“When you own your breath, nobody can steal your peace.”
Pay attention. How are you breathing right now? Is it fast and shallow or controlled and deep? Ever since I started practicing yoga (about 7-8 years ago) I noticed the true power of breath focus and breathing exercises (pranayama). I believe we need it now more than ever and I’d like to dedicate this post to Adriene who brought yoga into my life and inspired me to continue with it for so long.
Believe it or not but many of us aren’t even breathing properly. Yup, I said it and I think it all comes down to busy lifestyles we’re leading. It seems like we have time for everything, except ourselves and our own health. Aside from that, the world is currently facing the coronavirus pandemic which is causing all of us extra stress, anxiety and worry. Since breath focus brings many benefits to one’s physical and mental health I found it to be the perfect topic to talk about.
Like I mentioned, many of us breathe in a “wrong” way. What I mean by that is that we tend to breathe very shallowly, which is also referred to as “chest breathing”. This type of breathing draws air only into the upper part of your lungs. Moreover, chest breathing causes an upset in oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange in your body, leading to an increase in heart rate, muscle tension and maybe even dizziness.
On the other hand there is “diaphragmatic breathing” which we should all be practicing. Diaphragmatic breathing is when you take even, deep breaths. This allows you to fill every part of your lungs with air which makes it much easier to supply the rest of your body with oxygen. Remember that when you’re breathing correctly you should feel your stomach and your chest rise and fall.
What Causes Short Breaths
So what causes short breaths? Firstly, let’s clear one thing – I’m not talking about any medical conditions here. (You should always consult your doctor first if you think something’s not right.) I am talking about all those times throughout the day when you take short, shallow breaths and you don’t even realise you’re breathing that way. Like I said earlier, I think it comes down to the busyness of our lives, the pressure we put on ourselves and therefore, stress.
Unfortunately, stressful situations are part of everyday life and we often let them make us feel helpless. They impact our breathing, making it short and shallow, putting us in a fight-or-flight mode where our decisions and the ability to think clearly are affected. If you’re wondering how you can achieve control over such situations the answer is simple. Come back to your breath! By bringing attention and awareness to your breathing you create a more calm state of mind which automatically improves your mental and physical performance.
Breath Focus Benefits
For a long time yogis have used pranayama (controlled, conscious breathing) to improve concentration and vitality. Pranayama exercises help keep your vital energy (prana) balanced and fully flowing throughout your body’s different centers and channels. Luckily, there are many breathing exercises to choose from, depending on how you’re feeling.
Anyhow, don’t think you have to be a yogi to practice pranayama. Your body, willpower and your favourite place in the house are all you need in order to do it. Additionally, don’t get discouraged by thinking you need to practice breathing exercises for 30 minutes each day or something like that. It takes only a few minutes and you’ll be feeling refreshed, recharged, more calm and less anxious. Below is a detailed list of each benefit and best breath focus exercises to go with them.
ANXIETY AND STRESS RELIEF
Anxiety is triggered by stress and when you undergo stressful situations, cortisol, stress hormone is released. Eventually, this leads to the all familiar increased heartbeat, muscle constriction and fast, shallow breaths. When we are feeling anxious or under stress, it’s easy to take such breaths and end up hyperventilating. Instead, try the following breath focus practice.
Firstly, take a big inhale through your nose, then sigh it out! Blow air out through your mouth; exhale, exhale, exhale, until it naturally comes to inhale again. Feel that anxiety and stress leaving your body as you exhale. Take big inhales and let oxygen-rich blood flow to your brain. Breath focus and breathing exercises can decrease the rate at which cortisol is released into your system. Therefore, help you lower anxiety and stress levels.
When you breathe properly, it increases oxygen flow to your brain, which in turn allows your brain to function at its’ optimal levels. It’s no secret that we could all benefit from a little brain boost and better focus. Whether you’re a parent, CEO or a really hardworking person, I bet your to-do list is endless each day and a lot of times it’s hard for you to focus on important things. Luckily, breath focus can help you increase your concentration and retention.
I recommend you choose between these two practices in order to boost your concentration:
- box breathing
- alternate nostril breathing (nadi shodhana)
Box breathing is when you breathe for the same number of counts for each step in the breathing process. That might sound confusing so let me simplify it.
