones described above, as it brings more physicality into the practice. Personally, I love practicing this technique when preparing for sleep or meditation to bring my awareness away from mind chatter and towards the body.

With whichever practices you do, take time to return to practice no 1 — just noticing the breath without manipulating it — as a way of closing the practice.

Slowing the breath down is not just good medicine for the body. It can be just the encouragement that the mind needs to slow the thoughts down. When this happens, we can be more present, and we can respond in a more mindful way to what is happening within and around us, rather than reacting impulsively and habitually.


These breathing techniques are more powerful and potent than they may appear, so I encourage you to try them out in small bursts, with as much attention as you comfortably can, and then to notice the effects over the rest of your day and over the long term.


If you would like to know more, sign up to receive my 5 Day Introduction to Fully Embodied Living, where I offer guided stretches, meditation & breath techniques, as well as powerful insight on healthy nourishment.


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Tracy Renee Stafford, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Tracy Renee Stafford is a coach in Fully Embodied Fitness — a weave of yoga, pilates, dance, & functional exercise — and in Fully Embodied Living based on 4 Pillars of Well-Being: Connection to Body, Nourishment, Presence & Growth. Her mission is to help people discover how they can make self-care a celebration, rather than an obligation, & enjoy the body for how it feels, rather than just for how it performs or looks. She ran her own studio in the Canadian Prairies heartland for 20 very rewarding years — where she taught various forms of fitness, with a specific interest in injury prevention & rehabilitation and empowering students with information on HOW the body works best. She is a Mindful Movement, Holistic Living & Nutrition Coach, weaving together all of her expertise into her Fully Embodied Living Programs. She currently lives in Buenos Aires and keeps her passion for dance alive by studying Argentine Tango.

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