The simple processes of inhaling and exhaling can aid sleep, beat cravings and reduce stress. A breathing expert explains how.
We do it at least 20,000 times a day, but it seems that we still don’t get it right.
“Observe a baby breathing; they breathe fully and completely into their chest and belly. As we get older, our breathing patterns change in response to life experience, suppressed emotions and habits,” says yoga and breathing expert Kirsty Gallagher.
When we’re stressed or upset, we hold our breath and our inhalations can become shallower. And this type of breathing can become the norm.
“This triggers the ‘fight or flight’ stress response,” says Kirsty. So how do we break this cycle?
Tune into your breathing
“The best way is to start spending some time each day with your breath,” says Kirsty. Begin by simply noticing your breath. Are you breathing into your chest or belly? Is the inhale or exhale longer or shorter? Begin to consciously deepen and lengthen the breath. Don’t force anything and start slowly. Try taking the breath all the way down into the bottom of your belly, and breathe fully and deeply. You may also choose one of those breathing techniques and work on them for a few minutes every day to reset your breath.
As a rough guide, begin with a four-second inhale and four-second exhale, then build this up.
Breathing for stress relief
When we’re stressed, our breathing quickens. The fast intake of air leads to a buildup of oxygen in the bloodstream, which puts the pH level of the blood off-kilter. This can result in anxiety, muscle twitching and irritability.
A yogic breathing technique called “dirga pranayama” focuses on slower breathing to restore our pH balance, which calms the mind and reduces stress levels.
1. Sit comfortably and focus for a few moments on the natural flow of your breath.
2. Begin to focus on your breath into your belly, feeling it fill up with each inhale and empty with each exhale.
3. Now, pay attention to your chest and lungs as you inhale. Feel your belly fill up and then take the breath all the way into the lungs.
4. Allow the exhale to leave in the same way, emptying at the lungs and then, the belly. Do this until it feels comfortable.
5. Next, bring your focus to your collarbones. Inhale through your belly and lungs, but continue to take it up into the collarbones.
6. Exhale, letting the breath go from the upper chest, then the ribcage and then the belly. Continue to breathe deeply, allowing the three parts of the breath to flow into one another.
Breathe to beat cravings
Stress-eating (i.e. “I need chocolate to get me through this deadline”) is often the result of a surge in the stress hormone cortisol, which can increase appetite. Stress can activate the “fight or flight” response, which can cause the digestive muscles to contract, our stomach acid to increase and gut bacteria to change composition, leading to bloating and poor digestion.
Deep breathing can keep cravings at bay, as it would allow you to focus on your breath instead of your craving, and at the same time, tells your brain to calm down. Breathing can also trigger the parasympathetic system, which supports the digestive organs, which helps to improve your nutrient intake.
1. Find a comfortable position lying down, close your eyes and place your hands on your lower ribs.
2. As you inhale, feel the ribs move outward, and your belly rise with the breath. Try not to move your shoulders or chest too much.
3. Exhale slowly and deeply. Try to lengthen and deepen each breath. Doing this while you’re experiencing a craving will help to curb it. Try it before eating too, as it will help the digestive system to work better.
Breathe to sleep better
“Nadi Shodhana (alternate nostril breathing) is great for quieting the mind and reducing stress, and is one of the best breathing techniques for insomnia,” advises Kirsty. This technique helps to calm the nervous system, and the act of alternate nostril breathing helps to distract from frantic thoughts that might be keeping you awake. So if you’re struggling to drift off, try this technique.
1. Sit comfortably and allow your left hand to rest on your left knee. Tuck in the first two fingers on the right hand. The ring and little finger will be used to close the left nostril, and the thumb to close the right. As you close the nostrils, only use slight pressure on the edge of the nostril.
2. Then, take a deep inhale, exhale fully and at the end of your exhale, gently close the right nostril with the thumb, keeping your left nostril open.
3. Fully inhale through the left nostril. At the top of your inhale, close the left nostril with the little and ring fingers, and release the thumb from the right nostril, fully exhaling out through the right nostril.
4. Inhale through the right nostril and at the top of your inhale, gently close the right nostril with the thumb, release the left nostril and exhale out of the left nostril.
The best way to start breathing right is to spend some time each day with your breath
Breathing for energy
Feeling sleepy? Consciously regulating your breath helps to manage energy levels. “Kapalabhati, also known as shining skull breath, is perfect if you need to energise body and mind, and wake up,” says Kirsty. Deep breathing helps you force more oxygen into the cells, which slows heart rate, lowers blood pressure and improves circulation – ultimately providing you with more energy. The muscle contractions also help stimulate a sluggish digestive system. If you’re feeling tired in the morning or if you hit a slump during the day, try the breathing routine below to help awaken your mind and body.
1. Start this technique off by taking a few deep breaths.
2. Then, when you feel ready, start to gently force out the exhalation by contracting and drawing in the abdomen, pushing the air out of your lungs.
3. Your next inhale will happen naturally.
4. Start with just a few rounds of 10 breaths and build up over time.
THE BENEFITS OF BREATHING BETTER
It releases toxins
Deep breathing massages your body’s lymphatic system, which helps to eliminate waste and toxins from the body.
It manages emotions
“Proper breathing can help us to tap into, control and release our emotions,” explains Kirsty. When we stifle an emotion, we subconsciously hold our breath, which can make us feel even worse. “Tuning into your breath and learning how to breathe fully and completely is a great self-healing tool,” she says.
It curbs stress
Breathing slowly and deeply can help keep your mind calm and alleviate symptoms of stress and anxiety.
It helps you to live in the moment
A busy and hectic schedule means it can be hard for us to find a little “me-time”, but breathing can have a grounding effect to help you wind down. “It helps us to become present and enjoy the moment,” explains Kirsty.
It promotes digestion
Slower breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which supports a range of positive effects, including better sleep and relaxation, and reducing stress. “The parasympathetic system is triggered when you’re resting and is known as ‘rest and digest’” says Kirsty. This means that it will also enhance digestion.