Breathing is something we all do, about 20 000 times a day, and will continue doing for the rest of our lives. We can do it both consciously and subconsciously, so it’s a precious anchor for our mindfulness practice.
Yet, just like thinking, most of us haven’t been taught how to breathe.
We all breathe to survive, and some of us breathe to thrive. Breathing effectively integrates and energises the body-mind, allowing us to achieve more success with less effort. Slower and deeper breathing (6-10 breaths per minute) is associated with significant physiological benefits and may increase longevity. The psychological benefits are as impressive – diaphragmatic breathing bridges the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, supporting emotional regulation and the relaxation response – especially useful in managing stress and anxiety.
Here are three ways to breathe better:
Shut your mouth
Many of us breathe through the mouth, either from habit or necessity. Rather inhale through the nose, which cleans and moistens the air before it enters the lungs. The breath becomes softer, slower, smoother and deeper. This supports meditation.
I have a deviated septum, so I know that breathing through the nose can feel like slow self-suffocation. I can breathe through my nose if I reduce nasal congestion, by cutting dairy and practicing nasal irrigation… both unpleasant, but effective. Do you know of other ways? Comment below!
Lift your heart
We slump over screens most of the day. The shoulders wrap forward; the chest implodes. This restricts the air you get from each breath, forcing you to breathe faster. These are the same physical markers of someone who feels depressed or anxious.
Rather picture your heart – beneath the sternum, between your nipples – and softly lift it towards the ceiling/sky. As I do this, my chest opens, my neck and shoulders relax back and down and my lower back feels more supported. Maintaining this lift is challenging, but worth it. Make it a mindfulness practice a few times a day.
Relax your belly
While South Africans laugh about “stomach-in, chest-out” and society tells us this is attractive, it is a terrible way to breathe. Sucking in the abdomen constricts the diaphragm, forcing the lungs to expand against the ribcage. This wastes energy, so you feel tired. And again, less air = anxious.
Rather soften your belly, even the belly fat. Let your entire abdomen relax, expanding with the inhalation and falling on the exhalation. (I promise this won’t make your stomach bigger. Together with the previous step, it could activate your deeper core muscles to support you in a more confident posture – and confidence is attractive.)
Then, stop trying
Ironically, if I try to breathe, I get in the way of this process – the breath becomes faster and rougher. Breathing is an act of surrender. Trust that your body knows how to breathe. You are surrounded by an abundance of prana, and the next breath will bring you exactly what you need when you need it.
Yagesh is an actuary and yogini, devoted to building a wellbeing economy. Contact her for personalised lessons or corporate workshops.