Feeling anxious? Feeling down? Mentally scattered? Lethargic? Whatever you are feeling or thinking, the secret to getting back on track may be as close as your own breath.
Back in high school, I was pretty serious about playing the clarinet. I would come home from school every day and practice. But I had to push myself to do it. Because by the time school ended, I was ready to take a nap, feeling the impact of a full school day coupled with the all-too-common afternoon slump.
Almost without fail, after playing clarinet for a while, I felt more awake, more alert. That feeling that made the idea of getting some Z’s pretty appealing had vanished.
Was it the music? Perhaps the concentration required to practice made me more alert. Well, no. Because when I practiced piano, I didn’t get the same boost. If I felt tired when I started practicing piano, I usually still felt tired at the end.
So why was playing the clarinet a magical fatigue eraser? Only years later, when I learned about the impact of breathing on our physiology and our mental focus did I put the pieces together.
Whenever I played the clarinet, I was taking repeated breaths that I very slowly exhaled into an instrument that provided some resistance to my breath. This in turn caused me to engage not only my lungs, but my diaphragm and the surrounding muscles. As I later discovered, this was a tailor-made recipe to awaken the body and mind from its slumber.
Using Your Breath to Control Your Mental and Emotional State
A growing body of research shows that when we pay attention to our breathing, and breathe in specific ways, we can activate networks in our brain that regulate our emotions, our mental focus, and our physiology. Paced breathing, for example, has been shown to increase our ability to focus.
A study conducted by Stanford’s Dr. Emma Seppala and University of Wisconsin’s Dr. Richard Davidson taught a breathing practice to U.S. military veterans who had returned from Afghanistan with PTSD or other abnormal stress issues. The breathing practice helped the veterans gain significant control over their anxiety and emotions even where therapeutic interventions and medications had failed.
Another group of studies demonstrated that we utilize different breathing patterns for different emotions (anger, joy, fear, sadness, etc.), and that we can deliberately replicate these breathing patterns to produce the emotions. In other words, we can use our breathing to become calmer, happier and more focused.
But you don’t need to read a scientific study to know that your breathing closely tracks your emotional and physiological state. If you encounter someone experiencing an anxiety attack, you will never see them breathing slowly, deeply and calmly. Anxiety and slow, deep breathing do not go together. Nor will you ever see someone who is calm and focused who is breathing erratically. Again, the two don’t go together.
There are literally hundreds of breathing techniques available. In general though, a regular practice of slow, paced, deep breathing can put you in a calm, focused state – exactly the right state to function at your maximum potential and feel good about it. There is even some evidence that this type of breathing practice can lower your blood pressure as well as the stress hormones your body produces.
Here are a few easy breathing practices you can try that will get you to a calm, focused state. You can do any of these exercises for as long as you like. However, after 5 minutes, you’ll likely notice a big difference.
Even a minute or so while standing in line at the supermarket or waiting for an elevator can quickly get you calmer and more focused. The key is consistency. Engaging in a breathing practice for just a few minutes, a couple of times a day, every day, will do far more for you than long breathing sessions done sporadically.
1. Allow yourself to be “breathed.” This is my favorite go-to breathing exercise for becoming centered in a hurry. Simply focus your attention on your breath and allow your breath to happen. Don’t actively inhale or exhale. Just observe the breath and allow it to happen all on its own. You are not doing the breathing. You are being “breathed.” The air is simply flowing in and out of you at its own pace without you getting in the way. Paying attention to the breath doing its thing on its own is a great way to remove tension.
2. Alternate nostril breathing. This ancient technique is common in yoga circles and more closely approximates the energizing effect I produced when I played clarinet. Instead of coming from an instrument, the resistance comes from breathing slowly through the smallest opening possible.
Close your mouth. You will be breathing only through your nose. Place your thumb or forefinger on the right side of your nose, gently pressing to close your right nostril. Then inhale through the left nostril only. Switch your hand to close off your left nostril, and then exhale through the right nostril. Now inhale through the right nostril. Then close off your right nostril again, and exhale through your left nostril.
That completes one cycle of alternate nostril breathing. Try 5-10 cycles, or as many as you can manage comfortably. You may find that one nostril is less open than the other, making it harder to breath through that nostril. Do your best with it, and if you practice this regularly, that nostril will open up, which in turn will enable you to breath more freely and more deeply.
If you are feeling tired, a variation is to do this same exercise with slow inhales but very quick exhales – almost like a snort. The quick exhales will invigorate you.
3. Slow down and notice the space. Notice the pace of your breathing right now. Then deliberately slow it down. An ideal slow pace is about 6 breaths per minute, but start with whatever pace you can maintain comfortably. If you want to check the pace of your breaths, you can use a stopwatch or one of the many available breathing apps.
Once you have slowed down your breathing (which alone will produce a calming effect), also notice the space that exists between your inhale and exhale, and again between your exhale and inhale.
If you pay attention to it, you’ll become aware of a space between the inhale and exhale where you stop breathing for a moment and then begin breathing again in the opposite direction. Noticing and then lingering just a bit in that space can be extremely calming and centering.