7 Breathing Techniques to Reduce Anxiety and Deepen Meditation
Breathing Techniques 101
Anxiety and worry affect nearly 20% of people in the US. Our animal brains seem to want to protect us from a danger that no longer exists. So instead, we worry and fret over the smallest of things as if they were as stressful as tigers hunting us down in the wild. Let’s call it an evolutionary hangover.
I’ve struggled with anxiety in my own life so this topic cuts close to the bone. But breathing techniques and meditation have helped me greatly to overcome these deep, primitive responses.
Meditation is the daily medicine you take to keep yourself level. Breathing techniques are those meds you take when things get tough. It’s the Valium (diazepam) of the spiritual medicine cabinet.
Benefits of Breathing Techniques
Breathing techniques have many benefits. They:
- Oxygenate the bloodstream
- Lower blood pressure
- Release endorphins
- Detoxify the body
- Energize the body
- Reduce stress and anxiety
- Help you ground and center yourself
- Focus the mind
- Prepare you for meditation
- Improve your sleep
- Reduce mental restlessness
Clearly, there’s an intimate connection between your breathing and your state of mind. When you’re anxious, your breathing speeds up and becomes shallower. When you’re relaxed, your breathing naturally becomes slower and deeper. When you’re depressed you exhale with a sigh; when you’re elated, you inhale with a gasp.
What if we could take control of this process and therefore our state of consciousness? Well you can. You can reverse engineer this process so that instead of the state of mind dictating the breath, we use the breath to dictate the state of mind.
In India they call it pranayama, which means control of the energy or control of the breath. In language, breath has close connections with other words like energy and spirit. That is because the breath is the doorway to the world of energy and the world of spirit.
Let’s explore some of these breathing techniques so you can begin to use them in meditation and daily life.
1. Measured/equal-count Breathing
Let’s start with a simple technique. For measured breathing, we breathe slowly through the nose. Breathe into the belly as opposed to the upper torso or chest. The idea is to inhale, hold the breath, and exhale to an equal count:
1. To prepare, take a deep breath in and out through the nose
2. Inhale for a count of four seconds
3. Hold the breath for a count of four seconds
4. Exhale for a count of four seconds
5. Repeat 6-8 times
This is a great way to prepare for meditation, so you might want add it to your daily practice. It’s also useful during the day when you’re feeling stressed or anxious. Some people also use it before going to sleep to slow down the mind and relax into slumber.
2. Belly/diaphragmatic breathing
This is another great technique to practice before meditation. It’ll get you into a peaceful state and quiet your mind before you begin your practice. But you can also use it any time throughout the day to center yourself. Doing it first thing in the morning is a great way to start your day. Start by lying on the ground so your belly is able to expand.
1. Place both of your hands on your belly, one on top of the other.
2. Take a deep breath in through the nose and feel the belly expanding. You should feel both of your hands moving outwards. If one of your hands isn’t moving, you may be doing it wrong.
3. Check that you are breathing into the belly and not into the chest. You will also be able to feel the diaphragm moving downwards as you inhale and back up as you exhale. Being conscious of this can further help us to relax.
4. If it helps to concentrate, you can count on each exhalation. On your first exhalation, count one; on the second, count two, and so on all the way up to ten. Then repeat.
This is one of the most relaxing breathing techniques, so start with this one if you suffer from anxiety, stress, or worry. Practice for a few minutes, but if you are preparing for meditation, keep it brief because you might find yourself drifting off to sleep.
3. Double Breathing
Double breathing is a technique taught by the Indian spiritual master, Paramahansa Yogananda. It oxygenates the blood, relaxes the body, and gives you an immediate boost to your mood. It helps to get rid of physical restlessness as well so this is another one to practice before meditation.
1. Take a double inhalation through the nose. It should be a short, sharp breath followed by a longer inhalation.
2. As you inhale, tense the body with increasing intensity.
3. Hold the breath for a moment at the top of the inhalation. Vibrate the body with tension and energy, squeezing all the muscles.
4. Double exhale and let the body relax. The double exhale should once again be a short followed by a long exhalation. The relaxing should be gradual instead of an immediate release.
So as you inhale, tense the body from low tension, to medium then to high. Vibrate the body as you hold the breath. Then as you exhale, release the tension from high to medium to low.
Here’s a one-minute video about this breathing technique.
