Most of the time you don’t have to worry about breathing – it will happen by itself. But sometimes you can give yourself a mental or physical boost by paying attention to this most basic of body functions.
Breathing exercises can be used for relaxation, relief of anxiety, pain control, and improved self-awareness.
Here are a few of my favorite breathing exercises, along with a few pointers about how to get the most from them.
Most people have it backwards. Deep breathing is generally believed to be a good thing, but nine times out of ten if I ask a patient to “breathe deeply,” they initiate a prolonged inhale. Instead, emphasize the exhale.
Some of the many reasons to focus on breathing out instead of in:
- Physiological – you get more bang for your buck gas-exchange-wise if you purge a few more milliliters of dead air that’s sitting in the deepest recesses of your lungs.
- Muscular – you engage your abdominal core and stabilize your posture when you breathe out.
- Psychological – anxiety is accompanied by holding the lungs in an over-inflated state. (Try it yourself – take a sharp breath in and hold it. Anxiety kicks in automatically.) I’ve rarely met a person who needed extra help to be anxious.
Try this exercise: With each breath, prolong the duration of the exhale. When you feel you’ve reached the end of your out-breath, allow yourself to gently continue breathing out for a few extra seconds.
Even if you feel you have nothing left to exhale, it’s okay to just pause the breath and allow a second or two to float by before initiating the next inhale.
Breathe Into Your Eyelids
Remember the scene in the movie Bull Durham when they teach the pitching phenom to breathe through his eyelids?
It’s clearly nonsensical (though it does divert his thoughts from the stress of pitching so he won’t over-think his performance).
But, legitimately, you can use your breath to expand any area of the body, bringing more awareness and relaxation to it. Try this exercise for the low back:
With each inhale, picture the air flowing into the low back, making it wider and more relaxed. You can even place your hand on your low back, so that when you breathe in you can feel the low back expanding.
Literally, the air does not flow into your low back. The only place air goes when you breathe is your lungs. But when your lungs fill with air, they press out against all their neighboring organs and the trunk as a whole has to respond.
Here is where you have a choice.
Your trunk is a three-dimensional object with a front, back, sides, top and bottom. Depending on your awareness, posture, and muscle control, you can choose the way that your trunk responds when you breathe in.
You can choose to accommodate by expanding in the low back. Or into the pelvic floor. Or the breast bone. Or any combination of these.
The only thing you can’t choose is to be totally rigid.
With a little imagination, you can use this technique to relax and relieve pain in any body part. If you have a wrist problem, for instance, it’s easy to picture your trunk expanding as you breathe, then it in turn pressing out against its surroundings. The chain of expansion, beginning with an inhale, can directly (though subtly) spread down your arm and out to your wrist.
Just Pay Attention — Breath and Mental Health
Sometimes life seems out of control. Nothing is going the way you want it. One response to feeling that life is out of control is anxiety. Unless you’ve been sitting on a velvet cushion your whole life eating bonbons, you know about anxiety.
Another response to feeling that life is out of control is depression. If you’re feeling that there’s nothing you can do that makes a difference, that’s pretty depressing.
But there’s one thing that’s always under your comfortable control, and that’s your ability to pay attention to you breath.
Simply pay attention to the rise and fall of your breath. Don’t try to deepen it or slow it down – just notice what it does on its own. Of course, your breath pattern will start to change automatically as soon as you begin to draw your attention to it. But don’t try to breathe particularly deeply or in any specific pattern.
Spend up to ten minutes attending to the rhythm of your breath. Unless you’re a triple black belt yogic meditation champion, your mind will wander off from time to time. Many times. That’s okay. Gently bring your awareness back to your breath and continue to let it flow.