The one constant. Always there. Always available. The breath. The only tool to mindfulness that we need. It’s like a direct line to the nervous system, calming the mind, calming the body. Deep, conscious breathing has been scientifically proven to have a positive affect on heart rate, blood pressure, mental well-being, state of mind, even reducing inflammation and strengthening the immune system.
The power of the breath can be traced back to ancient systems of knowledge. In the yogic philosophy working with the breath is termed pranayama, which translates as extending the life force, but can be thought of more simply as controlling the breath. Implicit here is the very concept that by controlling the breath one can extend one’s life quality, both in body and mind.
However, there is no pre-requisite to have studying yoga to work with the breath. A knowledge of the cleansing and purifying yoga kriyas is not needed. How to do a strong kapalabhati or sustained nadi shodhana is not required. Here we are talking about simple, basic breath-work, which brings amazing results, pretty much immediately.
Before sharing these three simple breath methods, a bit of context. Within the body is the Autonomic Nervous System, which has two parts - the sympathetic and the parasympathetic systems. The first is more commonly known as the fight or flight response and the latter, the rest and digest response. The way in which we breathe has a direct effect on these systems. Shallow breathing sets off the sympathetic nervous system, the stress response, making it a habit for our bodies to be in a state of stress and high alert. Compare this with deep, conscious breathing, which stimulates the parasympathetic system, triggering the body to go into a state of relaxation. When we breath slowly and deeply, we sooth the Vagus nerve, bringing about a feeling of calm and reducing any stress and anxiety. It’s pretty obvious which type of breathing is better for us long term, yet it is reported that when breathing normally, without intention, most people’s breath is very shallow, not even using half of the full lung capacity, maybe even just 40%. The thing we do, all day, every day, simultaneously building a habit of being in the stress state.
Introducing simple, daily, breath-work exercises, can literally change our experience of life. Which makes that definition of pranayama - extending the life force - resonate even further. As they say in India, purna shakti, full power. So let’s get on to talking about a few different techniques.
Beginning with a very quick and easy, yet transformative technique - the AH breath. Basically a deep inhalation through the nose, followed by an open mouthed exhalation, like a sigh of contentment, using the Ah sound. Ahhhhhh. This is the sound of the heart chakra, and one you will surely note comes naturally when we are feeling relaxed, or in a state of pleasure or enjoyment, or even witnessing something nice. We often use Ahhhh to communicate positive regard. This sound can be thought of as a mantra, emanating from the heart-space, nurturing compassion. When we use this consciously, as part of a conscious breath cycle, it triggers that rest and digest response into activation. It stimulates that Vagus nerve.
This type of breath is a good one to use when settling down into a relaxing activity, maybe snuggling into the sofa for a movie or a book; maybe when sliding into a hot bubble bath; maybe after removing one’s shoes when returning from work or running errands. A very quick and easy way to trick the body into giving you those feel-good, relaxed vibes. Give it a try.
Second breath, the counting breath. Another very easy one to get into the habit of using. Simply, inhaling and exhaling through the nose, and playing around with the duration of each, comparatively, generally using a 1:2 ratio. If the inhalation if three seconds, the exhalation is for six seconds. Or maybe you inhale for the count of four, exhale for the count of eight. Whatever works for you, just keeping the focus on ensuring the exhalation is longer than the inhalation. Here we are working deeper into the Vagus nerve with that extended exhalation; more time, more stimulation, more feelings of relaxation.
This type of breath is excellent is to practice when you are engaged in an activity, keeping the mind calm, clear and focussed. Reading, cooking, walking, sewing, painting, drawing, watching TV, whatever the activity, nurturing the habit of remembering to breath in this way will bring about more presence, more feelings of contentment and focus, and more activation of the ‘flow state’ - that state of mind where we are completely, mindful engaged in the task at hand. See how it works.
Third breath technique, the diaphragm breath, or belly breathing, as it may be more colloquially known. This breath involves filling the belly with air on the inhalation, focusing on the contraction of the diaphragm, expanding the lung capacity. Here the breath enters through the nose, but the chest remains relatively still, and it is only the belly which rises and falls. This is the natural state in which babies will breath, big Buddha bellies filling with air, diaphragm helping the lungs to be filled to their optimum. The inhalation and exhalation both remain with the nose, no open mouth breathing. You can apply the counting method here also. Take it even deeper. That is the great thing about breath work, with practice we become more able to breathe longer, deeper breaths and breath retentions, which allows us to further explore the inner space and how deep we can go in to that place of quiet and calm inside the mind.
Belly breathing is incredibly effective at lowering the heart rate, blood pressure, and calming the mind. It’s great one to do in times of physical or emotional stress, anytime things creep in and start to get to much, taking a few deep, belly breaths can help you regain control of the emotions. It’s also a great one to do at the start of a meditation or the start of an activity which requires concentration and focus. Think of it as priming the mind. Give it a go.
Finally, the fourth technique I want to share, what I call the three-part breath. Now, here, imagine the lung is in three sections, lower, middle and upper. The first part of the inhalation fills the lower lung, the middle of the inhalation fills the mid-lung and the end of the inhalation fills the top and we use this visualisation alongside the breath, working towards filling to maximum capacity. Again, inhaling through the nose, imagine the breath like liquid gold filling up the lung. Lower, middle, upper, all the way to the top filling every last bit of space inside the lung. And then when the need comes to exhale, let it go, slowly, steadily, through the nose, emptying all the air out of the lungs. Then you go again, lower, middle, upper, and each time visualise taking in more and more air. Then at the top of the breath, you let go and slowly surrender with the exhalation, with that sinking feeling of relaxation. Here the breath becomes like a wave, rising and falling. As we breath in, the wave rises, growing taller, larger, and then there is a moment at the top before it break and crashes back down, and then a pause, before it rises up again. Here it becomes almost a meditation in itself, holding the focus on the point at the top and the bottom of the breath, a moment of complete utter, stillness before the breath moves again.
You can also take this breath deeper by adding a period of retention at each end of the breath. At the end of the inhalation, when you can't take in any more air, hold it, for three seconds, absolute stillness, absolute calm; and then release, exhale, let it all go, empty the lungs, and then hold it at the bottom, for three seconds, holding with the lungs empty. Then breath in again, filling the lung in the three parts, and hold it, pause, complete awareness, no breath, complete mental focus, and repeat. The length of the retention can be increased. Four seconds. Six seconds. Longer periods of complete stillness, meditation and awareness. This one can be powerful.
This is a great one to try when lying in bed at night before going to sleep, putting the mind and body in a deep state of calm, anchoring the mind in the physical, reducing the frequency of incessant thoughts, nurturing peace and quiet within.
Give any of these a try, see how you get on, play around with the breath and see how you can elevate your levels of calm, becoming less reactive, more grounded, less anxious. Calm is a superpower, and the breath is the key, unlock this pure potential.