Cultivating The Power of Breath
“For the Taoist, the conscious cultivation of breath offers a powerful way not only to extract energies from the outside world but also to regulate the energetic pathways of our inner world, helping to bring our body, mind, and emotions into harmonious balance.” -Certified Healing Tao practitioner, Dennis Lewis.
Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Inhaling slowly and exhaling even slower, allow your mind to stay present, yet relaxed, allowing thoughts to come and go like clouds in the sky. After five minutes of this, how do you find yourself? At peace? Rejuvenated? Interconnected?
Breathing is one of those things that many of us give little-to-no thought to, but on average, we take more than 15,000 breaths a day. We tend to engage in three different types of breathing: Balanced Breath, which reflects the automatic mostly unconscious breathing we do, Cleansing Breath, which emphasizes exhalation over inhalation to release the body of toxins due to physical or emotional stress; and Energizing Breath which favors inhalation over exhalation, bringing us more oxygen and energy to help motivate us when dealing with boredom or fatigue.
While seemingly effective, the issue lies with the fact that many of us are nowhere close to fully utilizing the power of our breath. There are three phases of breathing, diaphragmatic, thoracic, and clavicular. If you've ever taken a yoga class, you are perhaps familiar with the concept of the Full Yogic Breath, breathing deep into the diaphragm, extending the abdomen and allowing the lungs to fill deeply with air. Diaphragmatic breathing is seldom done, as many of us simply rely on chest or clavicular breathing. This results in a shallow intake of air, unfulfilling and utilizing only one-third of its potential. When done chronically, shallow breathing reduces the overall effectiveness of the respiratory system, directly resulting in a whole slew of harmful effects to almost every important functioning system of the body. This is why it is so important to adopt beneficial breathing habits into our routines. By practicing breath awareness techniques and mindfulness of breath, we will naturally aid the bodies' harmonious functioning, heal our parasympathetic nervous system and furthermore cultivate stress resilience.
From Eastern Philosophy to Western Medicine, I’ve researched and identified some beneficial and healing breath practices to consider adding to your day-to-day routines.
A great place to start is with Richard P. Brown, MD, and Patricia L. Gerbarg, MD., 's work in Stress Resilience Practices.
Stress Resilience Practices
Drawn from Scientific Research and Eastern Philosophy
Begin by practicing breath awareness or mindfulness of breath: Close your eyes, feel the air moving in and out of your nose. Feel the air move down and back up and out of your lungs. Feel the rise and fall of your belly and chest, the movement of your ribs. Now you are becoming aware of your breath. (Research shows that keeping the eyes closed and the hands still have significant effects on brain waves, indicating create relaxing effects.)
Easiest done while lying down. Make sure you are comfortable. Close your eyes and mouth and breathe through your nose. Taking a deep breath in, relax the stomach muscles ensuring your belly rises when inhaling. Let the breath fill your stomach like a balloon. Allow the stomach to come down naturally on the exhale. Repeat this slowly several times. All breathing should be slow and gentle without any strain. Relax the muscles of the face and whole body.
Coherent Breathing (for battling stress or anxiety)
Can be done sitting or lying down. Close the eyes and mouth, breathe through the nose. Focus your attention on feeling the breath move in and out through your nose and airways to your lungs. Allow thoughts to show up and float away, refocusing on the breathing sensations, which should be done slow, gentle, and comfortable, not forced. The more slowly and gently you breathe, the easier it will be. The goal is to get down to 5 bpm (breaths per minute).
Steps for Coherent Breathing
Breathe through your nose with your eyes closed.
Taking your time, count slowly and silently in your mind: in for two out for two. Repeat two times.
Repeat counting in and out for three, three times.
Repeat counting in and out for four, four times.
Repeat counting in and out for four, four times again, but slower.
Arrive at five breaths per minute.
Old tensions are stored in our bodies systems. Feel where the tension is in your body. Let it go more and more with each out breath. If struggling, stop and rest.
Daily Practice (5-10 minutes, once or twice a day). Can increase to 20. Most people notice benefits immediately. The mind feels calmer and the body feels more relaxed. Over time the benefits will maintain greater longevity.
This is any kind of breathing that creates resistance to the flow of air. Resistance can be created by pursing the lips, placing the tip of the tongue against the inside of the upper teeth, hissing through clenched teeth, or tightening the throat muscles creating a vibrational sound. This can serve as an excellent enhancement to coherent breathing. Practicing resistance breathing results in stronger respiratory muscles over time.
