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Inhale, Exhale


A person practicing mediation

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Taking a deep breath always tops the list of ways to destress and walk back panic attacks, but why? Modern science is only recently catching up to what monks and yogis have known for millennia and researching the phenomenal benefits of focused, intentional breathing with amazing findings.

How you breathe has a direct impact on both your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems — the two mechanisms that control every organ in your body. The sympathetic nervous system is what ramps up the adrenaline and cortisol to fight or flee from danger. The parasympathetic nervous system controls the rest-and-digest functions. To make these easier to remember, think of sympathetic: S for “stressed,” and parasympathetic: P for “pause.”

The immediately noticeable improvements of intentional breathing include releasing unconsciously held muscle tension, reducing heart rate when in fight-or-flight, sharpening the mind if you’re groggy, and reconnecting to a state of clarity and control when overwhelmed. Remembering to breathe can also be an invaluable method to prevent stumbling into unconscious coping patterns. If you’re a stress eater, stress drinker, or prone to that gripping sense of urgency to respond to text messages on the double, a conscious breath or two will help you stay in your power.

It’s ironic. Breathing is the one thing you thought it was safe to leave on autopilot, yet it actually demands some of your precious attention! You don’t have to commit to a weekend retreat or even a half-day workshop to tune into the swells and sighs of your breathing. Many of these rewards can be reaped in the time it takes to wait for a red light or ride in an elevator. Here are four bite-sized breathwork exercises that can fit into even the tightest of schedules.

Physiological Sigh

This exercise of two inhales and one long slow exhale replicates the detoxifying breathing patterns arrived at in deep sleep. Begin by breathing in, pause, then take in a little more to top yourself off. Exhale steadily until you completely bottom out on breath. This cuts stress in a jiffy by releasing the most carbon dioxide at once, which is the acidic, inflammatory waste product of respiration that builds in the blood when we’re subconsciously reacting to stress and not breathing freely and productively. Aim for three to five rounds.

Box Breathing

Center yourself by closing the eyes or fixing your gaze on a single, unmoving point. Place one palm flat on your middle section and count the seconds it takes to pull a full, deep inhale through the nose. Hold at the top for the same number of seconds. Exhale for the same number of seconds. Pause when your lungs are empty for the same amount of time before pulling in your next measured inhale. Repeat the process as long as you like.

Sigh and Sea Visualization

Left palm on your heart, right palm on the belly. Take a moment to tune into the energy of your body, and appreciate all of its miraculous systems. Inhale long and slow, feeling the chest and belly inflate against the palms as you fill to capacity. Exhale noticing the space created on the descent. Close your eyes and visualize the gentle, rolling waves of the ocean, swelling and collapsing as you mimic the tide with your breath.

Breath of Fire

This invigorating practice works wonders to release overwhelming emotions. It places all attention on forceful, rapid-fire exhalation. Seated evenly on both sit bones, place your hands flat on your thighs or lower abdomen. Fully exhale, pushing all the air out from the lungs. Inhale filling only half way. Activate the diaphragm to propel the exhale through the nose, like you’re trying to clear something from the nostrils. You should feel the diaphragm pulling in and back like you’re being given the heimlich. No full inhales here; the in-breath is meant to be passive as you continue to pump the diaphragm on the out breath. If you’re really fed up, try raising the arms over the head or vocalizing “HA!” on each exhale.

Fast or slow, seated in stillness or on the go, conscious, intentional breathing is a practice. Do your best to resist the urge to judge yourself or fall into the perfectionism trap. There’s no wrong way to take a moment to check in with your breath. The fact that you’re doing it is already a win!

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