You breathe in for 4 seconds, then retain your breath for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds, retain your breath 4 seconds. And you keep going, just make sure you sit still and upright during this breathing practice. Do it as long as you like but 3-5 minutes should be more than enough to recharge your batteries and make you feel more focused.
On the other side we have nadi shodhana, alternate nostril breathing. Aside from improving concentration and focus, this breathing technique is also great to practice when you have a headache or feeling anxious. Furthermore, it’s a great way to relax your brain and body and to make you more mindful of the present moment.
Sit in a comfortable position, either with your legs crossed or sitting on your knees. Sit tall and place your left hand on your left knee. Bring your right hand towards your nose and make a shaka sign with it (the hang loose sign). This is kind of a beginner’s tip but in reality you should be doing this practice with your thumb and ring finger. So if you can, bring the middle finger and point finger in.
Okay, bring your thumb to the right nostril and close it. Now inhale through your left nostril and pause. Take your ring finger and seal your left nostril. Exhale through the right nostril. This time inhale through the right, then seal it with your thumb and exhale through left nostril. Keep this going for a few minutes, alternating between your fingers and your nostrils.
Out of the ways your body gets rid of toxins, breathing accounts for about 70%. With that said, it only works that way when it’s done properly by taking controlled, deep breaths.
As you know, when you breathe oxygen flows through your bloodstream. Oxygen molecules attach to hemoglobin in red blood cells as they’re being carried from your lungs to the rest of the body. Furthermore, oxygen helps your body absorb vitamins and nutrients more efficiently. So when you inhale you’re letting in all this oxygen and as you exhale you’re getting rid of toxins within your body.
Now, if you think logically, the deeper and slower your breaths are the bigger the flow of oxygen is to your body. Your body can harvest more vitamins and nutrients and get rid of more toxins. On the other hand, when your breaths and quick and shallow you utilize about 50% or less of your lungs’ capacity. This can leave a toxic residue in your lungs, which will eventually deplete you of your energy and make you feel sluggish.
A great breathing exercise to release toxins is Kapalabhati breath or as some call it the Breath of Fire. It may seem counter-intuitive because this technique focuses on short strong exhales and passive inhales but it’s such a cleansing breath and once you try it you’ll know what I’m talking about. Without me rambling on too much on how to do it, and probably explaining it wrong, here’s a video you can follow along!
Your nervous system is split into two parts. One part is the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the other is parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). SNS is responsible for your fight-or-flight response and PNS for your rest and relax response. These two parts can’t be turned on at the same time. Meaning if you work on activating one part, the other part will be suppressed. When PNS is dominant your breathing slows, your blood pressure lowers, your heart rate drops and you begin to feel calm.
Deep breathing makes it easy to put your body in a parasympathetic state. It’s kinda like a chill pill for your body and your mind. We could all use one of those when our minds are swarming with thoughts, to-do lists, the ‘what-could-have-been’s’, etc. The simplest, easiest way to calm your mind is to bring attention to your breath. This way you truly live in the present moment, you feel grateful for what you have and your mind is calm. Completely calm, imagine that! No unnecessary thoughts or scenarios in your head because you feel at peace.
My favourite breath focus practice to calm my mind is counting my inhales and exhales from 1 to 10. Try it by sitting in a comfortable position and closing your eyes. Inhale through your nose and quietly whisper ‘one’. As you exhale whisper ‘two’. Keep it going until you reach number 10, but if your mind starts to wonder at any point, begin counting again from number 1. Chances are you’ll love this breathing practice so much you’ll do another round after you reach number 10, and then another one.
Last but not least, breathing exercises can help you feel more energised. We have learned a lot so far on how it all works and what you should and shouldn’t do. Remember what I said before how deep breathing can help balance oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in your blood? That balance is vital for high energy levels and mental alertness. If your breaths are constantly shallow it will lead to an imbalance between those two levels, meaning you may not be getting enough oxygen circulating through the body.
Follow the gif below for this super simple breathing exercise. All you need to do is make sure you’re focusing on diaphragmatic breathing. Meaning you need to engage your lower belly on each inhale and exhale. If it helps, place a hand on your stomach and feel it move outward as you inhale, and back inward, towards your spine, as you exhale.
Hope you enjoyed reading this post as much as I enjoyed writing it. I’m not going to lie but I focused intensely on my breath the whole time I was writing haha! Talk about a win-win. Let me know in the comments what is you favourite breathing technique.
Stay safe, take care, and wash your hands 😉