Being human, we forget the wonder of breathing. We take it for granted. It takes a health crisis or bad air quality for us to appreciate this basic, yet profound ability.
Yoga, meditation and other relaxation techniques all depend on focusing on the breath. There are many benefits of meditation and proper breathing is an important part of learning how to calm the mind and body.
The first thing to consider is how well you care for your body and lungs. Basic guidance is to do the following:
- Don’t smoke
- Avoid exposure to indoor and outdoor pollutants
- Prevent infection by washing your hands with soap and water and avoiding crowds during flu season
- Be sure to get regular aerobic exercise to keep your lung capacity strong and healthy
The Physical and Emotional Benefits of Breath Meditation
Meditation practitioners for thousands of years have known that befriending one’s breath keeps the mind and body healthy. It also is good for living a more peaceful life. Scientists have been working to translate these ancient practices for today’s world. From very practical stress reduction to exploring one’s emotions, programs are being developed to meet contemporary problems.
During the past thirty years, meditation has found a place in the secular world. This is thanks to the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn and the development of his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program. MBSR is now available in most communities and can have you meditating in a matter of weeks. This program gives insight into how to respond skillfully to difficult situations. Many hospitals now offer MBSR to support family caregivers who are taking care of loved ones.
The benefits of bringing attention to your breathing are measurable. By learning a few simple breathing techniques, you can:
- Reduce stress levels in your body
- Lower your heart rate
- Lower your blood pressure
- Improve diabetic symptoms
- Reduce depression
- Better manage chronic pain
- Better regulate your body’s reaction to stress and fatigue
- Reduce the possibility of burnout for caregivers
Psychologists have also been utilizing the power of the breath. Various breath work techniques allow patients to explore issues related to consciousness. The work of Dr. Stan Grof and his development of Holotropic Breathwork integrates insights from consciousness research, transpersonal psychology, and Eastern spiritual practices. His work connects the simplicity of the breath with the life issues that patients many find themselves confronting at various stages of life.
8 Breathing Techniques for Heart and Brain Health
There are a vast number of methods and practices that focus on the breath. They all concentrate on various aspects of health and mental wellbeing. Many are easily available and easy to learn. Some you can do on your own and others are best practiced with a trained professional. It all depends on how deep you want to go.
While exploring all the options of breathwork to find which one meets your specific needs, here are a few techniques and practices to get you started:
- Mindful breathing. This involves becoming aware of your breath and focusing on it. It does not involve trying to change the way you breathe. However, the act of focusing on the breath usually slows down breathing patterns, making you feel more relaxed. As you focus on how air moves in and out through your lungs, mouth and nose, it becomes a form of calming meditation.
- Mantra breathing. This technique makes use of a mantra to help focus on your breath. A mantra is a phrase or word that you repeat to yourself to create focus. As you repeat it, you become able to relax and meditate.
- Square breathing. This employs visualization to create focus. As you inhale, visualize one side of a square. Then, visualize the next side of the square as you exhale. Repeat the process until you have imagined each side of a square.
- Nostril breathing. This technique can help to reduce agitation and anxiety. As you breathe you close off one nostril and take air in slowly through the other. Then switch, closing off the second nostril while breathing through the first. Repeat the process until you begin to feel calmer.
- Pranayama breathing. This cleansing breath method is used in the practice of yoga. Experts say that using pranayama has the power to clean 72,000 channels in the body. It involves inhaling with the mouth closed, then exhaling through the nose. This type of breathing technique can clean blood and clear your respiratory system. As a result, good clean oxygen travels to the heart and the brain.
- 4,7,8 Method. Developed by Dr. Andrew Weil, this breathing method helps you get to sleep. It is a simple and straight forward method. You inhale to the count of four, hold your breath to the count of seven, and then exhale to the count of eight. Repeat as needed.
- Belly breath. This type of breathing is easy to practice because you can feel your body taking in and exhaling air by the movement of your abdomen. Lie down on a bed or on the floor. Place one hand on your stomach and inhale slowly through the nose (notice the abdomen rising). As you exhale, you contract the abdomen muscles and push the air out of your lungs.
- The Wim Hof Method. This is a colorful and vibrant health perspective that is being validated by scientific studies. Wim Hof has developed a deep breathing practice that invigorates the nervous system. The goal is to reduce shallow breathing because it causes the body to oxidize and acidify. His technique takes a few minutes each day and has many positive outcomes for those who try it. You can tap into your body’s immune system and reset it. It's worth checking out for those who are feeling adventurous.
3 Brain-Healthy Breathing Exercises
These breathing techniques can promote a healthier heart and brain. Here are three exercises that are easy to practice, anywhere and anytime. Think about using these techniques in your daily routine!
- Start your day with morning breathing. This is a great exercise to relieve stiff muscles and clear your respiratory tract when you get up in the morning.
- Stand up and bend forward from the waist. Keep the knees slightly bent. Let your arms dangle loosely to the floor.
- Inhale slowly and deeply.
- Roll your body up slowly, lifting your abdomen, chest, and shoulders before your head. Do not stand up quickly with your head first.
- Once you are in a full standing position, hold your breath.
- As you begin to bend forward again, exhale slowly. Repeat this several times to loosen your body.
- Renew your energy midday with the stimulating breathing technique. This exercise is used in yoga. It can increase your energy and help you to feel more alert.
- Keep your mouth closed, then inhale and exhale rapidly through your nose. Keep your breaths as short as possible. Don’t worry if you make a lot of noise.
- Try to breath in and out in rapid succession three times in one second. This makes the diaphragm work hard. After each set of three, breathe normally.
- Be careful and do this exercise for only 15 seconds when you first begin. With practice, slowly increase the duration of the exercise by five seconds each time.
- Relax at the end of the day with the 4-7-8 breathing exercise. This exercise is intended to relax and calm your body and mind.
- Sit with your back straight.
- Move the tip of your tongue behind your upper front teeth.
- Exhale completely through your mouth, leaving your tongue behind your teeth.
- As you count to four, close your mouth and then inhale softly. Then hold your breath while you count to seven.
- Exhale through your mouth counting to eight.
- These steps comprise one breath of 4-7-8.
- Start over again by inhaling.
- Repeat the steps three more times.
Use these breathing techniques throughout the day to help you regulate stress levels and pump oxygen into your heart and brain. These exercises don’t need any special equipment and can be done anywhere. Now that you know various breathing techniques, use them to reduce anxiety and stress, increase energy and improve the health of your heart and your brain. For more information on how to manage caregiver stress, check out our top techniques for reducing and overcoming stress here.