Taking a deep breath or two to relax in and of itself isn’t new. Many people take a few deep breaths when they’ve feeling overcome by stress, and the adage, “just breathe” appears on everything from billboards to t-shirts. Deep breathing, often referred to as “belly or diaphragmatic breathing,” is incorporated in many different mind–body therapies. There is one fundamental problem with breath modification techniques, however. The majority of people are not fully aware of their lungs’ capacity. Consequently, they fail to inhale or exhale fully. Why is this the case?
A great many individuals are disconnected from the sensations and feedback from their bodies. This absence of body awareness may be a result of life experience, such as trauma, or of living in a culture that has embraced a medical model in which body and mind are divided rather than being considered holistically. In the years that I have been teaching breathing techniques, I have witnessed many clients, students, and workshop participants marvel at the discovery of their full breath capacity. Not convinced? Here’s a fun exercise. Inhale deeply and then measure the length of your slowest possible exhalation. Now do it again, but this time, measure the duration of your exhalation as you hum a single note as slowly as possible. Did you find a difference?
We can get in touch with our breath with a simple yet effective form of deep breathing called intentional breathing. Unlike other breathing techniques, the emphasis here is to allow the natural flow of the breath by inhaling from the top down and exhaling from the bottom up. Before you begin, there are a couple of things to remember:
Two things to keep in mind when practicing intentional breathing
- First, this is a practice. It may feel strange, awkward, or difficult. That is to be expected when trying something that you’ve never attempted before. Be kind with yourself and see this as an exploration rather than something to be immediately mastered.
- Second, and more importantly, if for any reason you feel really uncomfortable or this doesn’t feel right to you, it is perfectly okay to take a break or discontinue the exercise and try again another time.
How to Practice Intentional Breathing
1) Sit comfortably and observe your natural breath. Start by finding a comfortable position like sitting upright in a chair or lying on your back. Begin to observe your breath just as it is. Notice where the breath flows – upper chest, lower belly, front, back, or sides. As you do, try to avoid placing a judgment on how you are breathing or attaching a story to it. Just as if you were a scientist studying a cell under a microscope, see if you can examine all of the details of your breath one at a time and make mental notes of them. Observe how you are breathing just as you are. It’s an interesting exercise. You may already notice that the act of observing your breath slows down your respiration rate.
2) Place your hands on your chest and belly. Place your right hand on your breastbone (sternum) in the center of your chest. Place your left hand so that your thumb is below your navel. Continue to breathe normally and observe whether you are breathing more into your right hand or left hand. See if you can resist the urge to change your breath or make it deeper. Breathe as normally as you can and observe how it is to be in your body, breathing normally. How does it feel? What do you notice? Continue for at least 10 breaths.
3) Breathe into your chest. Try breathing just into your right hand that is resting in the middle of your upper chest. Without forcing the breath, see how it feels to breathe into the space below your right hand. What do you notice? Can you slow your inhalation or is that difficult or uncomfortable? Just see what happens. Keep observing for 10–20 breaths. After 10–20 breaths, take a few deep inhalations and exhalations and resume breathing normally for a minute or so.
Begin to observe your breath just as it is. Notice where the breath flows – upper chest, lower belly, front, back, or sides. As you do, try to avoid placing a judgment on how you are breathing or attaching a story to it.
4) Breathe into your lower lungs. Next, try breathing just into your left hand that is resting on your abdomen. Without forcing the breath, see how it feels to breathe into the space below your left hand. What do you notice? Can you slow your inhalation or is that difficult or uncomfortable? Just see what happens. Keep observing for 10–20 breaths. After 10–20 breaths, take a few deep inhalations and exhalations and resume breathing normally for a minute or so.
5) Take half breaths into your chest and then your lower lungs. Now, try breathing half of your inhalation into your right hand, pause for a second or two, and then breathe the remainder into the space below your left hand and pause. Then exhale from the bottom up, first releasing the air below your left hand, then allowing the exhalation to continue from below your left hand to below your right hand, traveling up and out either through your nose or mouth. Continue to your next inhalation, first into the area beneath your right hand and then into the area beneath your left hand, then exhale from the bottom up. Can you slow your inhalation or is that difficult or uncomfortable? How does it feel? What do you notice? Keep observing for 10–20 breaths. After 10–20 breaths, take a few deep inhalations and exhalations and resume breathing normally for a minute or so.
6) Take full breaths. Finally, try breathing deeply and fully from top to bottom as you inhale and bottom to top as you exhale, without pausing. If possible, see if you can slow the exhalation so that it is longer than the inhalation. If you like, you can count 1, 2, 3, and so on to see which is longer: your inhalation or your exhalation. After 10–20 breaths, take a few big deep inhalations and exhalations and resume breathing normally for a minute or so.
7) Notice how you feel. Was the exercise simple or difficult? Did breathing slowly and fully seem usual to you? How do you feel physically? Emotionally? Energetically? If you like, write down your experience.
How Intentional Breathing Relieves Stress
This exercise is intended to activate your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) which initiates the relaxation response, depresses heart rate, blood pressure and respiration, and allows your body to engage in reparative and restorative functions. While not everyone experiences relaxation right away, most report feeling a sense of calm and a reduction in the feeling of stress after this exercise.
Although most find this intentional breathing exercise to be beneficial and informative, it doesn’t always work for everyone. Some people find it difficult to remain focused on the breath when their brain is in a constant state of chatter. One of my recent course attendees, Shirley, reported that even though the exercise was soothing, she struggled to keep her overactive mind in check. Her experience isn’t uncommon. There are many strategies to work with the mind in this situation, but the one that seems to work best for most people is to attach their breath to a word or a phrase to keep the mind focused. Shirley, for example, slowly recited the words “in” with the inhalation, and “out” with the exhalation. Pretty much any word or phrase can work to help focus the mind on the sensation of the breath. The trick is to keep the word or phrase simple so that the experience is still centered on the somatic, felt, or body sense of breathing rather than the thought sense, or a word or story that describes it.
While not everyone experiences relaxation right away, most report feeling a sense of calm and a reduction in the feeling of stress after this exercise.
Regardless of what works for you, intentional breathing takes practice. The good news is that it can be practiced virtually anywhere. The more that you practice, the easier it becomes. Particularly at the beginning, I suggest practicing intentional breathing at least a few times a day, every day, preferably in a quiet space and with all external distractions removed. You can do it whenever you find yourself sitting still for a few moments. It is much easier to learn a new skill while focusing on it, rather than trying to adopt it while multitasking.
Most of my clients and students report feeling benefits from this practice right away. They feel more calm and relaxed after a few minutes of intentional breathing. Over time, you may notice a shift in your awareness of your breath, or a tendency to breathe more deeply and fully most of the time. This is the first step in defusing the stress feedback loop and teaching your brain and body to relax.
This article was adapted from Mindful Relationships: Seven Skills for Success – Integrating the science of mind body and brain (Handspring Publishing, 2016), by B Grace Bullock PhD