Take a big deep breath. Seriously, do it. Feels good, right? But it could probably feel better. And do more for your body and mind. If when you take that deep inhale, you feel your shoulders and chest rise up, you’re breathing “vertically.” And, you really don’t want to do that. But you’re not alone. Most of us take short, vertical breaths because anxiety and stress pulls tension up into our shoulders. We often reflexively suck in our stomachs in order to look leaner. We focus on other things, never bringing attention to our breathing patterns and this all adds up to quick, shallow inhales from our chest.
But you can harness your breath and use it to reduce stress, increase productivity and balance your health. “Our breathing is the only system in the body that is both completely automatic and also under our control—that’s not an accident of nature or a coincidence,” says Dan Brulé, author of Just Breath. “Breathing is the link between body and mind—it’s a tool.” And he says we should use it as one.
The renowned breathwork expert, who’s trained everyone from Olympic athletes to martial artists, says that the way we breathe when we are peaceful and calm is different than the way we breathe when we’re angry and stressed. When your natural state changes, your breathing pattern changes. But it’s a two-way street: when you change your breathing pattern, you change your state. So if we control our breathing, we control our awareness, focus and overall energy. “Breath control,” says Brulé, “is self control.”
To get the most from each inhale and exhale you take, you want to breathe deeply. Deep breathing also goes by such names as diaphragmatic breathing, abdominal breathing and belly breathing. When you breathe through your diaphragm, the air coming in through your nose fully fills your lungs, and the lower belly rises. This focused breathing encourages a full oxygen exchange, which relaxes the body, slows your heartbeat and stabilizes your blood pressure. And it’s as easy as breathing. Here are four simple exercises that may feel a bit strange at first, but will have you feeling superhuman in no time.
During a workout
Sit comfortably and place one hand on your chest and take a deep breath into your hand. Now place your other hand at your stomach’s base and take a deep breath. Breathe in slowly through your nose and focus on getting your stomach to push your hand up while your chest remains still. Repeat for six breaths, then combine the chest and belly breaths together. Imagine you’re pouring water into a glass. You want the glass to fill up starting from the bottom of your belly (the diaphragm) up to the top of your chest. This opens up your lungs and maximizes your oxygen input to give you better mental clarity and athletic performance.
During Stressful Times
Take a deep, slow inhale through your nose. Hold it in for three seconds, then, placing your top front teeth on your bottom lip, slowly let the air pass through your teeth in a long, passive exhale. This ideally should take at least twice as long as your inhale. At the bottom of the exhale, pause for a moment, take a normal breath and then repeat. Do this at least three times. This exercise lowers your heart rate and calms the body’s natural stress response, so it’s handy during anxiety-inducing situations.
For a Natural Boost
Make the phone gesture with your right hand. Press your thumb against your right nostril to close it and inhale slowly through your left nostril. Pause for a second. Then release your right nostril and press your pinky against your left nostril to close it. Exhale slowly through your right nostril. Now inhale through your right nostril and repeat by alternating the sequence.
For Rest and Recovery
Lie on your back and inhale until your chest is full. Exhale all the air out forcefully, like you’re blowing out a candle. Your abs should feel wrung out. Repeat the process for two minutes. It should feel like a workout and maybe even leave you a little lightheaded and disoriented. But only for a moment. Move your arms to your sides, palms up, and take deep diaphragmatic breaths through your nose. You’ll feel sleeply and may even nod off. That’s because you’ve disengaged your body’s “fight-or-flight” state, kickstarting recovery.