Resistance Breathing Technique: Pursed Lips
Pursing the lips requires shifting the breathing from in the nose to out through the lips. Bring the upper lip down toward the lower lip, leaving a small narrow opening. Broth out slowly through the small space. Sit or lie down. Close your eyes.
Resistance Breathing Technique: Ocean breath (ujjayi)
Entails making the soft sound like the ocean heard inside of a seashell by tightening the muscles at the upper back of the throat. Straw.
Should be done without any straining.
*The detailed descriptions of the Stress Resilience Breathing Practices are shared from The Healing Power of Breath by Richard P. Brown, MD, Patricia L. Gerbarg, MD.*
Nine Cycles of Inhalation and Exhalation
Ancient Tibetan Practice
Compared to mouth breathing, nostril breathing has been found to offer a wide array of benefits. For example, due to the prolonged exhalation, the vagus nerve gets stimulated, resulting in lower blood pressure and heart rate, a lower breathing rate, and decreased body inflammation.
Guided Instruction: Begin by taking a soft inhale, pressing the left nostril closed with the left index finger and exhaling through the right nostril.
Next, inhale through the right nostril, and then switch sides: the left index finger releases the left nostril while the ridge index finger closes the right nostril. Then exhale through the left nostril, inhale through the left nostril, and continue s before, alternating nostrils.
Each inhalation/exhalation through a single nostril counts as one set. Thus, what was just described were two of the nine cycles of sets of breathing.
We repeat this until we have inhaled and exhaled a total of six times—three through each nostril.
Finally, we take three sets of inhalation and exhalation through both nostrils.
(The idea is to inhale and exhale in an elongated and relaxed manner. Always breathe as deeply as possible, pulling the breath down into the abdomen.)
*This detailed description of the Nine Cycles Breathing Practice is shared from The Tibetan Yoga of Breath: Breathing Practices for Healing the Body and Cultivating Wisdom by Anyen Rinpoche & Allison Choying Zangmo*
The Six Healing Exhalations
Ancient Taoist Breathing Practice
The six healing exhalations or sounds should be practiced daily and in order. Each sound should be practiced at least three times. If you have a particular problem associated with a specific organ or emotion, you can spend more time with the associated sound. The practice is simple, can happen in any posture, and focuses on the organ you are working with, sensing that you are inhaling energy directly into that organ. As you exhale using the associated sound, simultaneously sense the toxins or heat in the organ being carried out of your body.
(This technique can be performed by anyone at any time. The practice uses the power of sound to help heal the body's organs and transform the negative emotions associated with said organs. This is done through sound frequencies that help cool and detoxify the organs while speeding up the healing process.)
1st sound, “ssssss” (the sound of hissing) -acts on the lungs and colon and is related to the nose. Beneficial for physical problems such as colds, coughs, congestion, and emotional issues like grief or sadness.
2nd sound, “whooo” (blowing out a candle) -acts on the kidneys and bladder and is associated with the ears. Helpful in increasing overall energy and for problems such as cold feet, dizziness, lack of sexual energy, and for emotional issues such as fear.
3rd sound, “shhhh” (quieting sound) -acts on the liver and gall bladder, associated with the eyes. Useful for eye problems, anorexia, vertigo and for helping to transform the emotions of anger and jealousy.
4th sound, “haaa” -acts on the heart and small intestine, and is associated with the tongue. Useful for heart disease, insomnia, ulcerations of the tongue, night sweats, and transforming emotions such as hatred, arrogance, and impatience.
5th sound, “whoo” (guttural, in the back of the throat), acts on the spleen and stomach and is associated with the mouth. Beneficial for digestive problems, mouth ulcerations, muscle atrophy, menstrual disorders, and for transforming worry and anxiety.
6th sound, “heee” (hissed through the teeth) -acts on the triple warmer (the three breathing spaces) to help harmonize the overall energy flow of the body and is said to be effective for sore throats, abdominal distention, and insomnia.
*This detailed description of the Six Healing Exhalations is shared from The TAO of natural breathing: For Health, Well-Being, and Inner Growth by Certified Healing Tao Practitioner, Dennis Lewis.*
*All scientific information is sourced from the above three texts. For a much greater dive into the various healing powers of breath, I highly encourage you check them out!*