4. Alternate Nostril Breathing/Nadi Shodhana
This breathing technique calms the mind, energizes the body, and improves concentration. Some experts say it unites the right and left hemispheres of the brain. Nadi Shodhana means, “clearing the channels.” So it also improves circulation, respiration, and removes toxins from the body.
1. Sit upright with a straight spine in your meditation posture.
2. Bring the right hand up to the nose. Place the right thumb over the right nostril and the ring finger over the left nostril. The index finger and middle finger can rest on the forehead.
3. Close the right nostril with the right thumb to block the airflow. Inhale slowly through the left nostril.
4. Close the left nostril with the ring finger so both nostrils are closed for a moment, and hold the breath.
5. Then open the right nostril and exhale slowly then inhale again through the right.
6. Close the right nostril and hold the breath.
7. Open the left and exhale.
So the idea is to exhale and inhale from one nostril, then switch to the other nostril and repeat. Do around 6-8 cycles. Remember to breathe slowly; one round should take about 30 seconds.
5. Bellows Breath/Bhastrika
Bellows breath works with the energy in the solar plexus chakra to light a fire in your belly. It boosts energy, strengthens the immune system, and leads to glowing vitality. This technique generates heat in the body like a bellows blowing air on burning coals. With regular practice, you will feel yourself becoming more energetic and enthusiastic. As always sit upright with a straight spine.
1. Take a few deep, even breaths into the abdomen, relaxing as much as you can.
2. Quickly exhale and contract the abdomen with force
3. Follow with a quick diaphragmatic inhalation
4. Breathe in and out quickly (one second per breath). Alternate between exhaling while contracting the abdomen and inhaling from the diaphragm. Breathe about 10 times.
5. Repeat for 2-3 rounds.
The idea is to coordinate the movements of the diaphragm and the abdominal muscles. This is a forceful practice so you should be able to hear the breath quite loudly.
6. Relaxing Breath
This one is similar to equal count breathing, but has an even more relaxing effect. It calms the nervous system, so it’s great for those suffering anxiety or nervous disorders. Any time you’re feeling stressed, try this technique to help you calm down. Some people also use it to get to sleep. Others report that it reduces cravings and helps to control angry reactions. It’s also known as the 4-7-8 breath:
1. Empty the lungs of all air by exhaling fully and “pushing” out air from the lungs.
2. Inhale through the nose for a count of four seconds
3. Hold the breath for a count of 7 seconds
4. Exhale through the mouth for a count of 8 seconds, letting out a deep “whooshing” sound.
5. Repeat 3-4 times
This technique tends to get more effective with regular practice. The ratio is more important than the actual time so always try to practice with the same ratio. Once you are more advanced, you could double it to 8-14-16.
If you get light-headed stop for a while and try again later.
7. The Full Yogic Breath
This is a “balancing” breathing exercise that fills the body with life force or prana. It reduces stress and activates the parasympathetic nervous system. This induces deep relaxation and a sense of peace. It’s also thought to heal the vital organs. The tension that arises from leading busy, stressful lives wreaks havoc on these organs, so this technique can lead to greater health by giving the organs a break from that tension.
1. Sit upright in your meditation posture.
2. Take a deep breath in and out.
3. Start a deep, slow inhalation, filling the belly with air.
4. Then (in the same breath) breathe into the mid-section of the torso and the ribs.
5. Draw the breath up into the chest and shoulders.
6. Reverse the order by exhaling slowly from the chest, ribs, and finally the belly.
One round of the full yogic breath includes one full inhale and one exhale. Repeat 5-10 times. It is essentially a deep breath that starts at the belly, then moves up to the ribs, and finally fills the chest. Then as we exhale, we exhale from the chest, ribs, and finally from the belly in a wave like motion.
Final Word on Breathing Techniques
Breathing techniques are simple and so effective. Yet in the midst of difficult times, we often forget that they even exist. Controlling the breath can reduce the majority of your worry, stress, and anxiety. Remember that your state of mind and the breath are interconnected and controlling one helps us control the other.
Healthcare experts agree that breathing properly is a crucial step in managing stress.
So take action now.
Choose one or two breathing techniques that appeal to you. If you’re new to this, you can start with a simple one like measured breathing. Practice a few times a day this week and see how it helps.
For those people who have not been able to build a consistent meditation practice yet, breathing techniques are a good substitute until you are meditating regularly.
If you need help building a meditation practice, join the 5-day email challenge below.
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