Breath is life—something we take for granted, but couldn’t do without. In times of stress or grief, often we hear advice to “take a deep breath.” But sometimes deep breathing becomes hyperventilating or gulping air. It turns out there are many ways to breathe, with a wide array of impressive benefits to your physical health and mental wellbeing. Here are several you can learn to use for insomnia, stress, meditation, anxiety and keeping your life force strong:
Roughly translated from Hindi it means “victorious breath.” This ancient form of breathing is most often associated with yoga, but once mastered, can be used for exercise efficiency and even stress management. Lila Donnolo, a yoga instructor in New York who teaches a variety of yoga styles, describes it: “You inhale deeply through the nose and blow out through the nose with a low hum. It’s a slight constriction in the back of the throat. It can sound like the ocean as heard through a seashell.” She loves this breath for its versatility. “I do ujjayi breath when I go to the dentist because [the experience] is so uncomfortable to me. I’ve had a lot of marathon runners and dancers as students who said that the ujjayi breath helped in their training. I also find it really helpful to manage the space between trigger—or stimulus—and response.”
It may sound silly to call humming a form of breathing, but it’s one that has surprising health benefits, including increased blood flow to the heart, lowered cortisol and even improved airflow to your sinuses. The vibration and musicality of humming also provides self-soothing, something children learn to do when they are babies. Claudia Larson, a voice teacher in Northern California says, “I discovered that a person could use a low, humming tone, directed into the body, toward areas that appeared to be tense or tight or blocked, by resonating with voice. The low hum allowed the jaw and tongue to relax. Rather than telling students, or myself, to just relax, the low hum brought a sense of self-acceptance, of self-compassion.”
4-7-8 count breathing
Dr. Andrew Weil made this method of counting breaths popular, but you don’t need to be a mathematician to use it. You begin this breath by exhaling through your mouth and making a “whoosh” sound, then close your mouth and inhale through your nose counting (silently) to four. You hold your breath for seven counts, and release it through your mouth in eight counts. This stimulates your vagus nerve, which sends acetylcholine, a powerful neurotransmitter, to your brain to calm you. To keep yourself from clenching your jaw, place the tip of your tongue behind your top teeth. The process relaxes your nervous system, lowers your heart rate and blood pressure, and promotes relaxation, which is good for both anxiety and insomnia.
Most of us are so accustomed to breathing high up in our lungs, which is what the body does when it’s in panic or stress mode that can lead to a feeling of having a “tight chest.” Belly breathing retrains your breath to flow with more ease, loosens tense muscles, takes in more oxygen, and reduces blood pleasure, which helps calm you. It also supports lung health by moving lymph and oxygen through the chest cavity. To practice: Sit with one hand on your belly and one on your chest. When you inhale, make the hand over your belly rise higher than the one on your chest and hold it just slightly at the top of the inhale. Take five to 10.
Unlike all the other forms of breathing here that require a certain level of control, meditative breathing is simply allowing the natural state of your breath to flow while sitting, limiting sensory awareness, and letting your thoughts flow past like fish in a pond, rather than snagging them in mental nets. “When we teach mindfulness meditation we use the breath, as something to focus on, but we don’t try to control the breath,” says Marvin Belzer, Associate Director of UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center.
Belzer suggests focusing your attention on the abdomen or chest or nostrils “just to tune into the sensations that are there normally. Can you feel the rising and the falling of your belly?” Belzer asks. “That’s good enough.” There are many health benefits to sustained meditation, as well—in fact studies show it can increase the thickness of your brain’s frontal cortex, in charge of important actions like thinking and memory.
No matter which you choose, bringing awareness to how you breathe can improve your mood, elevate your health, and put you in touch with the most essential force of life.