As a yoga therapist, I see clients with different medical issues, from diabetes to chronic pain to cancer. No matter what they’re dealing with, I always begin by teaching deep abdominal breathing — the way we all breathed when we were babies.
Deep abdominal breathing is one of the most effective ways to quickly reduce stress and unleash the body’s natural vitality. By breathing this way, you calm down the sympathetic nervous system (involved in the body’s “fight or flight” response)… reduce blood levels of stress hormones… increase the body’s blood flow… reduce perception of pain… and induce the body’s relaxation response, resulting in a slower heart rate, lower blood pressure, less muscle tension and a feeling of greater well-being.
These are powerful effects. If you’re practicing breathing exercises but aren’t getting these benefits, or tried them before but quit, you may simply be doing them improperly.
SOFTEN YOUR BODY
Abdominal breathing doesn’t require a determined effort. You simply draw breath into the lower part of your lungs, the way babies do. I teach my clients to visualize their lungs as two big balloons that expand and contract in six directions when they inhale — front to back, top to bottom and side to side.
How to do it: Sit comfortably with one hand on your abdomen and the other on your chest. On an inhalation, breathe down to the deepest portion of your lungs, so that your belly rounds out into your hand as you fill with breath. On the exhalation, your belly gently contracts and your hand moves in. Continue for several slow, deep breaths, observing the out-and-in movement of your belly, while the hand at your chest stays relatively still. It may help to start by lying down and placing a book on your belly so that it rises and falls with each inhalation and exhalation.
People often mistakenly think that abdominal breathing involves “gulping” air — taking big, swift inhalations. On the contrary, one of the most important aspects of abdominal breathing is that it slows and deepens the breath.
Why that’s important: Slowing your breathing is the key to calming your nervous system and increasing oxygen flow throughout your body. One study of menopausal women, for example, found that lowering their breathing rates to seven to eight breath cycles (inhalations and exhalations) per minute, down from an average of 15 to 16, reduced hot flashes by about 50%.
To achieve this slow breathing rate, count slowly to five during each inhalation and again during each exhalation.
MAKE EXHALATIONS LONGER THAN INHALATIONS
Once you’re accustomed to the feeling of relaxed abdominal breathing, I recommend gradually extending your exhalation until it’s twice as long as your inhalation. Start by exhaling to a count of five, then work up to seven and finally to 10. Doing this triggers another deep-seated response — when you take longer to breathe out than in, it signals your brain that all is well, amplifying the relaxation effect.
BREATHE THROUGH YOUR NOSE
If you have chronic congestion or other nasal obstruction, this may not be possible. But if you’re able to breathe comfortably through your nose, this will help you control your breathing rate better while also ensuring the air you breathe is optimally warmed, moistened and filtered — all functions the nose is designed to perform.
PRACTICE IN A RELAXING ENVIRONMENT
Pick a calm, relaxing setting when first learning this technique. Choose a time when you don’t have pressing concerns or deadlines. Select a place that’s quiet, comfortable and free of distractions. Then spend at least several minutes exploring the techniques outlined above.
As you become more experienced with abdominal breathing, you can begin practicing it throughout the day — including when you awaken or go to sleep or during stressful situations, such as sitting in a traffic jam.
EMPLOY A MANTRA
Once you’ve become comfortable with your practice of inhalation and exhalation, I recommend adding mantras that you can recite to yourself while breathing. This is often more interesting and can be even more effective — because you can choose a mantra with meaning to you or one that reinforces a desired emotional state.
Examples: The mantra offered by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, Breathing in, I calm myself. Breathing out, I smile. Or the Dorothy mantra, There’s no place like home. You also can use a favorite phrase or make up a phrase to fit the situation, such as In energy, out fatigue or In peace, out anger.
Begin by repeating your mantra silently, once while inhaling and once while exhaling. Then play with extending your exhalation to cover two repetitions of the mantra. Feel free to change mantras whenever you want.