I started a mindfulness practice because I was desperate.
I was very anxious and stressed a lot of the time. I had begun to have intense panic attacks that were making it harder and harder to function. Neither talk therapy nor medication was making much of a dent in my suffering, and many of my coping strategies were making things worse.
So, I started sitting in silence because I didn’t see another way. It was mostly difficult and frustrating to sit still for 20 minutes at a time and simply pay attention. My mind was crazy busy and my body was restless. But something told me that it was worth it. Thirty years later, I am incredibly grateful to have this practice in my life.
However, many people aren’t as desperate as I was. Making time every day to sit in silence and pay attention can seem like a pretty abstract way to improve their lives. If you are reading this, you might be one of these people. You want to do something, but your attempts at mindfulness don’t seem to live up to the hype.
I want to introduce something a little different. Not only does the approach of mindful breathwork feel like a more tangible place to start for many of my clients, but it has also significantly enriched my existing mindfulness practice, my sleep, and my overall energy and clarity throughout the day.
When we practice mindful breathwork, instead of simply observing the breath, we are actually directing the breath. We can lengthen, deepen, increase the tempo, and/or hold our breath depending on what we need.
Breathwork can be a powerful way to relax, to release negativity, to boost our immune system, to let go of habits that aren’t working, to reduce reactivity and resistance, to integrate aspects of ourselves that we judge and reject, and to liberate energy when we need to focus and perform.
All of this may sound a bit too good to be true, but keep in mind that the body and the brain are constantly speaking to each other. This isn’t “new age, touchy-feely mumbo-jumbo” — this is good ol’ fashioned biology. In fact, the majority of neurological information is traveling from the body to the brain. This means that we can use how we breathe to shift the way we see and respond to the world and to optimize the way our body operates.
Breathing is an autonomic function. This means that if you do nothing, your body will continue breathing on its own. Other autonomic functions include blood pressure, heartbeat, digestion, immunity, and hormone secretion. The activity of many autonomic functions fluctuates depending on your environment and whether you perceive what is happening as safe or threatening.
While there are several ways to work with the breath, there are some basics for developing healthier breathing habits. Paying attention to these three can have an immediately positive effect throughout the day.
Breathe through your nose rather than your mouth. While there are some therapeutic exercises that include breathing through the mouth, in general, nasal breathing should be our default. This simple shift can have a huge impact in a short period of time. If you find that your nose is congested often, there is a simple exercise for decongesting below. For most people, the shift to breathing through your nose more of the time will actually reduce congestion and sinus issues in general.
Breathe using your abdomen rather than your chest. In order for the main breathing muscle — the diaphragm — to work effectively, we need to allow it to move. By softening our abdomen and leaving our chest relatively still, we begin to restore tone to the muscles that allow our diaphragm to work effectively.
Imagine your lower ribs flaring out with the in-breath and the ring of muscles around your entire mid-section expanding away from your center. You are not pushing out your belly — you are allowing the diaphragm to expand as it moves downward. As your diaphragm moves upward on the out-breath, your mid-section should contract inward.
Breathe slow and deep rather than loud and large. A deep breath is a slow, gentle breath that has time to make its way down to inflate the lower lobes of the lung and allow for the transfer of oxygen into the blood. This takes time. Think of long, slow sips rather than chugging.
What we usually think of as a deep breath is often a large breath — it moves a large volume of air quickly. You can hear it rush through the nostrils or into the mouth. Ideally, the breath moves so gently and slowly that we cannot hear it, and we can just barely feel the air moving.
If you wait until you are stressed or anxious, it is tough to get in enough breathing practice. You can also fall into the trap of using breathwork like a weapon to be wielded rather than a skill to be strengthened. Therefore, it is helpful to set aside some time at the beginning or end (or both!) of each day to practice.
Equally important is the integration of short moments of breathing practice throughout the day — whether you are stressed or not. Your breath can become a welcoming refuge where you can go when storms are raging around you.
There are some simple practices to start leveraging the power of the breath. These practices are exactly that — practices. The more you engage in them, the more you will build your own sense of how your body breathes best.
A calming breath is light, not audible, and long, not large. It can be helpful to think of savoring, rather than devouring the air you breathe — more like sipping a fine wine than chugging a beer. This nasal, abdominal, slow, gentle breathing pattern triggers the “rest and digest” portion of your autonomic nervous system. This means you are more relaxed and your cardiovascular, nervous, immune, digestive, reproductive, and endocrine systems can all operate more effectively. It also helps you self-regulate your emotions and be less reactive.
An easy way to begin is to set a timer for 3–5 minutes. Sitting upright or standing, rest one hand on your chest and one hand on your stomach. Practice relaxing your abdomen and allowing your chest to remain stationary. Gently inhale on a count of 4–6, gently exhale on a count of 4–6. This puts you in the optimal relaxation breathing pace of 5–6 breaths per minute.
While I have provided some numbers for reference, they are not the most important aspect. As you are beginning, the act of counting can help you keep your attention on your breathing. If you lose count, don’t worry, just return your attention to the breath and begin again.
More Variations on the Basic Practice
Lengthening the exhale
The objective here is to keep the breath gentle while moving toward an exhale that is twice as long as the inhale. For example, in for a count of 4, out for a count of 8 (in 6, out 12, etc…).
Adding a pause
In for 4, pause for 4, out for 4, pause for 4. Over time, you can gently work with increasing these numbers to 6, 8, or even 10. However, the numbers are not the point — it is the practice of working with the breath until it begins to naturally fall into a more relaxed pattern on its own.
Lengthening the pause
The objective here is to keep the breath gentle while lengthening the space between breaths. This should not be strained. Simply wait after the exhale until you feel some hunger for the next inhale. You can extend the pause by a second or two each time you practice. Over time, you may find that you can lengthen the pause to 20–30 seconds between breaths.
Pacing with walking
You can practice these while you are walking and time your breathing to your steps — in for 4–6 steps, out for 4–6 steps, (pause for 4–6 steps), and so on.
Using the heartbeat
As you become more skilled at the calming breath and your attention becomes more steady during practice, you can use your heartbeat to count instead of counting in your head. This builds the skill of interoception — sensing what is going on inside of you. Some people even learn to slow their heartbeat consciously — something we aren’t “supposed” to be able to do.
Challenge in, calm out
A helpful practice is to imagine breathing in all of the challenges you face — fear, anger, frustrations, anxieties — and breathing out light, joy, and love. This can be a very powerful way to build acceptance for all of life and to remind ourselves of our ability to transform challenges with our hearts.
Embracing and transforming
On the in-breath, bring to mind the aspects of yourself that you have a hard time accepting — the parts of you that you judge harshly or try to deny. Perhaps you are sometimes reactive, insecure, resistant, or avoidant. Perhaps there is something that you feel shame about.
You can calmly breathe in the reality of any of this. On the out-breath, bring to mind what you would like to cultivate — patience, acceptance, trust, love, engagement, courage. The more you do this practice, the more you can feel the pause as the inhalation becomes the exhalation as a moment of transformation.
Craving and letting go
Rather than getting into the ring with our desires, we can acknowledge them and let them pass — the breath can be a useful tool for this. On the in-breath, feel the impulse or desire for whatever it is that you are working on letting go of — scrolling on your phone, procrastinating a task, eating sugar… On the out-breath, smile gently as you feel the urge or desire moving through.
If the urge keeps arising, just keep breathing into it and exhaling with the calm confidence that you are just fine even though you haven’t acted on the urge.
Your breath is with you all the time. Mindful breathwork is a free, portable, effective way to work peacefully and powerfully through whatever shows up in life.