Deep breathing techniques have become a popular way to deal with our constantly connected always online world. With small stresses berating our attention throughout the day, being able to pause for a deep breath or two has been shown to have great benefits mentally and physically. The growing popularity of simple mindfulness techniques are centered around the ability to breath deeply. But how can something as simple and universal as breathing provide such benefits?
We all need to breath.
While you may not be able to live off of breathing alone, it is a core function of the human body. Breathing brings oxygen into our blood facilitatingcellular respiration, the process by which our cells convert biochemical energy into usable energy called adenosine triphosphate (ATP from high school biology class). Breathing air allows our cells to utilize the nutrients we eat in order to create energy.
Our cells also create bi-products such as carbon dioxide. While our cells require oxygen to create energy, removing bi-products like carbon dioxide is more important. We breath out in order to clear our lungs of carbon dioxide rich air, preparing to replace it with more oxygen rich air. Our body triggers an increased breathing rate due to high levels of carbon dioxide, not because of low levels of oxygen.
Breathing is a constant filtering of compounds vital for human life.
It is no wonder that many spiritual beliefs revolve around the breath. Breathing is a core function of every human and can be viewed as a universally connecting experience. We are after all, breathing the same air across cultures.
Breathing, something we all do. It happens subconsciously and by intention. We can use it to calm ourselves down, and we use it when we get fired up. It doesn’t matter what time of day it is or how we feel, we still breath. Breathing is part of our nature, a natural process going back millenia. And yet, we may not be breathing enough.
Your breathing is a response to your body’s current condition.
Your body’s rate of breathing is directly linked to the level of physical exertion you are experiencing. More exertion means more oxygen is needed in your muscles. Your heart begins to pound harder and faster, pushing blood throughout your body. Your breath becomes quicker and harder as you bring in extra oxygen and flush out carbon dioxide. Physically you expand your chest, allowing extra space for additional air.
When you are relaxed your breath is slower and deeper.
Your stomach rises and falls as your heart rate decreases and blood pressure lowers. You no longer expand your chest and instead the work is done entirely by the diaphragm. Extending your stomach with each deep breath.
The body reacts to our breathing.
If you breath fast, your heart rate increases preparing for physical exertion. If you breath slow, your heart rate decreases while you body begins to relax. We can utilize our breath as a tool to decrease stress, increase focus, and become energized.
How you can use breathing to reduce stress and increase energy
Popular practices such as yoga are centered around the breath, utilizing it as a tool to stay present during the practice. That may seem esoteric to those of us who aren’t practicing yoga, but put simply: concentrating on your breath forces your mind to focus on something.
We all remember this little trick: You are now aware of your breathing.
Did it work? Now you see why breathing is such an effective way to cultivate mindfulness. It is easy to focus on and quite natural to do so. In fact, many of us struggle not to think about controlling our own breathing anytime it is mentioned. If you’re going to be controlling your breathing anyway, why not utilize it?
One simple and effective way to reduce stress is known as “square breathing”.
Square breathing consists of taking a deep breath, holding, exhaling, and then holding again before repeating. The cycle goes a little something like this:
- Relax and focus on your breath as best you can
- Breath into your stomach for 4 seconds(or longer if you like)
- Hold your breath for 4 seconds
- Exhale evenly for 4 seconds
- Hold your empty lungs for 4 seconds
- Repeat until you feel content
After a few cycles of this, your body will physically be more relaxed. By focusing on your breath and timing, you disconnect your thoughts from any outside influence for a time. You have just practiced a form of mindfulness. Square breathing is a quick and easy way to refocus yourself and reduce stress during the day.
Stomach breathing signals to your mind and body that you are relaxed.
Probably the simplest of breathing techniques is the act of stomach breathing. Stomach breathing is itself a natural state of rest for the body. When relaxing the body naturally breaths into the stomach, while chest breathing is a way for your body to take in air at a faster rate. Have you ever noticed tendency to breath into your chest after physical exertion?
If stomach breathing is what your body does when it’s relaxing, how can we use stomach breathing to become relaxed? Wouldn’t we already be relaxed? While it is true that your body resorts to stomach breathing while relaxed, you can also trigger relaxation by breathing into your stomach. The mind body connection is a two way street.
- Breath in through your nose and allow your stomach to expand outwards. Do your best not to expand your chest and instead relax your chest.
- Take a nice long deep breath into your stomach, followed by a relaxed exhale. Do this at a controlled speed comfortable to you. That’s it!
- You may find yourself naturally slowing down or speeding up. Focus on keeping you breaths at the same speed, or slowing down. When you feel yourself speed up, remind yourself to take another deep breath into your stomach.
