Why breathing exercises?
We breathe all the time, but by being more conscious of how we breathe, we can achieve a more positive state of wellbeing. There are two ways we breathe. Some of us are chest breathers and our breathing is marked by upward and downward movement of the chest. Chest breathing is short and quick, and when we are tense, our chest breathing becomes even more rapid and shallow. However if you have observed a baby sleeping, you would have noticed that babies breathe differently. With every breath, the baby's belly moves outward and inward. This is referred to as abdominal or diaphragmatic or belly breathing and in this, we use the diaphragm, the muscle that separates the chest and the stomach to breathe. Abdominal or diaphragmal breathing is fuller and deeper. It not only relaxes us, but is also the most efficient way for air to enter our lungs.
The exercise below outlines the method in which one can change one's breathing pattern by consciously shifting the breathing from the upper chest to the abdomen. This exercise is most effective when practiced regularly. A duration as short as just three minutes of deep breathing practice can usually induce a state of relaxation. Research suggests that a consistent practice of 3–5 minutes of abdominal breathing everyday can go a long way in improving our overall breathing pattern.
Abdominal breathing is effective because it strengthens the diaphragm, increases oxygen supply to the brain and triggers the body's natural relaxation response. If you have been breathing from your upper chest, abdominal breathing will take some time to master. However if you are consistent with your efforts, you will find that abdominal breathing helps you relax in situations where you feel stressed and it helps you reconnect with your mind and body better.
1. Choose a quiet spot. Begin by observing the level of tension in your body. Place one hand on your abdomen, right beneath your rib cage, as you do this.
2. Breathe in slowly through your nose into the “bottom” of your lungs and let the air in as deeply as you can. Let your hand remain over your abdomen. As you breathe in, you will notice your chest moving only slightly, and your abdomen expanding to take in all the air you inhale.
3. Once you have inhaled fully, pause briefly, and then let the air out slowly through your nose or mouth depending on whichever is most comfortable. It is important to exhale fully. As you do this, you will notice that your abdomen flattens.
4. Continue taking a few abdominal breaths. Do this slowly without gulping in air or letting it out all out in one ago. Let your breathing be smooth. Counting upto 4 as you inhale and then counting upto 4 as you exhale can help you achieve a rhythym. Remember to pause briefly at the end of each inhalation. Take ten such breaths, counting one number with each exhalation.
5. To take your practice further, you can do two or three sets of abdominal breathing. This is a very simple exercise and once you are familiar, you can do it consciously as you are walking, waiting in the exam hall, etc. It is usually recommended to start with a minute of the exercise and progressively increase the duration over a period of time. Five full minutes of abdominal breathing can reduce stress levels siginificantly and help your body function optimally.
Calming breath exercise:
The following calming breath exercise is adapted from the ancient discipline of yoga and it uses the abdominal breathing technique. Calming breath exercise can help you achieve a deep state of relaxation quickly.
1. Choose a quiet spot that blocks out all the noise. Rest your hand on your abdomen and keep your shoulders and chest relaxed. Inhale through your nose slowly and feel your abdomen rise as you count to five.
2. Pause and hold your breath to a count of five.
3. Exhale through your nose or mouth, to a count of five or longer. It is important that you exhale fully.
4. Once you have fully let the air out and your abdomen has flattened, take two breaths in your normal rhythm. Next, repeat steps 1 through 3 in the cycle above.
5. Continue with the exercise for at least three to five minutes. As you do this, you will go through atleast ten cycles of inhale-five, hold-five and exhale- five or longer. As you progress, you will notice that your exhalations are slightly longer than your inhalations. Let these variations be and just continue with the exercise for up to five minutes.
Optional: Every time you exhale, you may wish to say a postive word (for example, 'calm') or think of a positive image or thought and allow your body to let go as you do this. If you keep this up each time you practice, you may eventually find that just saying the positive word or thinking the positive image or thought, triggers a mild state of relaxation.
Cooper S, Oborne J, Newton FS. Effect of two breathing exercises (Buteyko and pranayama) in asthma: a randomised controlled trial. Thorax 2003; 58: 674–679.