8d8ffdc391aab32712bd1fad9d47b2f76486f5c2_image00Take a deep breath. We often hear this popular bit of advice, but have you ever really thought about what it means?

Breathing is so important that it can actually affect your physical and mental health. On a basic level, inhaling takes in oxygen, which is vital for the entire body, from brain to skin, and exhaling releases carbon dioxide, which rids the body of toxins. Proper breathing technique can also decrease stress, boost the immune system, regulate mood, increase digestion, ease pain, and help with weight control.

Improper breathing, on the other hand, depletes your oxygen supply, which can lead to various health conditions such as fatigue, foggy thinking, insomnia, panic attacks, and depression. Left untreated, chronic shallow breathing can also lead to deteriorated vision and hearing, or even heart disease, stroke, or cancer.

You can increase your intake of oxygen in various ways—stretching, exercise (including walking), meditation—but deep breathing is a simple technique that you can do anywhere at anytime. Yogis have known for thousands of years how essential oxygen is to our health and that the quickest way to provide the bloodstream with substantial amounts of it is through conscious breathing.

Here are just a few types of breathing to help you remain calm in stressful situations and improve overall health and wellbeing:

Teddy Bear Breathing: This technique is recommended for children, but it works well for adults, too, and offers a visual yardstick by which to monitor your breathing practice. Lie flat on your back with a teddy bear (or other object) perched on your belly button. As you breathe, the teddy bear should move rhythmically up and down. If you are successful in your deep abdominal breathing, your chest will not move. Chest movement indicates shallow breathing, and you must pull air all the way into the diaphragm to fully oxygenate. Hold each breath to a count of three before exhaling, and you should feel more relaxed after just a few minutes.

Alternate Nostril Breathing: This technique invokes internal peace and alertness by balancing the brain’s left and right sides. Sit in a comfortable position, press the right nostril closed, and breathe deeply through the left side. Hold your breathe, then close off the left nostril and breathe out through the right. Because this stress relief technique is also an energizing one, it’s not recommended that you do this prior to bedtime.

Straw Breathing: The University of Minnesota Center for Spirituality and Healing offers an alternative type of breathing technique, called Straw Breathing, which is a powerful tool to strengthen your diaphragm and lungs, leading naturally to deeper inhalation. This technique is ideal for when you need to wake up and be more alert. Inhale deeply through your nose, hold it, then exhale through a plastic drinking straw, making sure to completely empty your lungs. Repeat for five minutes. If you keep a box of straws in your car, this is an exercise you can easily do while you are stuck in traffic. It will relax you and regulate your breathing by expelling excess carbon dioxide.

Body Scan: This technique is designed to provide a mental scan of your body while you focus on breathing. As you employ slow, deep breaths with your eyes closed, mentally survey every part of your body. Note areas that feel tense, sore or cramped, and make an effort to relax those tension spots on the exhale. Move your head and shoulders gently to loosen your muscles. In just a few minutes you should feel calm and relaxed.

Visualization and Breathing: This technique adds a visual component to guided breathing. Sit in a comfortable position with your back held straight (to avoid the temptation of falling asleep), take a few deep breaths, and then picture yourself somewhere pleasant and relaxing, like a beach, a meadow, or a forest. This can be a real or imagined place, so long as it feels soothing. It may help to accompany your visualization with a CD of calming nature tracks.

Yoga: Breathing has long been a part of yoga training, and practitioners advocate breath control as a means of getting in touch with the innermost self. In Eastern tradition, breathing exercises are vital to the proper performance of martial arts as well, testifying to physical benefits of controlled breathing as well as the mental. Yoga incorporates breathing techniques with body movement and stretching, which not only relaxes the mind by balancing the autonomic nervous system and lowering cortisol (the “stress” hormone), but strengthens the body and makes it more flexible. Choose satyananda or hatha yoga, or any other form that uses gentle poses.

Meditation: Internal chaos and constant movement is the cornerstone of a stressful mind, and though meditation takes many forms, the basic idea behind it is to calm your mind through guided breath. Sit comfortably in a quiet place. You may sit cross-legged or in a chair, so long as your back is straight. Close your eyes and breathe in slowly through your nose, hold it, then release through your mouth. Any time your mind is distracted by a thought or a worry, simply accept it without judgement and return your focus to your breath. Synchronizing your breathing with the recitation of a positive mantra can provide even more stress relief and overall well being. You can use the classic Sanskrit mantra “Om,” any other traditional mantras, or simply repeat a word or short phrase such as “Letting go” or “Breathe in, breathe out.” When repeated on a regular basis, a mantra creates a vibration that resonates throughout the body, shifting the nervous system, and promoting relaxation.

Try any or all of these methods to discover which one (or ones) works for you. Whichever you prefer, keep at it as practicing consistently will allow it to become second nature for you. When you find yourself in a stressful situation, rather than take short, shallow breaths which only exacerbate stress, you’ll know to immediately implement one of these beneficial breathing techniques to relax your body and restore serenity to your mind.

The articles on this website are not to be construed as medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Photo Credit: RelaxingMusic via Compfight cc

The articles on this website are not to be construed as medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.