The Power of Breath
Simple practices with big impacts
By Sarahlynn M. Etta, Yoga and Meditation Teacher
One of the most accessible, affordable, and yet most powerful tools we have available for self-care, is with us every moment of every day. Deep breathing calms and regulates the nervous system, and helps the body return to homeostasis. Yet many of us are stuck in shallow breathing patterns!
The Benefits of Breath
Engaging in regular breathing exercises may help to:
Improve mood and support mood regulation
Improve focus and enhance memory
Decrease anxiety and alleviate the symptoms of stress
Improve sleep quality
Support the immune system
Decrease pain sensitivity
Boost energy and improve metabolism
Improve lung capacity and exercise stamina
Improve cardiovascular fitness and blood pressure
Deep abdominal breathing stimulates the vagus nerve. High vagal tone is correlated with improved physical and psychological well-being, improved cognitive function, improved mood, improved glucose regulation, reduced inflammation, and the ability to regulate the nervous system and cope with stressors. Stimulating the vagus nerve also improves heart rate variability, which further increases your resilience to stress.
Mindfulness is the act of observing what is. Just breathing naturally, using the breath as a focal point for the thoughts, creates positive changes in the brain.
Try this: Sit or lie comfortably. Make no effort to control your breath; simply focus your attention on the sensations that arise with each inhalation and exhalation. Notice the movement of your body as you breathe. Observe your chest, shoulders, rib cage and belly. Set a timer for two to 10 minutes. When your mind wanders, return your focus to your breath.
To reap the maximum benefits for both mind and body, engage in an intentional breathing practice. This involves consciously changing the rhythm, pattern or depth of the breath, and different exercises have different intentions.
Try this: Sitting at the edge of a chair, find a tall posture and relaxed shoulders. Breathe in and out fully through the nose. Count the length of your inhale and the length of your exhale. Begin to deepen each inhale, adding an additional second or two in length. Begin to slow your exhale, so it is slightly longer than your inhale.
Consider adding a brief hold of the breath. At the top of your inhale (when lungs are completely full), hold the breath for two to three seconds. At the bottom of your exhale (with lungs empty), hold two to three seconds if comfortable.
Set a timer for two to 10 minutes. Continue long, slow inhales and exhales through the nose, with or without breath retention.
How Much is Enough?
Try to practice at least a few minutes every day! Choosing the same time(s) and place(s) every day will help form a habit.
If you can, strive for the The “365 Method”—at least three times a day, breathe at a rhythm of six cycles per minute (five seconds inhaling, five seconds exhaling). Breathe this way for five minutes. And do this every day, 365 days a year!
Sarahlynn Etta is owner, movement educator and meditation guide at Maitri Movement & Massage. For more breathing exercises, or to sign up for a workshop, please visit MaitriMovement.com/breath.