You’ve heard that being mindful can help you in a variety of situations. It helps reduce stress, relieve anxiety, and makes it easier for you to enjoy what’s going on in your present. One of the easiest ways to get into mindfulness is to start with mindful breathing.
By understanding how breathing exercises help you be more mindful and give you several health benefits, and by learning about different types of breathing exercises you can do, you can figure out which ones to try, and which ones to use when you’re experiencing distress.
Why They Work
Breathing exercises are some of the easiest ways to get into being mindful. One of the biggest benefits of taking the time to breathe is that it calms your fight, flight, or freeze reflex. Deep breaths give our brain the ability to calm this response by helping our amygdala see that we are safe from harm.
Mindful breathing also goes a long way to reducing a stress response to a variety of situations. Breath is crucial to reaching the body’s state of relaxation, which is a direct counter to the feelings of tension and frustration that often come with being stressed. Finding a state of relaxation helps to decrease your metabolism, slow your heart, and relax your muscles.
Here’s how stress works: the stress response activates in the brain and sends information to the autonomic nervous system to get ready for potential danger. This system controls blood pressure, heart rate, blood vessel dilatation, and breathing. It also contains two major divisions: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is usually responsible for activating your fight or flight reflex, while the parasympathetic nervous system helps your body during rest and digesting periods.
Breathing is the only part of the autonomic nervous system we can control. By taking the time to slow your breathing down, you are helping your system send a message back to your brain, telling it that in fact you aren’t in danger and that everything is okay. When one part of the autonomic nervous system begins to calm, the other parts naturally follow.
When you use mindful breathing to reduce your stress levels, you’re working to improve your memory, focus, concentration, emotional regulation, and ability to get good sleep.
Breathing also brings you to the present moment. Often times, when you are in a period of high stress, you’re thinking about what will happen in the future (e.g. if you’re worried about money or performance at your job), or you’re focusing on something that happened in the past (e.g. something a relative said, a recent breakup). Mindfulness brings you to the present and forces you to put aside your worries about the future, or concerns from the past in order to be in your body. Being able to put your stressors aside, even for a short time, is a great way to relax and reduce tension in your life.
Examples of Breathing Meditations
Now that you know why breathing meditations work, you’re ready to try them out and see how much they’ll end up helping you. Keep in mind that there are as many types of mindfulness breathing exercises as there are meditation and health practitioners – there could be any number that will be helpful for you. We’ll outline several kinds of exercises you might encounter, and give examples of each one.
Being Aware of Your Breath
One of the most important aspects of mindful breathing is being aware of your breath. If you have difficulty doing this, it can help to take an exaggerated breath so you have more to focus on. Most people find it easier to tune in to the breath when their eyes are closed and they are sitting down. This is a common technique for those who have never done breathing meditations before and aren’t familiar with the practice.
Here is an example of an awareness meditation.
- Find a position that is comfortable to you and that you can stay in for several minutes. Rest your hands and relax your body.
- Notice what is happening in your body. Take note of what it feels like to sit, and how your body distributes its weight. Do you feel tension or pain in any areas? Are you unintentionally tensing any of your muscles? If you notice any, try to relax your muscles, unclench your jaw, or close your eyes.
- Once you’ve checked in with your body, draw your attention to your breath. Notice how your chest expands when you draw in a breath, and how it falls when you push out a breath. Where do you feel your breath? Is it in your throat, your chest, your stomach? There is no wrong way to feel your breath.
- Your mind may begin to wander as you are trying to tune in to your breath. That’s okay. If you notice your thoughts drifting towards what you’ll do later that day, gently bring yourself back to where you are. Don’t beat yourself up for losing focus, it happens to everyone. Just bring yourself back to the breath.
- Stay focused on your breath for a few minutes. Even if you can only do 2 minutes to start, that is better than not doing any. Each time you repeat this meditation, see if you can stay in it longer than you did the day before.
Counting Your Breaths
Measuring the breath through counting makes it easy to change your breathing and reduce feelings of fear and anxiety. When you are simply trying to be aware of your breath, it’s easy to get distracted or have your thoughts drift to something else. However, when you are counting your breath, you have something specific to focus on. You have a goal to work toward, and can stay focused on the task at hand.
If a guided breathing meditation is more your thing, you can check out our 7-11 breath meditation on soundcloud. Otherwise, here is an example of a breath counting meditation.
- Find a comfortable position. Begin taking deep breaths, shifting your breathing from your throat or chest to your stomach.
- Choose a number that you want to reach. In this meditation, you will try to go up to that number and then back again. In this example, we’ll use the number 10, but you can do 5 to start with.
- Inhale and pause. Then exhale and at the end of the breath, count “one.”
- Repeat this process until you reach the count of ten.
- Once you have reached ten, start counting back down. Inhale, pause, and then exhale. Count “nine.”
- Repeat this process until you are back to the count of “one.”
Breathing in Through Your Nose and Out Through Your Mouth
Successful breathing techniques cause you to change your normal breathing patterns. This makes it easier to focus on what you are doing. Breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth requires you to pay attention, which makes it easier for you to be mindful in the moment. This kind of breathing has been shown to help increase focus and concentration, making it easier for you to relax and improve your mental faculties.
Here is an example of how you might take advantage of this kind of meditation.
- Some people find it easier to maintain this breath with their eyes open. Do whatever makes it easiest for you to breath this way for 5-10 minutes.
- Find a comfortable seated position. Get comfortable in your body, and notice how you are feeling.
- Inhale through your nose, making your chest puff up and fill with air.
- Hold it for a moment. Then open your mouth and exhale with enough force that you are making sound. Some people make a “whoosh” sound, while others make more of a hiss.
- Close your mouth and then inhale through your nose, continuing to breath in until you feel like you can’t take in any more air.
- Open your mouth and exhale, making sound like you did the time before. Continue exhaling until you feel like you don’t have anymore air in your lungs.
- Repeat this process until you feel invigorated and warm.
Alternating Nostril Breathing
Also called Nadi Shodhana, alternate nostril breathing works to purify parts of your mind and your body. This technique works well at settling body, emotions, and mind by creating a sense of balance in your breathing. This type of breathing is also thought to help with improving your ability to focus, supporting respiratory functions, restoring balance in each side of your brain, rejuvenating your nervous system, and removing toxins. Alternate nostril breathing also works to activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which is the part of your autonomic nervous system that helps you to rest.
Here is an example of an alternating nostril breathing meditation.
- Find a comfortable position to sit in. Most people will sit on the ground with their legs folded. Make sure your spine is straight and your chest is open.
- Place your hand palm up on your lap and bring your right hand up to your face
- Using your right hand, rest your two middle fingers on your forehead. Position your thumb and ring finger to open and close your nostrils.
- Close your eyes and close your right nostril with your thumb. Inhale slowly through your left nostril.
- Hold your breath as you switch fingers. Close your left nostril with your ring finger. Both nostrils will be closed for a moment.
- Release your thumb from your right nostril and exhale slowly. Pause.
- Inhale through the right nostril, making sure not to switch before doing so.
- Hold both nostrils closed as you pause after inhaling.
- Release your ring finger and open your left nostril, slowly exhaling. Pause
- Repeat 5-10 times, making sure to focus on each inhale and exhale.
Breathing meditations are some of the most basic ways to calm anxiety, reduce stress, and improve your mental focus. Making mindfulness breathing part of your daily routine makes it easier for you to keep doing it when situations get tough and stressful. Finding the right type of meditation can go a long way in helping you find the results you’re looking for. If one of these techniques doesn’t work for you, then don’t be afraid to try another one.