Stop for a moment. Close your eyes and feel the movement of your own breath. How fast is it? How deep is it? Does in enter through your nose or mouth? Does it move in your chest, your belly, your shoulders? When was the last time you noticed any of these details?
Most of us pay little attention to our breath, except maybe when it runs out on us during a workout or a climb up the stairs. Our breathing tends to be shallow, confined to the upper chest. Without utilizing the full range of our lungs, we miss out on the benefits of a full oxygenated body and a tool for triggering a calm, focused state of mind.
You’ve probably heard something about the benefits of breathing exercises, and maybe you’ve even tried some of them before, but just now when you stopped to check your own breath, how close was it to the ideal? If the answer is not very, read on to learn how you can change that and gain the benefits of truly improved breathing.
Focusing on your breath can serve several purposes in the moment: calm your emotions, energize you, and boost clarity.
Breath is critical: the human body can survive weeks without food and days without water, but only a few minutes without oxygen. You do it automatically, but unlike other automatic functions like the heart or digestive system, you can also control it purposefully. You probably do that on a few occasions already. Maybe you deliberately slow your breath while you exercise, or perhaps you pause and take a few deep breaths when you’re angry. These are great ways to use the breath, but we can take it even further.
Focusing on your breath can serve several purposes in the moment. It can calm your emotions, whether you’re feeling anxious, frustrated, sad, or even overly excited. It can energize you, especially when your body has been sedentary for an extended period. It can also bring you focus and clarity, something that many of us desperately seek at some point during the work day.
I’m going to explain two quick, basic breathing exercises designed to have exactly these benefits. The first one wakes up the lungs and promotes full oxygenation, and the second shifts your attention to the details of your breathing process. You can do these in any position, with your eyes open or closed, but if you can, try it with closed eyes, seated upright with your feet flat on the floor in front of you and your hands resting gently on your thighs.
The real key to realizing the true benefits of this exercise, or any breathing exercise for that matter, is consistency.
Exercise 1: Wake up the lungs
- Begin by assuming a symmetric, open posture: place your weight evenly on both feet, align your hips and shoulders, and reach the crown of your head towards the sky while releasing your shoulders downward.
- Forcefully expel all the air from your lungs through your nose. Make the breath audible by tightening the muscles at the back of your throat, as if you were about to hum (but without actually humming).
- When your lungs are empty, count to 3 without inhaling.
- Inhale deliberately for 8 counts, filling the entire volume of your lungs, from your upper chest down to your belly.
- When your lungs are full, count to 3 without exhaling.
- Repeat for 5 breaths.
Exercise 2: Notice your breath
- Allow your breath to normalize. Don’t force it to be deeper or slower — just allow yourself to breathe in a natural and relaxed way.
- Spend a few moments with your breath in each point on its journey. Start at the nostrils, feeling the air move past the sensitive skin and small hairs. Only one side of the nose is breathing at any given moment — notice which side is active in this moment.
- Move to the throat, and see if you notice any sensations of breath or muscle movement there. I often find that when I do this, the valves of the Eustachian tube, which connects the throat to the inner ear, open up and equalize the pressure in my ears.
- As you move lower, note whether your shoulders and upper chest are moving up and down. If they are, try to direct the breath further down into the belly.
- Go all the way down to the navel, and focus on the movement of the diaphragm, contracting downward to expand the chest cavity and draw air in. You should feel your lower ribs and belly expanding outward with each breath in.
- Finish by returning your attention to the breath at the nostrils for a moment. Release any tension in your jaw, eyes, forehead, and neck.
The real key to realizing the true benefits of this exercise, or any breathing exercise for that matter, is consistency. Yes, you can use this as an occasional one-off remedy in moments of stress or distraction, but to achieve a better baseline state of peace, energy, and focus, it takes consistent practice. The good news is that the process feels great — the hardest part is just remembering to do it! If you know you’ll forget, try using your phone or wearable device to help you stay on track. If you already have an activity you do every hour or two — like stretching, going to the bathroom, getting some water, etc. — try to tack this onto what you’re already doing.