By: Amy Widner, RYT 200 yoga instructor with the UAMS Fitness Center and Ottenheimer Therapy & Fitness Center in the Institute on Aging
If you have ever tried to meditate, chances are the guide instructed you to begin with your breath. Why is this? Two big reasons:
- The breath allows you powerful access to your nervous system.
- The breath is always available.
Altering the breath can help regulate the sympathetic nervous system — the system responsible for our “fight/flight/freeze” response. Certain breathing patterns turn down the sympathetic nervous system, making more room for a parasympathetic response that can be relaxing.
Often I turn to breathing exercises to relax, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes if I feel lethargic or stiff or run down, I actually want to pump myself up with the breath. So here are some basic guidelines for both types:
- Parasympathetic (relaxing) breathing — sighing, belly breathing, long exhales
- Sympathetic (boosting) breathing – breath holding, hyperventilation, shallow breathing
So with those basics in mind, let’s explore four breathing exercises to calm or boost your mood.
The key to each of these exercises is to start by spending a few moments first noticing what you actually need. It might sound simple, but we spend a lot of the day ignoring our needs, so it is worth it to take the time to notice.
Start by finding a comfortable position seated or lying down where you feel safe and supported enough to either close your eyes or lower and unfocus your gaze. Spend a few moments observing your inner landscape: the breath, the body, and even your thoughts and emotions for information about how you feel. You don’t have to try to change whatever you find, you’re just gathering information so you can determine what type of breathing exercise might best serve you.
- Breath Lengthening — Count how long it takes for you to inhale, then lengthen your exhale so that it’s at least a count or two longer. Continue, allowing the exhales to get slower and slower. The inhales can slow too, but just keep the exhales even longer. Practice for 2-5 minutes. I find this to be a powerful relaxation tool. What do you observe?
- Belly Breathing — Place your hands on your belly so that the fingertips are touching when you exhale, and so that the fingertips come apart when you inhale. Focus on breathing deep in the belly and observe how it feels. Try for 2-5 minutes. This one is super relaxing for me.
- Joy Breath — When I want to feel pumped up, I practice joy breath. This one is done standing. Have your feet hip-distance apart or a little wider, and put some slack in your knees. You’re going to take three inhales before you exhale. With inhale one, move your arms to the front of your body at shoulder height; with inhale two, move your arms to the sides of the body at shoulder height; with inhale three, move your arms all the way up overhead; and as you exhale, fold forward over your legs, allowing your knees to bend softly. Slowly round your spine as you head back up to standing and try again a for 4 or 5 more rounds. This one leaves me feeling uplifted.
- Holding and Sighing — This exercise combines both relaxing and stimulating breathing types. I find the overall affect to be somewhere in the middle, more balancing. See what you think: Inhale through the nose and then hold at the top of the breath for a count of three. Open your mouth to exhale and make a big sighing noise. Repeat 3-6 more times.
How was that? It’s important to remember that reactions to breathing exercises vary. Just because I find an exercise relaxing doesn’t mean you will. What I find uplifting may leave you feeling overwhelmed.
As you do any breathing exercise, continue to observe how it makes you feel so that you are better equipped to deploy the type of breathing exercise that works best for you in any future situation. In that way, you’ll be creating your own individualized toolkit full of techniques that can be there when you need them.