Quick summary: I am going to explain an easy breathing exercise that will aid in the goals of stress/anxiety reduction, and mindfulness practice. Many have heard that to help facilitate a state of mindfulness (non-judgmentally existing in the present moment with an increased awareness of the moment) it is very helpful to focus on your breathing – to notice and to observe your breath as you ad a degree of intentionality to your breathing patterns. Focusing on your breath can help in the goal of not attending to the thoughts that naturally try and distract you from the moment. The exercise below is perhaps a more complicated way of breathing that requires a bit more attention to master… this added attention can be very helpful for people who have a difficult time with over-thinking while they are trying to engage in meditation or Mindfulness.
This exercise can be done with any set amount of time breathing in or out.
- I generally feel most comfortable breathing in for 5 seconds and then out for 5 seconds… when I practice for a longer time I typically will extend to 6 or 7 seconds.
- If 5 seconds is too long for you that is perfectly alright – choose a number that works for you.
- Consistency is all that is important – you could also choose to breathe in for 5 seconds and out for 7 seconds.
- Simply do whatever interval you choose with consistency.
The focused breathing ‘body becomes a wave’ exercise
Start by sitting or lying down in a comfortable position with your spine straight and your head comfortably centered – the top of your head should be on the same plain as your spine (try not to have your head tilted up, down or to the side).
Bring your attention to your breath – simply notice and observe how you are currently breathing.
Notice your body – mindfully scan your body with curiosity – you do not need to physically move to do this. Observe your body’s tactile sensations with your mind.
Now begin to add intention to your breathing – Breath in deeply through your nose for five seconds and out for five seconds (or in for 3 and out for 3… or in for 5 and out for 7 – just keep you pattern consistent)
Focus on and follow your breath – observe the sensations as the breath: passes through your nose – touches the back of your throat – travels down your chest – starts to fill your longs – encourages your chest and stomach to gently rise.
As thoughts begin to surface gently allow your attention to move back to following your breath. (Note – this gets easier with practice. Many people’s minds will seem to be like a radio with no off button for the first few weeks that they practice)
- Allow your thoughts to be separate from your sense of self – allow them to be something that can be observed just like your breath… know choose to observe your breath instead of those thoughts
Be compassionate, accepting and gentle with yourself – notice if you start to judge yourself and your “am I doing this right” thoughts… this is normal, you are perfectly ok … allow the attention back to the breath.
This next part takes more intentionality and can use much of the energy that could otherwise be used for ruminating.
Push your abdomen (stomach) out and let this activity pull the breath into your body
let your abdomen sink down again as the breath leaves your body ( focus on the sensation and continue to breath in and out with your consistent breathing pattern – 5 seconds in 5 seconds out etc)
Continue this first part until your feel comfortable and natural with this full belly breathing. (Breathing while expanding and contracting your belly alone can have a very positive impact on reducing anxiety).
Breathe in and when your belly is fully expanded keep breathing in until your upper chest is fully expanded.
- Allow for your belly to be fully expanded before your begin to allow the breath to expand your chest (note – this can be very difficult – the difficulty can greatly help in reducing those thoughts that “won’t stop”)
Breathe out and contract your upper chest first and as the chest empties – then allow the belly to contract.
- Try and allow your chest to settle before you allow your belly to recede.
This is like a Wave – belly up – chest up – chest down – belly down - belly up – chest up – chest down – belly down – belly up – chest up – chest down – belly down – belly up – chest up – chest down – belly down
Focus your attention on the breath as it facilitates this rhythmic wave through your body.
- I enjoy really engaging in the wave and allowing my body to relax as the breath gently creates a nurturing and relaxing wave up and down my body.
Continue for as long as you wish (15 minutes is a good place to start – you might notice that when you first begin your mind barely shuts off for the first 10 minutes).
Another image that I use is imagining by body to be as the ocean when the water meets the sand…. the water gently pushes forward onto the sand as I inhale and gently recedes from the coast as I exhale. This peaceful image gives me something other than my thoughts to focus on.
Why is it important to add mindfulness or breathe work into my life?
- Happiness, relaxation and satisfaction are available in the moment – often our physiology or our cognitions will direct us towards an emotional disposition that feels less comfortable.
- Example – If your heart is beating very fast and you are taking short choppy breaths you will likely feel emotionally and physically anxious.
- Example – You will likely hold anxiety if you are in a perfect environmental setting with loving people who support you and yet your mind is convincing you to attend to thoughts about resentments that you hold from the past, or worries that you hold for the future.
Mindfulness exercises, or exercises which encourage a person to focus there attention on their breathing, greatly assist people in overcoming the tendency to ruminate on the past or the future.
- When we are thinking about the past or the future we will often have a physiological and emotional reaction to those thoughts.
- Often we experience a great deal of suffering for events that are not actually happening in the moment – they are happening in our minds.
- With mindfulness we can learn to live more in the present moment and less in our minds.
- This makes us happier and it makes us considerably more available to people and things is our present environment.
Breath work naturally reduces your physical anxiety, which in turn reduces your emotional anxiety.
- I understand that this seems hard to believe for some people, but if you address the physiological symptoms of anxiety – you directly impact anxiety in general.
- If your body is relaxed with a steady heartbeat with controlled deep breaths – you will not “feel” anxious.
- Practice is important – I will not deceive you into believing that you can practice breath work one time and have total control over your anxiety related physiological symptoms – though practicing just one time will help.
- The more you practice the more effective the exercise will be at calming your thoughts and your body.
I would encourage you to sit down and focus all of your attention on your physiology next time you feel anxious (for this exercise do not try and alter or judge your physiology – instead simply observe).
- Notice your heart rate – are you flexing any muscles? – are any muscles tight or knotty? – Notice your breathing patterns – are you hot or cold? – How does your stomach feel – what is your facial expression?
Now engage in the exercise and repeat your observation of your physiology – How do you feel?