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The Art of Breathing

July 1, 2019

Underlying all practices of mindfulness is our breath. We physiologically need to fill our lungs with air and expel the CO2 in order to survive, but breathing goes so much past this biological need! Breathing is necessary for living, but mindful breathing practices can also lead to decreased stress and anxiety, on top of many other benefits for calming. I have some favorite breathing practices that I use regularly, using different ones in yoga, daily for calming, and with the kids I work with – I will specify how to also modify some of these for use with kids to make them see that focusing on breathing can be fun.

Four Types of Pranayama

(Hatha Yoga term for “life energy”, most often focuses on the regulation of breathing through various techniques)

1. Sukha: Diaphragmatic Breathing

This method of breathing is done by focusing on the contraction of the diaphragm, a muscle located horizontally between the thoracic cavity and abdominal cavity. As air enters the lungs, the chest does not rise, and the belly expands with your inhale. I like to visualize a balloon with this technique of breathing, feeling the stomach/diaphragm inflate and deflate with the breath. It often helps to place your hands on your stomach to feel the movement and focus on the movement of your belly! This exercise can be done in sitting or lying on your back.

2. Ujjayi: Sounded Breathing

Pronounced oo-jai, this practice of breathing is solely through the nose, you do not open your mouth, keeping it gently closed. Start by taking a controlled inhale through your nose, then with the exhale, constrict the back of your throat to exhale. This produced a sound with the exhale that in my yoga classes they assimilate to “like the ocean waves” because, hey, we are in California! Some like to say it sounds like a victory cheer from a crowd, like in the movies, which works too! Your breathing is all your own, and whatever you choose to visualize is how you work to focus on yourself, a key for mindfulness.

Side note, when working with kids, I occasionally use this breathing practice. Just like I said with making the visualization your own, changing it up with kids works well and let them tell you what they think it sounds like. This will help them continue to try and be encouraged to breathe to make their sound. Most common, especially for my little friends, is calling it “dragon breath” because it sounds like a dragon trying to shot fire from their nostrils!

3. Nadi Shodhana: Alternate Nostril Breathing

This one is exactly how it sounds, alternating between nostrils for each inhale and exhale. This practice of breathing works on balancing both the right and left hemispheres of the brain while lowering your heart rate and promoting a decrease in cortisol stress levels.

Begin sitting up and hold up your right hand. With this we only use two fingers, your thumb and your ring finger to block the nostrils, thumb for your right nostril and ring ringer for the left. The ultimate pattern is: In right, out left, in left, out right. This form of breathing definitely takes the most practice and focus for me in remembering to switch after each inhale.

Studies in older adults have found this form of breath training can increase respiratory muscle functioning

4. Kapalabhati: Rapid Forced Exhalation

This is a slightly more advance practice that consists of passive inhales and powerful exhales. The word comes from two Sanskrit works meaning “light skull”, encouraging purification and rejuvenation of the mind and body. Not only does it promote the release of stress and toxins, kapalabhati can also release negative emotions with the forced pressure and energize while warming the body.

Many studies exist for showing the various benefits of this form of breathing, from a decrease in errors on the Standard 6 Letter Cancellation Test, improvements in cognitive functioning and reaction time, and improvements with pulmonary functioning. With all these benefits, please keep in mind that there are many similar benefits of the other practices of breathing and this is a more advance, focused and meditative breathing practice. This method does come with warnings to avoid if you currently have high blood pressure, hernia, or are pregnant. This form of breathing is not advised for children.

 

  • Sit comfortable on the floor with your hands palm down on your knees, or in a chair with your feet flat on the ground
  • Take one cleansing breath in throughout nose and out through your mouth
  • Inhale deeply through both nostrils filling up you belly most of the way
  • In quick bursts, forcibly expel your air out multiple times in a row, drawing your belly button inward towards you spine with each quick exhale (I can only do 10 at a time per breath for reference of how many – we don’t want to pass out here!)
  • Between each cycle, let your lungs fill up with air naturally without effort
  • Repeat for up to 1 minute, but initially you can perform for as much or little as your lungs will allow without feeling light-headed
  • After one minute, return to your normal breathing pattern…how do you feel?!

BONUS for KIDS:

Working in the clinic I was able to help many kids who struggled with regulation through breathing and was able to use these two methods to make breathing more understandable and fun. My primary focus with children is to slow and deepen the breath because when consciously thinking about their breath or in a state of agitation, breathing gets very short and confined to the upper chest, aka. not breathing fully.

To simplify all the techniques from above, I focus on breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth. To achieve this with kids, visualization works incredibly well and I have two visualizations I often use…once taught, let them pick that day!

Candle Breathing
Have the child envision they just stepped into an awesome bakery filled with cakes…and we all know how amazing a bakery smells! Breathe in to smell the cakes. Suddenly, all the cakes have turned into birthday cakes, so breathe out to blow out the birthday candles.

Hot Cocoa Breathing
Hold an imaginary cup of hot cocoa in your hands (actually hold your hands cupped in front of your face like you are pretending to hold a cup and saucer!), breathe in through nose to smell the yummy chocolate of the cocoa, then exhale by blowing on the imaginary cup because it’s too hot to drink!

Breathing is such an important focus when looking into mindfulness and mindful practices. Most others that we will discuss over the next few posts incorporate breathing in some extent to assist with for looking into so many aspects of daily life. Start with practicing the various forms of breathing and find the one you are most comfortable with now. Focus on your breaths and let all those external distractions drift away for a moment. Focus on the right here and right now to be present in your beautiful life.

If you have ever been to a yoga class, or around those that do yoga, you have undoubtedly heard the word “namaste” – it translates to “I bow to the divine in you”.

That being said…Namaste – Alli

About Alli

Alli Carbone, MS, OTR/L, CCYT, is a pediatric occupational therapist that specializes in using yoga for sensory processing skills and education for the whole family.