The act of inhaling and exhaling is necessary for life and happens without thought, along with many other involuntary functions of the autonomic nervous system. However, intentional deep breathing, also called diaphragmatic breathing, slows us down, allows us to feel relaxed, and has a quick profound effect of reducing anxiety.
By taking deep breathes, we increase the oxygen supply in our brains, stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system, which governs our rest, digestion, and relaxation. Being able to shift from an unconscious to a conscious state of breathing takes a level of awareness and ability to bring our attention to the present moment. That simple act of being present allows us to shift away from worrisome stimuli and place awareness on our body and mind. Additionally, when we increase our breathing, we can feel more energized.
Benefits of intentional breathing:
Improved mental focus
Releases pent-up energy
Decreases addictive behaviors
Enhances well-being and outlook on life
Alkalizing your blood PH
Elevates your mood
Spend more time in deep sleep
Reduction of PTSD and trauma-related stress
Stronger respiratory function
Balanced blood pressure
Stronger immune system
Four Breathing Exercises
Abdominal breathing is a deep breathing technique that engages your diaphragm (a large, dome-shaped muscle that resides at the base of your lungs). When practicing this technique, you can place one hand below your rib cage and the other hand on your upper chest. As you take in a deep breath through your nose, feel the air fill the space in your ‘belly.’ You should notice your lower hand begin to rise, eventually moving up to your upper chest, where your second hand is placed. As you exhale, breathe out through pursed lips as you feel your body contract with the release of air.
Abdominal breathing allows you to experience the full capacity of breath, strengthening your diaphragm, and activates the vagus nerve, allowing you to relax your mind and body.
Alternate Nostril breathing is based on a yogic practice, which tracks the breath and isolates inhaling through the left or right nostril. Alternate nostril breathing includes a repetition of inhaling through one nostril and exhaling through the other, always making sure to inhale through the nostril you just exhaled out of. This technique has been known to improve cardiovascular and lung function, improve respiratory endurance, calm and center the mind, and relax the body. While you can do this practice on your own, you may want to seek the help of a yoga practitioner. If you suffer from COPD, seek the advice of your health care professional before practicing this or other breathing exercises. Another excellent breathing exercise, paired with some visualization and physical activity, is the Jaw Drop.
Settle into a comfortable seated or standing pose and bring your attention to your jaw. Now, relax your jaw as much as you can, loosening it, and then imagine it dropping to the floor. This stimulates the vagus nerve, which interfaces with the parasympathetic system, counteracts the fight or flight response. The act of slowing down and visualizing also promotes deep breathing, supporting the same design and promoting relaxation. As you take a breath in, pause for 3 - 4 seconds, and then exhale for twice as long through the nose. Heart breathing is one of my absolute favorite breathing practices. It is based on the work done through the Heart Math Institute. This quick practice can easily be integrated into your daily routine. Like meditation, it acts as a method to gain a deeper awareness and a sense of calm.
Heart-centered breathing is an easy and powerful technique to help you emotionally regulate and return to your center—grounding yourself. You will feel more relaxed, positive, empowered, connected, and in control from doing this exercise. Here are the steps:
Step 1: Heart Focus. Focus your attention on the area around your heart, the area in the center of your chest. If you prefer, the first couple of times you try it, place your hand over your heart, and if it's helpful, your other hand on the belly for grounding and a kind of heart-body connection and to help focus attention in the heart area.
Step 2: Heart Breathing. Breathe deeply but normally. You may feel that your breath is coming in and going out through your heart area. Imagine it is. As you inhale, feel as if your breath is flowing in through the heart, and as you exhale, feel it leaving through this area. Breathe slowly and casually, a little deeper than usual. Continue breathing with ease until you find a natural inner rhythm that feels good to you. You may feel a shift here.
Step 3: Heart Feeling. As you maintain your heart focus and heart breathing, activate a positive feeling. Recall a positive feeling, a time when you felt good inside, and take a moment to re-experience the feeling. One of the easiest ways to generate a positive, heart-based feeling is to remember a special place you have been to or the love you feel for a close friend or family member, or treasured pet. It can be anything. This is a lovely grounding step.
As stated throughout this article, intentional breathing provides experiences that promote many benefits to our physical and mental well-being. Results are often immediate, though each person can feel the shifts occur at various levels of intensity due to our current level of awareness and focus, which can increase and expand with practice and mindfulness.