In Part 1 in this series on “How To Relax”, I talked about how it is sometimes difficult to regulate one’s breath in moments of high tension or even when there is just chronic day-to-day stress in the body.
I also highlighted in Part 1 how to access and soothe the nervous system through self-massage when one cannot adjust one’s own breath patterns.
Hopefully, by doing so, an individual can then calm the breath.
I have made it Part 2 because it really is so important and the key to all of this.
The way one breathes is the way one lives.
And so one has a handle on the initial stress causing the breathing constriction, it is a good idea to focus on making the breathwork in one’s favor and rebalancing oneself into a calm state.
A Weight-Loss Book About Breathing
At the time, I was very much focused on losing a bit of weight and it made sense to me that adjusting my breath in a conscious way would be able to help me with my weight loss efforts.
But what was nice about this short, timeless book from the 1990s was that it not only included an exercise for adjusting metabolism through breath, but also a number of other breathing exercises to activate other desired biological responses in the body through breath, including relaxation.
Some of the breathing exercises she included were for speeding metabolism, increasing energy, improving digestion, detoxing, and releasing stress.
I worked my way through all of the energies and noticed how each exercise affected my body in a different way.
While I was not surprised by this, it also had not been as direct an experience as when I was changing the breathing exercise from day to day.
And so the main takeaway from reading this book was not about weight loss but about the manipulation of one’s own biology through the breath.
And while I already had an awareness of that capability, the power and strength of that capability became even more clear through this book.
Breath and Massage
When I am in a massage session, it is common for me to be working on a muscle that does not want to let go and relax.
In the midst of this holding pattern of tension, I will often encourage my client to take a few deep breaths as I continue to work on the area.
Often, a few deep breaths is enough to open up that area and allow for relaxation.
The diaphragm, intercostal muscles (muscles between the ribs) and other muscles related to breathing can get tight and prevent the lungs from expanding fully.
And even though a person could be consciously telling their lungs to take a deeper and slower breath, the tension in the muscles surrounding the lungs could be preventing that.
This is why Part 1 started with massaging areas that relax the body in a holistic way (like the hands).
With the entire being relaxed, the muscles around the lungs and the key muscles for deep breathing will function better.
Optimal Breath for Relaxation
So what is the goal? What is the pattern of breath? What choices in breathing style and pattern will help the most.
I will start with what everyone already pretty much knows so that we can move on to more finite points.
Deep, long breaths are best.
But not just deep, long breaths, but those breaths have to go all the way down into your belly.
Some people say that if your shoulders go up then you are doing it completely wrong, but I think it is only if you are not moving other parts (like the belly) as well.
The belly should go out and fill up as well.
Expanding the chest as one breathes can indicate that tension is increased in that area and therefore the breathing is more restricted, but if you are filling the upper lungs with air as well as the lower lungs, it makes sense that the chest and shoulders would go up a bit.
Deep Breath: Breathe Into Your Root
I once attended a women’s workshop where the leader kept saying, “Breathe into your vagina” and it sounded really weird but the truth is that that is an excellent way to get a sense of how deep the breath should go.
Also, by saying “Breathe into your genitals” it is a way of encouraging the breather to relax the muscles in that area (the perineum) and that can help with relaxation as well.
But regarding the breath, a proper deep belly breath will expand the diaphragm so much that a sensation of the breath going into the lower extremities is common, and an excellent way to visualize a deep-breath experience if you are still feeling a lot of tension in the abdominal area that is blocking a full belly breath.
Slow Breath and Pattern of Breath
If you can’t remember the details of this post, just knowing that slowing the breath will help you to relax, as long as you aren’t gasping for air between those slow breaths.
That’s really all you need to know.
But we can go deeper with this concept.
Generally speaking, if your exhales are longer than your inhales, your body will relax more.
If your exhales are longer than your inhales, your body will tend to energize.
So in the midst of stress, it is best to take a deep inhale, but do your best to exhale at a slower rate.
So if you inhale for 8 seconds, try to exhale for 12 or 16 seconds or more.
And then allow that to happen for several minutes in a way that will create a rhythm.
Rhythms are soothing to the body and so by keeping a consistent rhythm you self-soothe a tense nervous system and that will help you to relax more quickly (that’s why mothers often leave their baby’s carrier on the washing machine – the rhythm of the washing machine is soothing to the baby).
Yogic Breath Exercise: Alternate Nostril Breathing
Because breathing affects every aspect of body function, it makes sense that adjusting the way one takes in breath will affect the body systems in different ways.
This exercise is about balancing the brain hemispheres, which will help in a moment of anxiety, as long as one is in enough of a relaxed state to take deep breaths necessary for this exercise.
This might be a better one to do when one is in a constant day-to-day stress situation as an exercise to start and/or finish the day, rather than in a moment of panic when the required deep breath and stillness might be hard to achieve.
The idea is to start by taking a deep breath in through both nostrils, then to exhale through one nostril. Then take your next breath in through that same nostril. Then switch to the other nostril and exhale. And then inhale through that one.
Nice and slow.
I first saw this exercise on the side of a box of herbal tea from India, but it was also in Pam Grout’s book.
She recommended the inhales and exhales each is 6 seconds and that the breath is held for 3 seconds (as you switch nostrils). She also recommended 6 rounds of this breathing.
And here are more specifics about alternate nostril breathing if you are interested in the energetic effects of alternate nostril breathing from a yogic point of view.
My Own Breathing Practice
So what do I do on a daily basis, and what do I recommend for my clients?
In the morning, after my alarm goes off but before I engage with anything else related to the outside world (specifically, my cell phone), I take 10 deep slow breaths while I massage my hands, face, ears and scalp (and sometimes my feet).
I make sure that I let this breath out all of way, engaging my ab muscles so that the diaphragm pushes all of the air out of my lower lungs.
Taking a few minutes to do this in the morning will set you up to continue to breathe more deeply, it will wake the body up a bit while also increase the oxygen in the body and the sensation will be relaxed alertness that will also help with an improved mood, in the face of extremely day.
Then during the day, if I feel myself becoming tense (often if I am exposed to news or Facebook feed) I will remove the stimulus and return to this exercise for a few minutes and I will find that it is easier to find my centering if I start my day with the initial 10 breaths in the morning.