Take a long deep breath, filling your belly with fresh oxygen. Pause and hold. Now exhale slowly on a five-count. Repeat the exercise four times.
Congratulations! You’ve just steadied your body’s nervous system.
Controlled breathing, like what you just did, has been proven to reduce stress, increase alertness, and improve your immune system. It’s these benefits that have yogis in particular employing breath control, or pranayama, to build concentration and vitality.
Science is only scratching the surface of how breathing can benefit the body. Studies are slowly unlocking the pros; for example, breathing exercises can reduce ailments associated with anxiety, insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and attention-deficit disorder.
“Breathing is massively practical,” says Belisa Vranich, a psychologist and author of the book Breathe, on shelves in December. “It’s meditation for people who can’t meditate.”
Changing your breathing patterns purposefully seems to send signals to the brain, making it adjust the body’s parasympathetic branch of the nervous system. This branch slows heart rates and digestion, promoting a sense of calmness. The sympathetic system is also eased, which is responsible for the release of stress hormones like cortisol.
Disorders like anxiety and depression are usually triggered by these stresses.
“I have seen patients transformed by adopting regular breathing practices,” said Dr. Richard Brown, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and co-author of The Healing Power of the Breath.
“If you breathe correctly, your mind will calm down,” added Dr. Patricia Gerbarg, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at New York Medical College, and Brown’s co-author.
Check out the following three breathing exercises, which you can try out on your own, and adopt in your day-to-day activities.
If there’s one breathing exercise to try, this is the one. The idea behind coherent breathing is to breathe at a rate of five breaths per minute, which adds up to inhaling and exhaling to a count of six. For those not used to breathing exercises, try a count of three to start, and work your way up from there.
- Sitting upright or lying down, place your hands on your belly.
- Slowly breathe in, expanding your belly, to the count of five.
- Slowly breathe out to the count of six.
- Work your way up to practicing this pattern for 10 to 20 minutes a day.
Also referred to as ‘rock and roll’ breathing, try this breathing exercise if you’re on edge, excitable, or simply want to work on your breathing whilst exercising your core.
- Sit up straight on the floor or the edge of a chair.
- Place your hands on your belly.
- As you inhale, lean forward and expand your belly.
- As you exhale, squeeze the breath out and curl forward while leaning backward; exhale until you’re completely empty of breath.
- Repeat 20 times.
Energizing ‘Ha’ breath
Feeling that classic afternoon lull? Get up and try this breathing exercise to revitalize your body for the rest of the evening.
- Stand up tall, elbows bent, palms facing up.
- As you inhale, draw your elbows back behind you, palms continuing to face up.
- Then exhale quickly and thrust your palms forward and turning them downward, while saying “Ha” out loud.
- Repeat quickly 10 to 15 times.