Breathing is involuntary. We don’t need to think about it, so most of the time we don’t. In yoga, when we use specific exercises to control breathing, it’s called breathwork. In Sanskrit, an ancient language of India, prana means “breath,” or “life-force,” and ayama means “expansion.” Thus, our breathing practice is pranayama. The way it works is simple.
Join us for a Mindfulness and Movement Practice for Breathwork: 41 mins
Pay Close Attention Here
Place your hand on your belly. Take a deep breath. Notice how your muscles move when you inhale and exhale? You’re doing it! Keep moving your belly, overexaggerating the movement by pulling your abs in and pushing out your stomach. Keep it up and keep reading.
On the inhale, the diaphragm (large, thin, dome-shaped muscle that sits at the base of the chest) moves downward and the intercostal muscles (the muscles between the ribs) expand so the lungs have room for more air. As we exhale, we’re moving carbon dioxide out of the body. The diaphragm lifts back up and the intercostal muscles contract, expelling all the air out of our bodies.
Within seconds, you have lowered your heart rate, enhanced the flow of oxygen into every part of your body, and sent messages to your brain that you are safe. Are you feeling a bit more calm than you did five seconds ago? If you noticed anything as you read the last paragraph, it’s a win! Paying attention to your breath, for even just a moment, is awareness. That’s It.
Take a Minute
Try This Box Breath Exercise before a Test:
This exercise increases focus, awareness, and observation. Facilitator sets a timer for four minutes. Sit in an easy criss-cross position with your sit bones on the earth and your spine tall and lifted up toward the sky. Inhale for a count of four, hold the inhale for a count of four, exhale for a count of four, and pause at the bottom of the exhale for a count of four.
You are building a pattern and rhythm for your breathing like a box: inhale up one side of the box, hold across the next side, exhale down the other side, and finally hold for the final side. Then, begin again. This helps the body and the systems know what is coming next. It calms anxiety and builds stamina while continuing to flood the body with fresh oxygen for the brain.
Mindful breathing links our breath with our brain. The word yoga means “yoke” or “union.” It’s very yoga to do this breathing practice, with your mind and your breath connected. Yoked. Linked. You get it. The thing is, we need to outsmart our own brains. They are busy working non-stop, constantly trying to protect us from stressors, the big bad monsters in our heads that send us into anxious spirals.
Our breath is the key. We can create calm within the storms of our everyday life. Just by sighing. Hmmm. That’s it. One good sigh, once in a while, allows our nervous system to recover. Repeat after me as many times as you can throughout your day: Hmm.
Mind is the master of senses and breath is the master of the mind. The mind cannot be restrained without restraining the breath – mental activity keeps pace with respiration.
When Breathing Goes to Your Brain
“One of the oldest, and arguably, most efficient treatments of excessive stress is controlled breathing. Various types of techniques that involve slow, deep breathing such as yoga, pranayama, and some forms of meditation, have been practiced throughout history to increase well-being,” states a 2015 scientific article entitled ‘Self-Regulation of Breathing as a Primary Treatment for Anxiety.’2
Taking a test is like driving down a highway with SUVs and trucks speeding alongside us at 60 mph—a normal part of life, right? But our primitive brains are freaking out, responding with, “Big saber-toothed tiger on the left! Send the adrenaline to run away from that one fast!”
It’s the same thing when we sit down to take a test. Our brains are like, “Woah, scary mammoth!” Our systems are flooded with hormones that make it hard to think. Your body is getting ready to run or fight. Your muscles are tight. You’re starting to sweat. But as much as you might want to, you can’t run away from this test.
Some students view tests as major threats and are probably slightly holding their breath. But have no fear! Our respiratory system is amazing. As students freeze up, worried about their smarts, the intelligence of their respiratory system is ready to take charge. It’s constantly gauging the appropriate levels of CO2 in the bloodstream, about to kick in a deep breath when the levels get too low.
So no matter how long you try to hold your breath, your body is looking after you and will automatically kick back into gear. Have you ever held your breath long enough that you thought you were going to pass out or even did pass out? The body knows exactly what to do when this happens. Messages are sent back to the brain, encouraging the respiratory system to bring you back to your conscious state.
It’s very nice of the respiratory system and the brain to keep us alive like that, but in some ways, they can cause more problems. It’s our brain that’s the most troublesome. We need to trick it into stopping its constant protection, especially before a test. You can literally control the chemicals that flow through your brain. You know what peacefulness and calm feel like, right?
Let’s flip a switch and feel it, even in the midst of pretest turmoil. Send the message to your brain, “Release the feel-good hormones! Serotonin! Dopamine! Flood the system!”
Breath is life. The sweet spot. The place where we can heal, have new ideas, and feel connected, more alive. Let’s become more aware of it and ace this test.
Recap: So now we know … Taking shallow breaths and constricting our diaphragm can induce anxiety attacks and illness. A new normal. Ugh. But one good sigh, once in a while, allows our nervous system to recover. Hmmm.
Now imagine you could pay attention to your breath at the same time as controlling negative thoughts. Breathe in positivity, let go of self-criticism, negative thinking, or even anger. That’s meditation, which takes mindfulness and connected calm to a whole new level.
10 Breathwork Exercises
When you’re feeling stressed, emotional, or confused, try a few of these breathing exercises.
