Whether you want to find your cool mid meltdown or re-energise post-workout, all you need is something you already have: your breath.
Breathing. It's automatic. You don't have to tell your body how to do it. Or do you?
There's a reason mind-body practices like yoga, tai chi and qigong prioritise breathing over pretty much everything else. The gurus behind these centuries-old activities somehow knew that when you focus on and control your breath (or "pranayama", as you may have heard it called in yoga class), you can connect your mind and body so that both find some relief.
In basic physiological terms, inhalation provides your body with the oxygen it needs to perform, while exhalation cleanses it of what it doesn't need, namely, carbon dioxide. Most people spend more time operating under the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) nervous system, a common default setting due to stress, than under the parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) system, which tends to lower your heart rate and stress levels, says Alvin Dike, a doctor of physiotherapy and the founder of ADPT in New York City. When you mindfully manage your breath, you can also manage your nervous system, flipping your switch from stressed to soothed quickly, adds Dike.
When you mindfully manage your breath, you can also manage your nervous system, flipping your switch from stressed to soothed quickly.
Doctor of Physiotherapy and Founder of ADPT in New York City
Similarly, the right breathing technique can stimulate the sympathetic nervous system in a good way, thereby increasing your energy and mood, he says. In short, your breath is a multifaceted form of therapy that could help you conquer any feeling or day. And it's simple, free and as instantaneous as you can get.
Sounds too good to be true, right? That could be because you're probably one of many individuals who "use only a small percentage of their ability to consume oxygen into their lungs and breathe only through the upper part of their chest", says Dike. (One quick way to tell if this is you: Place one hand on your stomach and one on your chest. See which hand rises as you inhale.) You want to be breathing from your diaphragm so that your ribcage expands in a 3D fashion—top to bottom, front to back, side to side, says Dike. To create this foundation, inhale through your nose, pulling the air down into your stomach, and keep breathing in until you feel your lower back and belly expand. Once you have this down, "there are different breathing techniques and tempos to induce the emotional response you want", he says.
Whatever you're dealing with—too much energy or too little, a lack of inspiration or a load of worry—one of these expert-recommended breathing methods could help you shift your state of mind nearly instantly.
1. You didn't get enough sleep last night: 6–4–X Breathing
"Waking up tired and groggy is indicative of a parasympathetic state", says Dike. Whether you stayed up late binge-watching your favourite show or working till midnight, "a lengthened inhale and fast exhale can get your heart rate up and increase alertness by stimulating a sympathetic response", he says.
Lying face up, inhale for 6 seconds, hold your breath for 4 seconds, then forcefully exhale through pursed lips. Your exhale should be fast and strong to expel any remaining carbon dioxide in your lungs. "This can pre-load the diaphragm to get in more fresh air during the next breath", says Dike.
2. You feel unmotivated to work … or work out: The Breath of Joy
The name may sound goofy, but "this three-part breath gets your energy going", says Sanaa A. Jaman, PhD, the founder and owner of Tru3 Yoga in Kuwait. "The deep breaths paired with movement awaken your whole body by first stimulating the sympathetic nervous system and increasing the oxygen levels in your bloodstream", says Jaman. That's directly followed by a parasympathetic response that promotes clarity, giving you a boost in mood and motivation, she says.
Begin by standing with your feet hip-width apart, knees slightly bent. Inhale to one-third of your lung capacity (think about sipping air into the lower part of your lungs) while swinging your arms out in front of your body, palms facing the ceiling. Then inhale to two-thirds of your lung capacity (the middle part of your lungs) as you stretch your arms out to the side in a T-shape at shoulder level, with your palms up. Next, inhale to your full lung capacity (filling up to the top of your lungs until you can't sip in any more air) and swing your arms overhead, palms facing each other. Lastly, open your mouth and exhale with an audible "ha" sound, simultaneously bending your knees and lowering into a squat as you swing your arms down and back behind you like a diver.
Repeat for 7 to 9 total "reps" to get the complete response.
3. You feel anxious: Extended Exhales
Most people take shallow, rapid breaths when they're feeling particularly unsettled. This chest breathing can spike your heart rate, tension and stress, making matters worse. When you shift your breath to come from your diaphragm and take exhales that are longer than your inhales, you turn on the parasympathetic response of relaxation, says Dike.
From any position, inhale deeply, noticing your belly rise, for 6 seconds. Hold your breath at the top for 4 seconds. Then exhale for 12 seconds, feeling your belly fall.
P.S. It's OK if you can't complete the full 12-second exhale. Aim for a 7-second exhale and increase from there. "It will take time to build up to that", says Dike, as "you have to train your diaphragm like any other muscle".
4. You want to cool down quickly post workout: Sheetali Breath
"Sheetali" means "cooling" in Sanskrit. By turning off the fight-or-flight response that your workout triggered and inducing the rest-and-digest one instead, this technique can help lower your blood pressure so your body temperature can drop and your muscles and nerves can relax, says Jaman.
Find a comfortable seat, then lower your gaze to the ground or close your eyes and place your hands on your knees. Stick out your tongue. Lift the sides of the tongue to form a tube and take a deep, slow breath through the tube shape. Then close your mouth and exhale through your nose. Repeat for as many rounds as you like, or for at least 1 to 5 minutes for faster recovery.
5. You need to wind down at bedtime: Breath-Based Body Scan
If your mind seems like it's running laps on a track when you climb into bed, or you just have trouble falling asleep, research from UCLA shows that a body scan can help. This particular one takes things a step further, combining your scan for tense areas with deep exhales to help release them, which can also lower your heart rate for rest and distract your brain in the process, says Jasmine Marie, a breath-work practitioner and the founder of Black Girls Breathing.
Start by stretching out in your bed and closing your eyes. Breathe slowly and deeply and extend your exhales so they're twice as long as your inhales. Check in with your head and work your way down to your toes, or vice versa, acknowledging how each body part feels. "Identify where in your body you feel tension, then focus your breath in that space", says Marie.
If you're still awake once you complete a full scan, keep up the deep breathing or start over in reverse.
No matter what the day brings (and, let's be honest, by now we all know it will bring something), reminding yourself to "just breathe" is more than a mantra. It's a legitimate plan to start feeling more of the feelings you want to feel and less of the ones you don't.