I would love to be that super cool, chill woman who practices yoga, sips green juice, and meditates daily. The kind who practically oozes Zen from her pores. But I’m not. I am the Type A, energetic, anxiety-ridden woman who occasionally practices yoga and finds meditation next to impossible. Fortunately, there is more than one path to bliss — and one of my favorite methods is mindful breathing.
Mindful breathing isn’t just a woo-woo term for something we do naturally. It is the act of being aware of our breath and focusing on each inhale and exhale in order to turn off our body’s fight-or-flight response.
“Conscious breathing, or mindful breathing, is the perfect tool to help manage stress and short circuit anxiety,” says Dani Eaton, a yoga teacher who left corporate America when she realized her high-stress job was taking a toll on both her physical and mental health. “When we deepen our inhales and make our exhales a little longer than our inhales, we send a signal to the vagus nerve, which runs down the back of our neck to our diaphragm, to send its signal to the parasympathetic nervous system to turn down our sympathetic nervous system,” she explains.
Eaton has devoted countless hours of practice and research to the practice of breathwork, or pranayama, and shares two of her favorite techniques below.
The 4-by-4 Breath
This breath slows the breathing rate, deepens concentration, and helps manage anxiety. You can do this literally anywhere — at your desk, in your car, sitting, standing — and begin to feel its effects in less than five minutes.
Start by expelling all air from the lungs. Keep lungs empty for a four-count hold. Inhale through the nose for four counts. Hold the air in lungs for a four-count hold, focusing on keeping the ribcage expanded. Then exhale through your nose for four counts. This is one round of breath. For best results, practice this breath every day for 5 to 10 minutes.
Deep Breathing With a Breath Count
Lie flat on your back with your legs out long. Place one hand on your belly and the other on your chest. Inhale and feel your hands rise as your abdomen and chest rise. Exhale and feel your belly contract, lungs deflate and your hands sink. That’s one. Keep going until you reach a count of 100 or an allotted amount of time is up. If you lose count, start back at one. This is a very effective technique when you are having trouble sleeping, because it’s very hard for the mind to focus on anything else while you’re inhaling and exhaling and counting each breath.
What I personally like about breathwork is that it gives me something to focus on, therefore my mind is less likely to wander as it tends to do when I attempt to “watch my thoughts” in meditation. And though I can’t say that I have turned into one of those chill yoga chicks I so admire, I can say that I am better able to talk myself off the ledge when an unexpected panic attack takes hold. Knowing that I can control my reaction to an experience when until recently I felt out of control is a powerful thing and gives me the confidence I need to handle stressful situations.
All I have to do is breathe.
Bonny Osterhage is co-founder and small-group trainer at BodyArchitecture Personal Training and Fitness in San Antonio, Texas.