Take your time. There is no rush. You are learning to breathe in new and different ways. Play around with them and get comfortable with a few. The ones listed with their ancient Sanskrit name have been especially helpful since ancient times. All of them begin by sitting in an easy criss-cross position with your sit bones on the earth and your spine tall, and lifted up toward the sky.
Place your hand on your belly. Inhale and notice how your diaphragm moves down and your belly presses into your hands. As you exhale, release the air and pull your belly button towards your spine. This exercise can help you be more sensitive to the touch of your own hand and feel more grounded.
This exercise can be very helpful for anxiety. The four-count rhythm of the breath allows you to anticipate what’s coming next. Begin by inhaling to the count of four, then hold your breath for the count of four. Exhale to the count of four and pause after the exhale to the count of four. Imagine a square. Inhale and exhale from corner to corner. Repeat until you feel calm.
Imagine you have risen above your body and are now looking down from a new point of view. Your work is to notice your breathing as if you were tuning in to your favorite TV channel. Slowly inhale and exhale for 10 breaths. What do you sense about your breath? Is it warm? Does it have texture? Where do you feel it inside and outside of your body? Notice the limited amount of work you are doing. Your body is breathing for you. Witness your thoughts come and go. Continue with 10 more breaths.
This breath focuses on the air moving in and out through the nose, creating an equal balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide. Once in through the nostrils, the breath moves across the back of the throat, creating a sound similar to the ocean or Darth Vader’s breathing. You can breathe into your hand like you are fogging up a mirror, and this will create a similar action. The sounds are mesmerizing and rhythmic, and are meant to focus you, not become a distraction. This breath pattern is a perfect partner to your movement practice, building efficiency, stamina, and grace. With the consistent sound of our breath, we can become mesmerized and tuned into our own breathing. Noticing the sound and rhythm of our breath allows us to move in rhythm with other things in our lives.
Alternate Nostril Breathing
This breathing exercise includes your dominant hand and fingers, specifically the thumb and ring finger. Bring your hand up in front of your face, keeping it relaxed. Take a deep breath and press down the left nostril with your ring finger, and exhale out the right nostril. Inhale through the right nostril and then use the thumb, to press the right nostril and exhale out the left side. Inhale through the left nostril, press down on the left nostril and exhale through the right nostril. Continue for 6-8 rounds. This improves the mind’s ability to focus, connecting the right and left sides of the brain. It also helps to regulate the nervous system and instantly lowers blood pressure.
This one is also called Breath of Fire, or Kapala, meaning “skull,” and Bhati, “shining.” Focus your attention on quick exhale breaths, allowing yourself to inhale naturally. Do three rounds with 21 exhales in each round. This increases oxygen and blood supply to all parts of the body, rejuvenating your energy and brainpower for athletics or meeting up with a friend. It strengthens the lungs and their capacity for breath, stimulates the brain, and regulates the nervous system.
Place your palms down on your lap. Anchor your lower body. The breath moves in and out of the body rapidly with the pumping action of the belly in and out. Like stoking a fire with air, the breath is stoked with oxygen, quick in and quick out. Equal breathing with quick inhales and equally quick exhales. The breath stays low in the belly so that the belly muscles help pump the breath in and out of the body. This generates a lot of heat in the body. Remember the “Awareness” part of the 4 As? This helps us let go of and shift unhelpful thoughts and patterns when we become aware of them. It improves blood circulation, brings balance to our nervous system, and strengthens our immunity.
Against the Flow
(Viloma, 3 part breath)
The three parts of the body we’re concentrating on in this exercise are the belly, rib cage, and upper chest. Split the breath into these three parts, focusing on the inhale first. Inhale the breath in thirds, through each of the three parts, starting with the belly and pausing at the top. Then exhale it all out to a count of six. Three rounds here. Then reverse it and inhale to a count of six, exhaling in thirds, again starting with the belly, for a total of six rounds of breath. This strengthens our lungs and our capacity for breathing, settling the nervous system and reducing thoughts and sensations of anxiety.
(Bhramari, the goddess of black bees)
Imagine becoming the goddess of black bees, Bhramari, who just blocked the swords of many demons in a battle. As you inhale, place your index and middle fingers in your ears, quieting down other sounds. As you exhale, hum the whole exhale and listen to the sound. With three rounds you can reset your nervous system and change your mood. Since our bodies are made up of mostly water, it’s possible to feel the vibration moving through you like ripples on the surface of a pond.
Sleepy Time Breath
I would love for you to enjoy this breathing practice lying down. This is a perfect breath exercise for getting really quiet, taking a power rest, or settling yourself before you sleep. Inhale for the count of 4, pause for the count of 7, and slowly exhale to the count of 8. I bet you lose track when you focus on this breath, and that is the point. It is a wonderful tool to help you potentially fall asleep. Focusing on this breath allows the body to settle, preparing it for deep rest by signaling the autonomic nervous system’s Rest and Digest mode to kick in, keeping you healthy, rested, and on track with life.
Our breath is what allows us to become awake, aware, and present within each moment. Paying attention to your breath, for even just a few seconds, is awareness. Take a big sigh to refresh your nervous system and rejuvenate your lungs: Haaa.
Slowing down to take a deep breath allows us to self-regulate so we can respond versus react. Breathwork exercises are the building blocks to developing strategies to change our emotional state.