You’re a Breath Away from Better Health, Sleep, and Happiness

I always joke that I went to graduate school to get a Ph.D. so I could teach people to breathe. But, in fact, that is what I’ve done a lot of—from teaching breathing techniques in individual psychotherapy sessions to mindful eating programs and yoga sessions.

My first experiences with the power of the breath were during therapy with college students who experienced a lot of anxiety and panic. Simple but profound diaphragmatic breathing was all many of them needed to learn to sit calmly for tests, overcome their fear of failing, have more self-confidence in their interactions with others, and so much more. It was during this time that my training in yoga began, and I was able to incorporate its many breathing (or pranayama) practices into my work.

Recently, I read the book Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor and I’ve been recommending it to everyone. As I was buying the last copy at Skylark (our local bookstore) to give away as a birthday gift, I had an interesting discussion with the bookstore owner, who said that they have sold a lot of them. I even taught him a little practice to reduce his stress while we were checking out!

To start, be aware of how you are breathing now, which probably includes not breathing at all for a half minute or longer. This has been dubbed “email apnea” and happens when we are scanning our email, checking Twitter, writing a to-do list, and then starting all over and doing it again. This continuous partial attention keeps us in a state of perpetual distraction and breathing can become shallow and erratic. Not the best way to breathe.

Next, pay attention to how much you are mouth breathing or inhaling through the mouth. Not that you will never do this but, in general, you really want to avoid it. I became super self-conscious while reading the book about how much I was doing it. Even when exercising, it is better to breathe in and out from the nose. Mouth breathing is associated with bad dental hygiene, decreased heart rate variability, increased blood pressure, increased pulse, decreased body temperature. In addition, your airways begin to collapse and you lose 40% more water. It’s even been associated with chronic insomnia, mood disorders, and having fewer brain cells.

I hope I have your attention.

So, how does one breathe the right way? Well, there are many different strategies outlined in the book and I would suggest that you buy one and practice with many of them. Here are the ones that I found particularly helpful.

Alternate Nostril Breathing (otherwise known as Nadi Shodhana)

This is a breath often practiced as part of asana practice in yoga. This breath is quite calming but also helps you to balance the left and right hemispheres of the brain, improves focus and attention, decreases stress, and soothes the nervous system.

To practice, follow these instructions:

1. Sit with your spine straight and your left hand resting in your lap.

2. You’ll be using the thumb of the right hand and the ring and pinky finger to block of the right and left sides of your nostrils, respectively.

3. Close your eyes and take a deep breath in and out through your nose.

4. Gently close your right nostril with your thumb. Inhale through your left nostril, then close it with your ring and pinky fingers and hold your breath in briefly. Release the thumb from the right nostril and exhale slowly.

5. Breath in through the right nostril. Close the right nostril with your thumb and retain your breath at the top of the inhale for a brief pause.

6. Open your left nostril and release the breath slowly through the left side; pause briefly at the bottom of the exhale.

7. Inhale slowly through the left nostril and retain the breath in.

8. Close the left side and open the right. Breath out slowly and briefly pause.

9. Keep moving through the cycles of breath as you slowly breathe in, hold, breath out, hold, etc.

Do this for five minutes and see how you feel.

Alternatively, if you just breathe in and out on one side you will produce the following effects. The right side is your “go” button. If you hold the left nostril closed and only breathe in and out of the right, your circulation improves, your body gets hotter, and your cortisol levels, blood pressure and heart rate increase. Do this when you want to feel more activated. The left side has the opposite effect. Breath in and out of the left side when you want the body to cool, reduce anxiety, and lower your blood pressure.  

Resonant (Coherent) Breathing

This is really quite simple and I have been practicing it throughout the day since reading about it. This can be done almost anywhere and anytime.

1. As always, start by sitting with your spine straight and relax your shoulders.

2. Inhale for 5-6 seconds, being sure to expand the belly as you breathe in.

3. Without pausing, exhale for 5-6 seconds, pulling your belly button toward the spine as you empty your lungs.

4. Inhale for the same number of counts as you exhale with no pause in between

5. Repeat.

Do this breath for at least the cycles, but more if possible. You can even download an app, like  Paced Breathing, to help you with coun. You can start with fewer counts but just make sure it’s the same number in as out. After you get used to breathing in and out for the same number, try exhaling for at least two counts more than you inhale.

Benefits include increased blood flow to the brain and there is an increased coherence between the functions of the heart, circulation, and nervous system. A sense of wellbeing will begin to permeate your body, heart, and mind.

While all the techniques vary a little, they mostly give the same instruction – breathe slower and longer. Breath is life and breath heals.

Close your mouth and start breathing better!