Your breath can be a powerful tool for soothing your nervous system.
When life gets stressful, the temptation is to just shut down or tune out. And there's no shortage of quick ways to numb the mind in modern society: scrolling through Instagram, online shopping, happy hour drink specials. But those distractions rarely have a lasting effect, and sometimes, they exacerbate the problem.
Enter breathing exercises. Focusing on your breath can quell anxiety and provide a serious dose of calm to both the body and mind, with benefits that last beyond the initial dopamine hit. Best of all, you can practice many types of breathwork almost anywhere — a desk, the back of an Uber, a locked bathroom stall.
Start with these simple deep breathing exercises from the experts.
A great place to start is by getting an idea of your everyday breathing patterns. “Observation is a skill, which is a prerequisite to utilizing the breath for a calmer approach to life,” explains yoga instructor Joyce Englander Levy.
Lie on your back in a comfortable position. "Set a timer for five minutes, and as you breathe, notice what parts of your body move," explains Levy, who notes that this technique does require some privacy. Where do you feel movement as you breathe out? You might note the impact of your breath in unexpected places — an uncurling of your fists, perhaps, or your shoulders settling into the ground.
After five minutes of observation, you should have a better sense of how breath moves through your body. You should also feel calmer, since observing your breath can lead to longer, more intentional inhales and exhales.
“You can advance this practice by adding more time or doing it from a seated position,” says Levy, who recommends getting comfortable with this daily breath observation practice before moving onto something more advanced.
For a grounding, in-the-moment breath technique, take a cue from whales and practice an “Udgeeth,” or “singing,” breath. Inhale deeply through your nose, then release the breath with a long chant of “OM.” (It’s the same sound you’d make at the end of a yoga class.) Continue the chant for the entirety of your exhale, with more time spent on the “O” sound than the “M” sound.
“I love the simplicity and heart-centered connection that Udgeeth breathing provides in such a short span of time,” explains Ananta Ripa Ajmera, advisor of Ayurveda at THE WELL. The long breath calms, while the vibration of the OM grounds you back in your body.
Buzzing Bee Breathing
Wish you had a “reset” button? When it feels like things are going south — or stress levels are skyrocketing north — pause, find a quiet spot and try this Ayurveda-inspired technique.
“The buzzing bee breathing exercise is a powerful recharge,” explains Ajmera. “Just as our technological gadgets require recharging to continue to function in an optimal fashion, our minds and bodies deserve an easy and efficient way to recharge."
Settle into a comfortable seat with eyes closed. As you slow your breathing, bring thumbs to meet index fingers on each hand. Release the hold after a few breaths. Then place a thumb over each ear opening, and bring the middle and ring fingers of each hand to rest gently over each closed eye. Rest index fingers on the forehead, so the fingers of each hand are fanned out across the upper face. Inhale deeply through your nose, then exhale slowly through the nose while making a humming noise with your throat. You’ll sound like a buzzing bee, hence the name.
Once you’ve exhaled all your breath out, lift fingers off your ear and face and begin again. Repeat two to five times, or until you’re ready to face the world again.
Looking for breathing exercises when you're on-the-go? Give resonant breathing a try, suggests Levy. All you need to do: Aim to breathe in for five seconds and breathe out for five seconds.
To start, set a timer for five minutes and lie down on your back, or sit in a comfortable position. Then, start breathing in for five seconds and out for five seconds, counting silently in your head as you go.
“If your mind wanders and you lose track of your breath, simply return to five-second inhales and five-second exhales” says Levy. “The practice of bringing yourself back to the practice will improve your ability to focus and concentrate over time.” After a few five-minute sessions, you could work your way up to a 10-minute round of resonant breathing.
“Try this practice and observe the moments of calmness both [during] the breathing practice and in your life,” suggests Levy. “Take note of the moments when you begin to respond differently to scenarios that you typically respond to with stress, anxiety, anger or frustration.”
If it feels like it’s working, try bringing the practice into your daily life, Levy says. “You can do this resonant breathing practice on your way to and from work to make transitioning between those parts of your day smoother.”