Breath Work – Breathing Exercises
When you inhale, you are taking the strength from God. When you exhale, it represents the service you are giving to the world. – B.K.S. Iyengar
Automatic Breath is the grace of God taken for granted. Conscious Breath is an entryway to the presence of God. – Rose Rosetree
We breathe in and out an average of 24,000 times a day – often without much thought on the matter. Even though the breathing process is automatic we do have the ability to consciously control our breath. In fact, respiration is the only bodily function that we can perform both involuntarily and voluntarily. This unique attribute of breathing makes it a helpful tool for aiding other processes that seem out of our control such as blood pressure, heart rate, and digestion. We can in essence speed up or slow down our bodies through the use of our breath.
The importance of breath work is emphasized in many ancient healing traditions including Ayurveda, which refers to the breath as pranayama, and incorporates breathing with movement in yoga practices; and Chinese Medicine which emphasizes the importance of breath through Qigong. Likewise, Meditation practices focus on deep breathing, with the breath seen as a gateway to relaxation and inner peace. In addition, given the manner in which optimal breathing sends vital oxygen to the brain and the muscles, breath work plays an important role for increasing energy and improving performance during exercise of all types.
Breathing is such an effortless activity that we often take it for granted. As a result, when we get busy and stressed it is common for us to fall into patterns of inefficient, shallow breathing. Following are breathing techniques that will help to maximize oxygen intake resulting in greater relaxation and energy:
- Abdominal Breathing – To fully fill our lungs we must breath into our abdomen. We can learn to do this by placing one hand on the chest and the other on the belly and then breathing in deeply aiming to raise the hand on the belly higher than the one on the chest. It may help to practice this technique while lying down.
- Alternative Nostril Breathing – Just as the name suggests alternative nostril breathing is to cover the left nostril while breathing in through the right nostril, pausing, then covering the right nostril while breathing out through the left nostril. More detailed instructions can be found at the Chopra Center: http://www.chopra.com/nadishodhana
- Numbered Breathing – By varying the length of time between our inhalation and exhalation, we are able to refocus our attention and maximize the breathing process. One practice is 7 1 7 1 breathing in which you inhale to the count of 7, pause for 1 second, exhale for 7 seconds, and pause for 1 second, repeating the process for several cycles. Dr. Andrew Weil describes another relaxing technique using a count of 4 7 8: www.drweil.com/drw/u/ART00521/three-breathing-exercises.html
- Breath of Fire (Bellows Breathing) – The breath of fire is commonly practiced in Kundalini yoga. It is performed in different variations, but generally begins with a very deep breath followed by rapidly inhaling and exhaling as those one were a bellow. This technique is great for increasing energy and can even effectively exercise the abdominal muscles. [For a demonstration please see this Breath of Fire video from Ana Brett]
- Tonglen – a Buddhist meditative practice in which participants breath in a feeling of dark, heavy and hot, then breath out a feeling of bright cool and light. It is a circular means of letting go. As the breathing advances a personal pain can be added to facilitate releasing it.
Breath Work Resources
Healthy.net – Breath Therapy - www.healthy.net/Alternative_Therapy/Breath_Therapy/98 – a variety of articles and techniques on breathing. *Note: this site sells products so some information could be biased.
NCCAM – Relaxation for Health – http://nccam.nih.gov/health/stress/relaxation.htm – this article from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine references breathing exercises as a means for relaxation and explains how they positively impact the body.
The Art and Science of Breathing – http://www.drweil.com/drw/u/ART02039/the-art-and-science-of-breathing.html – a variety of breathing exercises from Dr. Andrew Weill.
Bhattacharya, B. Lecture at The Graduate Institute (April 29 & April 30, 2011). Understanding Ayurvedic Medicine Using a Biomedical Model
Girman, A., Vigna L., Lee, L. (2004). Chapter 16: Selected Issues in Environmental Medicine in Integrative Medicine. McGraw Hill Companies.
Health Hint: Breathing Exercises, AMSA (American Medical Student Association) www.amsa.org/healingthehealer/breathing.cfm
Little, S. (2004). Chapter 3: Mind-Body Medicine in Integrative Medicine. McGraw Hill Companies
[Last Updated: 1/11/14]