“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.” ~ Thích Nhất Hạnh
For many of us, breathing is just an automatic function to exist. What we don’t realise is that breathing in a constricted manner from the chest, also known as shallow breathing, can increase our stress and anxiety levels.
The true nature of breath does not only lie in the fact that it’s responsible for life, but also, that it defines the quality of our life.
David Coutler in the book, Anatomy of Hatha Yoga said, “the breath is the link between mind and body, and that if we can control our breath, we can control every aspect of our being.”
The ideal way of breathing is to form a loop of exhalation and inhalation without jerking, stopping or pausing in between, known as abdominal breathing or diaphragmatic breathing.
But adults often lose touch with their natural flow of breath, thus limiting the functions of a diaphragm and reducing air supply in the lowest part of the lungs.
The irony is that a flat stomach is appreciated in today’s world, but the significance of the right way of breathing is ignored.
More so, the daily stress and tension due to work, family, competition etc., increases the chances of shallow breathing by manifolds. How do we breakthrough from this cyclical pattern of shallow breathing leading to tension and vice-a-versa?
A full breath that allows deeper transfusion of oxygen in the body and even deeper exhalation for removal of the toxins out of the system, seems to be the key in this situation.
Here are some simple breathing exercises to improve your mental and emotional state, and help you to manage stress and anxiety.
Supine Abdominal Breathing
This breathing exercise will be helpful to determine the way you breath – chest or abdominal. Come in corpse posture, place your left hand on the center of the abdomen,and the right hand on the chest.
You can also fold your legs, if needed, to support your back further. Now, take normal breaths and watch which hand is moving towards the ceiling and which hand is more stationary.
If your left hand is moving continuously while the right hand is stationary (or moving very less), then you are on the right track. On the other hand, if it is the other way round, you are breathing in a constricted manner.
Nevertheless, the situation can be rectified by simply trying to breathe from the abdomen, where the left hand is moving up and down, and right is stationary. The inhalation requires less effort and the exhalation is relaxed and fluid.
Stay in this posture with closed eyes for a few minutes and just focus on the breath. This is bound to stimulate the autonomous system, slowing the heart and lowering your blood pressure.
Furthermore, it will reduce stress and anxiety immediately, leaving you calmer and relaxed. Trying to sleep while practicing supine abdominal breathing, is yet another way to incorporate the practice of ideal breathing habits in our daily lives.
Lie in corpse position and place a prop like sandbag, book or block, weighing 3 to 15 pounds on the diaphragm. Ensure that the chest is not moving and the weight of the prop is light enough to easily push the stomach towards the ceiling while inhaling.
You will notice the extra effort required in inhalation and a more controlled exhalation. In addition to allowing the practitioner to get in touch with the functioning of the diaphragm and generating a greater sense of the organ, this exercise also strengthens the muscles.
Keep observing the natural flow of the breath and slip into deep relaxation. Ensure that the prop is going up with the motion of the diaphragm and not by protruding the belly out.
When extra weight is put on the diaphragm, it pushes the abdominal wall further inside. Sarah Novtony and Len Kravitz, PH.D. in the article The Science of Breathing, said “investigations have demonstrated that slow breathing & pranayama breathing techniques activate the parasympathetic (inhibitory) nervous system, thus slowing certain physiological processes down that may be functioning too fast or conflicting with the homeostasis of the cells (Jerath et al., 2006).”
Upright Elliptical Breathing
While we are sitting and breathing, the two most vital points in the cycle of breath is the transition between inhalation and exhalation, and the other between exhalation and inhalation.
This is the time when the breath is more likely to become uneven. A complete breath is one where the abdomen rises on the inhale and merges with the fall in the act of exhalation and rises back up without any pause.
Imagine a Ferris wheel, notice the movement, the start and end of the loop is difficult to gauge. It only stops or jerks when someone has to get off. Consider your breathing to be like the movement of this Ferris feel.
The inhalation will merge with exhalation and vice-a-versa, making a circular pattern. When we keep imagining the movement, it would be easier to follow this pattern while breathing. As the wheel goes up, inhale, and as it comes down, exhale. Continue this for at least 5 to 7 minutes, or more if possible. What we want from relaxed breathing is no jerks, just a sensation that you are making a transition both ways.
The pattern of the normal breath is elliptical and not circular, but for a beginner, this exercise proves to be very helpful, relaxing the mind instantly. The idea is to create a sense of flow, the rest would fall into place gradually.
The compulsive chest breathers would often find themselves exhaling less and breathing in more, for the simple reason that they will always be short of breath. So they would want to hold on to inhalation all the more. The same attitude is also reflected in their life, where they lack the ability to let go.
A sure shot and the simplest way to have a good quality breath is to breathe in a 2:1 ratio, i.e. exhalation will be twice in comparison to inhalation. A three second inhalation would require a six second exhalation. Remember not to overdo things as it can be harmful and will aggravate your stress levels. Some of the other ways to practice relaxed breathing are: Bellows breath and Alternate Nostril Breathing.
Breath is the most important requirement for us to be alive. Therefore bad breathing habits, even though go on for 24 hours, can be changed for good.
Breath of Relaxation
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