Five breathing practices to support mind-body health
By Robin Rothenberg
The breath is our greatest inner resource, and breathing skillfully can support immune and respiratory health. Breathwork, or pranayama, is a key component of yoga therapy. Initially, training your breathing may feel awkward, but the more you practice, the easier it gets.
Here are my five favorite tips to harness the breath for optimal health.
1. Breathe through your nose. I’ll repeat: Please, breathe through your nose if possible. The nasal cavity is the miraculous starting point for your immune system. Your nose is designed to protect your lungs from foreign particles, including germs. Within the nasal cavity are tiny turbinates—specially shaped bony structures—that filter out substances that are not intended to be ingested. Inside the sinus cavities, you have pockets of nitric oxide, a potent antimicrobial gas that has been shown to have antiviral capacities. With each nasal inhalation you ensure that the air you are taking into your body has been filtered of certain germs by passing through this natural checkpoint.
2. Breathe lightly. Although common lore suggests that when you feel nervous or upset you should take a deep breath, I’m going to suggest otherwise. Here’s why: Deep breathing stimulates your sympathetic nervous system (responsible for fight-or-flight responses). We tend to take big sighs or gulps of air when we’re stressed or exercising. But breathing slows and softens when we are relaxed. Ask yourself, “How would Buddha breathe?” Settle the breath and many people find that the mind settles as well.
3. Breathe slowly. The companion to a light breath is a slow, rhythmic breath. Fast breathing tends to give rise to shallow, chest-generated breathing—as opposed to relaxed “belly” breathing. When you override the urge to breathe rapidly, you exhibit personal agency over your reactivity in the present moment. This is empowering! Even in stressful situations, you can choose to maintain a slow, light breath cadence. This can help to diffuse fear while reinforcing beneficial resilience.
4. Breathe like a jellyfish. Teach your belly and diaphragm to dance with the breath. Jellyfish breathing activates your parasympathetic nervous system (responsible for rest-and-digest responses), massages your heart, and supports lymphatic drainage.
Your diaphragm is the dome-shaped muscle that stretches across the bottom of your rib cage; it’s our primary breathing muscle, especially when we’re relaxed. Imagine your diaphragm expanding and contracting like a beautiful jellyfish. When you inhale, your diaphragm descends and flattens, expanding your rib cage laterally. When you exhale, your diaphragm relaxes inward and upward, narrowing the space between the ribs. On inhalation, relax the belly and allow it to passively expand. On exhalation, actively engage your abdominals: Draw your belly inward as if giving your abdominal organs a gentle hug. Visualize the undulating movement of a jellyfish.
5. Create short suspensions. Practicing short suspensions offers a safer and less cumbersome alternative to breathing into a paper bag (as we often see dramatized in movies). It may sound counterintuitive, but when feeling anxious or worried an effective way to short-circuit the panic button may be to voluntarily suspend the breath.
Follow these steps to practice short suspensions:
- Gently breathe in and out through the nose
- After an exhale, gently seal both nostrils with your fingers, suspend the breath out, and count up to 5.
- Release your fingers and take a few nasal breaths in and out.
- Repeat the process until you feel a return to calm.
Only suspend the breath to a level that feels slightly challenging. Honor where you are with this process. As your system calms, you’ll find it easier to suspend the breath for longer periods.
To summarize, when you’re feeling breathless, stressed, anxious, or just out of sorts, settle. Settle into your body. Settle the breath. Think of this process as transforming a hurricane into a gentle breeze. The more settled the breath, the more settled the mind. As the ancient yogis said: Prana (energy) follows citta (mental fluctuations), and citta follows prana. Quiet one and the other will follow.
Robin Rothenberg, C-IAYT, is the director of Essential Yoga Therapy and author of Restoring Prana: A Therapeutic Guide to Pranayama and Healing Through the Breath. She offers breath retraining, individual yoga therapy, and continuing education for yoga therapists.