You have a naturally inbuilt function within you, available to you 24×7, which when utilized consciously can calm you in any situation, whether you are experiencing stress, fear or anxiety. It is actually something you do every day, without even thinking about it. Breathing…
You don’t need to be consciously aware to breathe. It just happens as an instinctive process. However, there is a vital difference between ordinary, unconscious, instinctive breathing and what we will call Conscious Breathing.
Conscious Breathing means to choose with your awareness to focus all of your attention on your breathing and to breathe in particular ways – consciously controlling, deepening and lengthening your breath, to support your holistic well-being. I first learnt about this in yoga, and later had the message reinforced to me by the beautiful health and well-being expert Dr Libby who often shares about the transformational impact of deep breathing.
The technique, in its various forms, has had a life changing impact on me. I now practise it pro-actively every morning and every night, as well as reactively in response to stressful situations, varying the specific kind of conscious breathing to suit my situation and mood.
Are You Trapped?
Most people spend their day to day life in shallow breath. This means short breath cycles which do not fully tap the power of their breathing capacity. One of the results of short and shallow breathing is that you feel trapped in your ribcage, experiencing a sense of tightness, restriction, limitation and tension in your upper torso. This leads to feeling less vitality in your body. You may not be consciously aware of this yet, but once you begin to use Conscious Breathing in your daily life, you will soon notice the drastic difference you feel if you forget or omit to do it for a few days!
What is most important to understand about breathing is that you are utilising both your lungs and your diaphragm in each breath. Your diaphragm is the muscle located between the chest cavity and abdominal cavity. As air enters your lungs, your diaphragm moves down, and your belly gently rises. As air exits your lungs, your diaphragm moves up and your belly gently falls. With shallow lung breathing, you are not exercising the full capacity and power of your lungs and diaphragm to give you the most empowered breathing experience. It often feels like you are using the top half of your torso to breathe, rather than using your entire chest and abdominal area.
So Conscious Breathing is about utilising both your lungs and your diaphragm in their fullness, in order to maximise the benefits of your breathing. Conscious Breathing is also known as deep breathing, diaphragmatic breathing, abdominal breathing or belly breathing. The focus is on relaxing your abdomen and letting your belly rise and fall with the movement of your breath. If you pay close attention to the subtle movement of your body as the air moves into your lungs, you will notice your belly expand first, then your lower rib cage and then your upper chest – the fullness of one breath is like a balloon being inflated from down in your abdomen up to the top of your lungs.
If you’ve ever watched a baby breathing, you will notice this belly rise and fall motion is their natural state. You can practise Conscious Breathing to take you back to that optimal, natural state for breathing at any time.
Breathe into Calm
There are many benefits of Conscious Breathing. However, the one powerful benefit for physical, mental and emotional well-being, is that Conscious Breathing supports the brain/body to switch into relaxation response mode (instead of fight or flight response), which makes Conscious Breathing highly effective for countering stress, fear and anxiety.
Here are seven different ways you can practise Conscious Breathing in your daily life. I recommend picking one technique to master to begin with, and then enjoy drawing upon the different techniques for variety and fun. Practise for at least five minutes every day.
1. Standard Belly Breathing
Standing, sitting or lying flat on your back, place both your hands gently on your belly so that you will be able to easily feel your belly moving. Relax your belly. You may practise this with eyes open or eyes closed. Close your mouth and inhale through your nose slowly and deeply and allow your belly to gently rise as do so. Exhale through your nose slowly and deeply and allow your belly to gently fall as you do so.
You can breathe this way for as long you as wish, to bring yourself to a state of physical relaxation, mental and emotional calm, and even a sense of overall vitality. The beauty of belly breathing is that you can do it anywhere, any time. It is an always accessible, effective and reliable tool to employ whenever you feel negative emotions.
2. Lengthening Breathing
Utilising the standard belly breathing technique above, once you feel comfortable with the natural motion of your belly rising and falling, focus now on inhaling slowly and deeply to the count of three, and exhaling slowly and deeply to the count of three. Repeat this 10 times. Next, focus on inhaling slowly and deeply to the count of four, and exhaling slowly and deeply to the count of four. Repeat this 10 times. Next, focus on inhaling slowly and deeply to the count of five, and exhaling slowly and deeply to the count of five. Repeat this 10 times. Finally, focus on inhaling slowly and deeply to the count of six, and exhaling slowly and deeply to the count of six.
