~ awake in this moment, at home in the world ~

Sweet and Simple Breathing Practices

July 23, 2020
Are you looking for a simple practice that can reliably calm the mind and steady the heart? The answer may be already within you, in the simple rise and fall of your breath.

Yoga breathing techniques, or pranayama practices, harness the breath to cultivate vitality and happiness within. Some of these practices are deep and demanding, but many are simple enough to slip with ease into the folds of your day.

To give you a taste of the breath's unique ability to steady the mind, I have pulled together a few of my very favorite breathing practices. These explorations are simple enough to learn on your own, and they are fortifying enough to change your mood within minutes.

Yogis discovered centuries ago what modern scientists are learning more about today: The breath and the nervous system are closely related. Changes in the nervous system lead us to breathe in different ways. And, changes in our breathing can shift the way that energy that flows through us. Changing our breath, quite literally, has the power to change our minds.

That means we can use the breath as a steadying force in our lives, restoring us toward balance when we are feeling off-kilter and out of sorts. When we are feeling stressed and overwhelmed, for example, we might soothe ourselves by shifting toward a breathing pattern that emphasizes long and smooth exhalations. And when we suffering from low energy, we might pump a little life into our bodies by gently emphasizing our inhalations.

In addition, gentle breathing practices can serve as mini-meditation practices, giving our minds something clear and steadying to focus on. Pranayama practices pull us into the experience of the present moment in ways that can halt the endless stream of thoughts that spiral uncontrollably through our heads.

The yogic breathing practices of pranayama range from sweet and simple - like the ones I offer here - to demanding and rigorous. If you decide to explore the deeper practices, I suggest that you work with an experienced teacher who can guide you with intelligence and care.

When exploring the breath in any form, my favorite way to start is to lie down, relax deeply, and simply watch the breath as it pours into and out of the body. This "breath sensing" practice brings our minds back to the here-and-now, and reacquaints us with the lovely, lilting rise-and-fall rhythm of the breath.

To practice, settle yourself into a quiet and comfortable spot that allows you to feel deeply supported and at ease. (I like to lie down onto the floor and let myself feel held by the earth.) Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths, filling your lungs with fresh air as you breathe in and letting each exhalation invite you to relax more deeply. Release your belly, let your shoulders melt, unclench your jaw, and quiet the face.  Let go of everything that can be let go of.

Once your body begins to feel soft and settled, rest your gaze on the sensations of the breath. Let your mind be like a butterfly resting on the leaves of a bush as it gently shifts in the breeze. What does it feel like to breathe in? What does it feel like to breathe out? How does the air feel as it slips through your nose? And how does your body shift as it receives and releases the breath?

Your job is to dive in deeply to the breath, to enjoy the breath as it wafts through you like a spring breeze. In this breath-sensing practice, you are not trying to manipulate the breath in any way. You are just letting it be and enjoying the ride.

Would you like to give this lovely practice a try? This "Mindful Breath" guided audio can get you started. (You can also find it by clicking here.)

Books have been written about the mechanics of breathing, and full courses are offered on how to breathe properly. My own maxim is that there is no one right way to breathe - that every moment calls for its own unique response - and that the body already knows how to breathe optimally. Long-held tension in the body sometimes gets in the way of healthy breathing, so one of the best things we can do is soften the musculature of the body, relax deeply, and let the body breathe freely.

My mentors in this practice are sleeping babies. When resting deeply, the whole body appears to be rising and falling, swelling and releasing, as they breathe in and out. Babies are masters at "whole-body breathing" - letting the whole body participate in the breathing process - and we can learn from their example.

The instruction? Simply lie down and breathe like a baby! Conjure up a favorite image of a sleeping child, and breathe like that beautiful being. Don't let the mind get too tangled up in what that means - your body will remember. I've written an entire article about the practice, which you can find here. Years after writing this piece, "breathe like a baby" is still one of my favorite instructions.

When life life threatens to overwhelm, the breath can help us ratchet down the tension and return us toward balance. My favorite immediate relief in times of struggle is to discharge energy with a long exhalation through the mouth. Think sigh of exasperation. Think sigh of relief. Think letting all struggle slip out and away with the breath.

I like to think of this cleansing breath as a quick detoxifier for my brain and my body. This simple practice - which you likely already do quite naturally - helps us discharge a little energy and bring us back to a deeper state of calm.

The instructions are simple: Breathe in normally, though the nose, if possible, and then breathe out through pursed lips, as if you were blowing through a straw, extending the exhalation as long as comfortably possible. After each exhalation, breathe easily for a few moments without controlling the breath at all. And when you feel ready, repeat.

Try this for three or four or five minutes at a stretch, and notice how the practice changes how you feel. Hopefully you will feel a little calmer and steadier, a little less stressed and a little more at ease in the world.

The long exhalations of the cleansing breath signal to the nervous system that it’s okay for your body and your mind to relax and rest with ease in the moment. In addition, the practice gives your mind something more wholesome to focus on than fears and grudges and tired old thoughts looping through your brain. This practice often leads me deep to an oasis of peace and calm that is sometimes called the still point within. I've written about it here.

Box breathing is one of the simplest breathing practices I know, and it never fails to steady my mind. It's quick and easy and can be practiced anywhere. And it offers a balanced reset to the body, an opportunity to feel both awake and at ease in the world.

The instructions are simple: reshape the four phases of the breath until they are equal in length. Let the inhalation, the pause at the end of the inhalation, the exhalation and the gap at the end of the exhalation all last the same amount of time. That's it!

The intention here isn't to slow or lengthen the breath, it's to create a feeling of steadiness and equanimity. Breathe in as you count up two (or four or six), pause for that same count, breathe out for the same count, and rest for that count. Your body will intuitively reshape the breath to fit into that square-like or box-like pattern. And after a few rounds, your state of being will likely feel smoothed and steadied.

The practice is easy and portable, and can be used any time you're feeling out of sorts. Read more here for more detailed instructions, along with a guided video

My yoga friends know my favorite breathing technique: humming like a bumble bee. In yoga, this practice is called bhramari breath, and ancient yoga texts tell us that devoted practice will cause bliss to arise from the heart. Doesn't that sound enticing?

If you've ever hummed, then you already know how to practice bhramari breath. Close your lips gently, relax the jaw, and rest the tongue on the roof of your mouth. Inhale normally through the nose, if possible, and then exhale through the nose while making a gentle humming sound.

In the beginning, you may like to take a few easy breaths between each humming exhalation. Once you feel comfortable, you can practice one round of buzzing bee breath directly after the other for several rounds, up to five minutes or so. If you're like me, a few rounds of bhramari breath will soothe and settle the mind while offering a gentle buzz of uplift and delight.

How does bhramari breath work? When we hum, we lengthen our exhalations without even trying. Long and slow exhalations calm the nervous system, shifting us switch from fight-or-flight mode toward the calmer rest-and-digest mode of being. Long exhale after long exhale, we settle our overexcited nervous systems. The accompaniment of the sound vibrations deepens this experience, adding a feeling of lightness to the sweet and settled calm.

In addition, focusing awareness on the sound of the humming breath can help clear and steady the mind, diverting attention from the endless parade of thoughts cycling through our heads. In this way, bhramari breath becomes a form of meditation, offering the mind a safe and lovely place to anchor itself, allowing us to grow calmer and steadier. I've written more about this light and lovely practice of bhramari breath here.

And if buzzing like a bee sounds too silly for you, forget all about it and just hum - or even sing - your favorite tune as you go about your day. That's a breathing practice, too, as I've written about here. I bet you'll find your mind growing calmer and your mood brightening as you make a joyful noise!