We breathe in and out 25,000 times a day without giving it a thought. But experts say that our breathing patterns mirror our emotional, mental and physical state, and they change depending on our feelings, thoughts and the type of activity we are engaged in. That’s where mindful breathing exercises come in – helping to reduce stress and lower feelings of anxiety.
During times of crisis, deep breathing is one of the best ways to lower stress in the body. “Stability and consistency under pressure rely on robust nervous and endocrine systems supported by good breathing,” says Companies in Motion Claire Dale, author of Physical Intelligence (£14.99, Simon & Schuster).
What is mindful breathing?
Breathing techniques feature in countless therapeutic forms and practices, from yoga, mindfulness and meditation, to self-help exercises for managing anxiety, insomnia and overwhelm. How we breathe can have profound physiological effects, triggering changes in our heart rate and brain chemistry and in turn our conscious state.
And it’s been catching on in the mainstream, particularly over this past year. According to Google, 2019 saw a 219% rise in searches for breathing apps – a trend that’s predicted to keep growing.
Even better news? Breathing exercises are something all of us can do for free, by ourselves, whenever and wherever we feel like it. There are lots of different techniques and approaches out there and they might not all be for you – if something isn’t working or doesn’t appeal, try something else.
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Mindful breathing exercises – how to breathe
“If we are breathing effectively, air enters the lower two-thirds of the lungs and we take in enough to fuel the body and the brain, breathing diaphragmatically,” says Dale.
When our breath is shallow, which is also known as clavicular breathing, she says that the collarbones (clavicles) move up and down, and only the top third of the lungs fill.
“During this type of breathing, our thoughts, feelings and actions become more erratic; we can’t think as clearly under pressure or balance our emotions as easily. We are far less stable.”
Why is mindful breathing important?
In addition to keeping us alive by supplying oxygen, the action of breathing rids our body of toxic waste.
“Every time we breathe, the stomach, intestines, liver, spleen and kidneys are displaced by the movement of the diaphragm and the expansion of the lungs, leaving us less prone to toxins building up around our organs, which could cause disease and poor digestion,” says Dale.
“Also, the solar plexus – a spaghetti junction of nerves situated near the spine behind the stomach (an emotional centre) – becomes stimulated by the movement of the diaphragm, enabling us to feel our emotions more strongly.
“If our breathing technique is poor, the diaphragm becomes locked too tightly around the solar plexus, leading us to hold back feelings, procrastinate and perhaps even delay making important decisions.”
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Mindful breathing exercises – three to try
Here, Dale shares a few simple breathing exercises that can help to keep you cool, calm and collected…
1. Stress buster
“At least ten minutes of daily paced breathing can help to keep cortisol levels under control.
“Breathe diaphragmatically, in through the nose, out through the mouth with a steady count in and steady count out. Your in and out counts don’t have to match.
“A longer out-breath helps to dispel CO2, which increases cortisol if it builds up in the base of the lungs. Paced breathing with a longer out-breath is called ‘recovery breathing’, and is especially helpful if you’re feeling panicked.”
2. Energy hit
“To give yourself an instant energy hit, choose a fast breathing pace – briskly filling and emptying the lungs, and counting, for example, two in and two out.
“This boosts the levels of a chemical in our body called DHEA, which gives us lasting energy reserves that power us steadily forwards.”
3. Sleep solver
“Stretching stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system and relaxes you.
“One great pre-sleep stretch to try is prayer position or child’s pose. Kneel and place your hands on the floor just in front of you. Walk your hands forward slowly, folding your chest over your thighs.
“Widen your knees and enjoy the back stretch as you walk your arms forwards.
“If you are supple enough, your head may rest on the floor (if not, use a cushion). Let your neck relax and simply breathe. This promotes slower, deeper breathing to imitate the sleeping breath.”
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When to use mindful breathing exercises
For even more mindful breathing exercises, we spoke to three breathing experts talk through some simple ways to give it a go…
1. To help tackle high-stress situations…
“When we are under pressure or in the midst of a high-stress situation, the breath naturally becomes fast and shallow, and more centred in the chest. This happens as a result of the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response, which is crucial in times of imminent danger, but not helpful in other everyday situations,” says Dominique Antiglio, a sophrologist at BeSophro clinics and author of The Life-Changing Power Of Sophrology.
“To relax the nervous system, use a technique called abdominal breathing to shift the breathing from your chest down to your tummy, where you can breathe more deeply, slowly and calmly. This in turn helps to relax your muscles and slow down any racing thoughts, so you can think more clearly. The next time you experience an intense or anxiety-inducing experience, engage this form of deep breathing and notice how much calmer and controlled you feel after only a few minutes.”
To do it, she suggests finding a seat if possible, although it can also be done standing up or lying down if needs. “Place one hand on your chest, the other on your tummy, and close your eyes. Breathe in and out naturally a few times to establish your rhythm and as you do so, notice the movement of your hands,” Antiglio adds. “Then, when you’re ready, imagine you have a balloon where your tummy is, and as you inhale, the balloon starts to inflate, then as you exhale, the balloon deflates.
“Count the length of your in-breath and breathe out to twice the length – so in for three counts and out for six. Repeat this process mindfully for two to three minutes and you will notice your breath naturally starts to shift from the chest to the tummy. You can also continue to do this for as long as you need in order to feel calm and re-centred again.”
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2. If you’re curious about mindful meditation…
For yoga teacher and breathwork leader Sapphire Leena Brown, who runs group breathwork workshops across the UK and beyond, mindful breathing exercises are at the centre of her personal approach to wellness and working with clients.
For those curious about harnessing the breath in mindfulness meditation, she suggests giving this exercise by international lecturer, researcher and author Dr Joe Dispenza a go.
“Begin by sitting down, with your back straight, and start to focus on your breath. As you inhale, breathe in long and slow. During the ‘in’ breath, pull in your perineum (the muscles beneath your tailbone and pelvic floor), then your lower abdomen and finally your upper abdomen,” she explains. “Do all this while imagining that you are pulling up the ‘kundalini’ energy from your sacrum – like sucking it through a straw. When your lungs are full to the max, you pull in the perineum and the belly muscles even more. Squeeze and hold the breath here for as long as you can. Exhale and start all over again.”
She suggests starting with doing this for just three minutes then slowly building up as you become more “familiar and relaxed” with the technique.
3. If you’re prone to anxiety…
Joel Jelen, founder of Reset Breathing which runs workplace wellbeing workshops, notes that hyperventilation, or over-breathing, is a big factor in anxiety and mindful breathing exercises can help. This is something we can all benefit from keeping in mind, and Jelen says it’s not just the pace of your breathing that matters but also using your nose.
“The foundation of good health is to breathe slowly, through the nose only, silent – never take deep breaths, sigh or yawn with your mouth open,” he says. “In fact, breathe as often through your mouth as you eat through your nose! Mouth breathing when not exercising causes anxiety and puts us in a state of fight or flight.
“A great way to reduce anxiety is to regularly employ a Buteyko (pronounces ‘boo-tay-ko’) breathing technique involving many small breath holds,” Jelen suggests. “Exhale through the nose, pinch your nose with fingers and thumb, breath hold for three to five seconds, resume breathing for 10 seconds, repeat for up to six repetitions. This can kill off panic attacks within 30 seconds. The key is to learn and commit to breathing techniques that enable you to breathe much slower and optimally – for example, during your sleep – that will set you up perfectly for the day.”