If you wish to make this a more meditative practise, you can close your eyes while breathing and counting. However, you can effectively practise this lengthening breathing in any environment, at any time.
3. Ocean Breathing
Utilising the standard belly breathing technique, focus on drawing the air against the back of your nasal cavity and throat along the airway into the lungs as you slowly and deeply inhale and exhale, to make a noticeable sound as you breathe. It is the sound you might imagine hearing if you put a seashell to your ear, hence the name “Ocean” breathing. It is also the sound you might imagine hearing from someone who is breathing loudly as they sleep, you can hear their breath drawing in and out of their airways.
As you relax your belly, letting it rise and fall to your inhales and exhales, place all of your attention on the sound of your breathing. This can be a meditative practise with your eyes closed.
4. Countdown Breathing
Utilising the standard belly breathing technique, focus on counting your breathing, starting at 100, counting down to 1. Each inhale is one count, each exhale is one count. Breathe in 100, breathe out 99, breathe in 98, breathe out 97, breathe in 96, breathe out 95 and so on.
This is a meditative practise best done with your eyes closed either sitting or laying flat. The counting allows you to keep your mind focused, and the challenge of counting backwards keeps your attention keenly on your mind/body connection.
5. Sniff & Pant Breathing
This technique is energising and relieves tension, and is best practised in a seated position. Sit up straight, place your hands in your lap and close your mouth to begin. Completely relax your belly so that it naturally will rise and fall in sync with your breathing. Your inward breath will be four short, sharp inhales through the nose and your outward breath will be one long, loud and empowered “ha” sounding breath out of your mouth to empty your lungs. Think of “4 sniffs and one pant”.
This can be practised for whatever length of time you wish. You may notice yourself feeling light headed with the increased oxygen from short, sharp, consecutive inhales. You can stop the breathing at any time if you feel dizzy, and remain sitting in a relaxed seated position until that sensation dissipates. Do not practise this technique if you already feel light headed, nor if you have any health conditions that may be adversely affected by it.
6. Alternate Nostril Breathing
This technique is best practised sitting. Rest your left hand on your left upper leg, and raise your right hand up to your forehead. Place the tips of both your index and middle fingers together between your eyebrows. Now rest your thumb on your right nostril, and rest both your ring and little fingers on your left nostril. You will be using these fingers to open and close the nostrils during this breathing technique, keeping your mouth closed the entire time. To begin, press your thumb down on your right nostril to close it and exhale fully out of your left nostril. Inhale slowly and deeply through your left nostril, and at the peak of your inhale press your ring and little finger down on the left nostril to close it and release your thumb from the right nostril, then exhale out slowly and deeply through the right nostril. Now, inhale slowly and deeply through your right nostril, and at the peak of your inhale press your thumb down on the right nostril to close it and release your ring and little finger from the left nostril, then exhale out slowly and deeply through the left nostril.
Repeat this process, breathing out and in one nostril, then switching to breathe out and in the alternate nostril. Whenever you exhale out one nostril, you always inhale through that same nostril, before switching.
This technique, once you are familiar with the instructions, is best practised with your eyes closed.
7. Mantra Breathing
Utilising the standard belly breathing technique, your consciousness awareness can be placed on a life-affirming and empowering mantra. Write down two short, simple and positive statements that reinforce the way you want to feel.
For example, “I am relaxed” and “I am confident”. As you inhale through your nose, state your first mantra to yourself (within your mind). As you exhale through your nose, state your second mantra to yourself (within your mind). For example, breathe in “I am relaxed” and breathe out “I am confident”. Repeat this over and over again for as long as you wish. This connects soul, mind and body.
Start Conscious Breathing Now…
Match your breathing rhythm to the expansion and contraction of the image below. Breathe into calm.
For the Children in Your Life
If you have children, or know of any children, who you notice get wound into their emotions – upset, fear, anxiety or frustration – you might like to share this Elmo Sesame Street short video with them, as Elmo sings about “Belly Breathing” with Colbie Caillat & Common.