As you stomach breath your body is getting the signal that everything is alright in the world. You have no need for quick breaths, as your muscles do not need to be prepared to flight or fight. You are physically reducing your stress levels.
Over time, when stomach breathing becomes second nature, you may find yourself far more resilient to stress.
Learning to stomach breath, along with many other breathing techniques, promotes Heart Rate Variability. HRV is quite literally the variability of your heart rate. High HRV indicates a healthy parasympathetic system which is a part of the nervous system which promotes relaxation, digestion, sleep, and recovery.
Low HRV, meaning your heart beats like a metronome, is an indicator of the sympathetic nervous system which is directly linked to the fight or flight response. Also known as: Stress.
Where and when can you practice stomach breathing?
On the drive to and from work, while cooking breakfast or dinner, or even while at your desk. The beauty of the stomach breathing technique is that anyone can do it, anywhere.
A breath hack for energy: Fire Breath
There are quite a few! Google has pages of suggestions for breathing techniques to increase energy. One of the most famous being fire breath, or as Dr. Weil calls it “Bellows Breath”. Bellows breath consists of breathing in and out through the nose, mouth closed, in quick even motions. Dr. Weil suggests keeping your first time practicing this to a maximum of 15 seconds, and we concur as light headedness may result from such quick breathing.
Keep your mouth closed, but relaxed. Breath in and out through your nose rapidly, but evenly. Aim for three breaths every second. Your inhales and exhales should be the same duration.
Do this for about 15 seconds and then breath normally. You can add on a few seconds each time you try this, working your way up to a full minute.
Note: This is a noisy exercise!
After a session of fire breathing you should feel more energy. Ranging anywhere from the elevated feeling after an intense exercise, to feeling pleasantly awake. A slight light headedness may also occur, but that always reminds us of blowing up birthday balloons!
A workout for your lungs: a lesson from free diving.
Another breathing technique that we find useful when practiced over the long term comes from freediving. In Guillaume Néry’s TED talk about his freediving world record, he speaks of a technique known as “carping”. Carping consists of inhaling a full chest of air, and then scooping in more air one mouthful at a time, not allowing yourself to exhale.
This does two things.
Firstly, for those of us who don’t freedive often, it stretches out our lungs. This can aid in expanding lung capacity over time. We must caution against hurting yourself, if you feel any discomfort please go back to breathing normally!
Second, carping compresses air within your lungs. This means a free diver can store more air than normal inside of their lungs allowing for longer dives.
- Inhale a full lung(s) of air.
- Once full, begin a swallowing motion with your mouth, forcing one mouthful of air into your lungs at a time.
- You will begin to feel your lungs stretch due to the pressure.
- As a beginner it won’t take very many mouthfuls to put strain on your lungs. Be careful not to harm yourself.
Boost energy and increase lung capacity in one go.
Our final technique is one we like to call “Shower breathing”, or max breathing. Shower breathing raises your heart rate, expands your lungs, and is a sure way to wake up. We recommend practicing shower breathing while taking a cold shower, especially in the morning for a double hitter energy boost!
Of course, the shock of cold water increases your heart rate, causes you to breath in quickly, and is a sure way to wake up as well! But even if you aren’t able to muster up the courage for a cold shower (We highly recommend you learn to!) you can still benefit from this technique.
Max breathing, or shower breathing, consists of breathing in all the way, then exhaling halfway out, then breathing in all the way again, followed by breathing half of the last half out, repeated until you can no longer breath out in a small enough amount to justify breathing back in. Once you’ve “maxed” out, exhale completely.
Inhale completely. Now exhale half way. Inhale fully again, followed by an exhale half that of the previous exhale. Repeat full inhale again followed by smaller exhales until you are no longer able to breath in. Exhale completely, and don’t be shy about it!
It takes focus and energy to do this, and you’ll feel energized afterward.
How do you feel? More energized and focused? Exhausted or lightheaded? Do your lungs feel comfortably stretched like after a good run? We find this technique to be a great way to start the day off energized and alert.
And there’s more!
There are plenty more breathing exercises out there to dig into. The square breathing method alone has an infinite number of variations based upon length of each cycle. We’ve shared a few of our favorites here and would love to hear about any techniques you use and why you use them!
The human body is an amazing piece of machinery and we are only just now unlocking its secrets. It can be a bit overwhelming learning about all the ways to increase productivity, get fit, or just stay healthy. Just remember, no matter how overwhelming things may become there’s always something that you can do: Just breath.