Deep Breathing Exercise for Body Relaxation
Deep breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system helping us calm the body's stress response. That's why this simple breathing exercise can help us relax and de-stress.
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Under normal circumstances, breathing is automatic, mostly unnoticed, and largely silent. We hardly notice it... that is until something goes wrong. And last year, after finishing my new book, Outsmart Your Smartphone, I suddenly became aware of my breath. I started having gut health issues, and one of the symptoms was that I just couldn't get a deep breath! I knew that the way we breathe affects our body, our stress levels (take this stress quiz to learn more about your stress), and our well-being. So I started spending more time breathing deeply in an attempt to help my lungs do it on their own. Here is one deep breathing technique that can be done anywhere to help you relax, reduce stress, and boost well-being.
Conscious Breathing Technique:
The purpose of this exercise is to quiet the mind, not forcibly, but with gentle persuasion. In this breathing exercise, you'll attempt to quiet the mind by counting your breaths, which keeps your brain occupied with a simple task so that you can focus on releasing stress from your body.
1. Find a quiet place and sit down with your back straight in a comfortable pose.
Sitting cross-legged is good if you can hold that pose, but it is by no means required. Sit on the ground in nature, or on a cushion, or in a chair where you are not likely to be disturbed. Take several normal breaths, making no attempt to control or count them. Just settle down and get comfortable.
2. Once you are done moving, scratching your nose, or readjusting your legs, note the state of your mind.
Is your mind racing from one subject to another, like a TV remote scanning channels? Is it obsessed by repeating one thought over and over again? That mental-chatter is the background noise of your brain as it functions automatically. Aim to calm the busy-ness of the mind simple by staying present in your body.
If you have a problem to solve that you just can't stop thinking about, note it down on a piece of paper to address after you finish this breathing exercise. That way you can more easily empty your mind. After you finish the breathing exercise, you can re-engage your mind consciously, while you are still sitting in a quieted mental state.
3. To begin, breathe through your nose in long, slow and deep inhalations followed by extended, controlled and even exhalations.
You may feel inclined to hold your breath after an especially deep in-breath, which is fine as a variation. If you do hold your breath, exhale that breath through your mouth, emptying your lungs as completely as possible, perhaps bending forward to squeeze as much air out as you can. Holding your breath once or twice during a 50-count of breaths may help release toxic stress with each rushing out-breath. Do not be disturbed if you cough, because that is another way your body removes toxic particles and pollutants from the lungs.
4. Once your breathing has settled into a regular rhythm and your mind is focused on each breath, start counting with each out-breath.
Allow the first 10 or so breaths to really settle you, slow your breathing, and calm yourself as you continue to count your breaths. Aim for fifty long breath counts, but don't feel discouraged if you only do half that. Even just a few breaths can help relax and de-stress the body and mind.
While you are consciously breathing, notice the movements of your diaphragm and how your belly rises with each in-breath and flattens with each out-breath. You may want to emphasize those belly movements and stretch your diaphragm as you proceed. Give special attention to those places where you are holding stress. Imagine stress being released from your shoulders, neck, back, etc., as you continue to focus on your breath. Hopefully, as you relax more deeply with each breath, you'll feel the stress wash away from your shoulders as tension is released.
5. Encourage stress to release by surrendering to it and allowing it to pass out of your body through your breath.
Consciously relax your neck, shoulders, or back a little more with each out-breath. You may want to rotate your neck slowly to the right, back, and around again to the front with one breath, doing the same to the left during another breath. You may want to rotate your shoulders to loosen them up. Don’t worry if you lose track of the count. Just return to the last number you remember and continue this mindful breathing technique.
During this process, aim to surrender your body, releasing your mental control over it. Sometimes your shoulders will relax and suddenly lower a notch automatically as tension releases. Just attempt to notice any changes in your body.
6. Take about 20-30 minutes to count breaths to 50.
After counting 50 sustained breaths, you may want to continue counting your breaths, increasing their length and evenness. Or you could deepen your meditation without counting breaths by adding a creative visualization (for example, imagining being in a calm place).
This breathing exercise can help you ease into deeper meditations, strengthen your lungs, and help you de-stress. And when done daily, this little exercise can prevent your body from accumulating excess stress, and it can give you a way to release past stress. So take good care of yourself and remember to breathe consciously as often as possible for health and longevity.
About Dr. Tchiki Davis
Dr. Davis is founder of The Berkeley Well-Being Institute. After getting her PhD in psychology at Berkeley, she started creating online content & programs to boost well-being—some of these have reached more than a million people. As author of Outsmart Your Smartphone, and contributor to Psychology Today, The Greater Good Science Center, and Shine Text, Dr. Davis aims to share her insights on happiness & health with people all across the world. Learn more about Dr. Davis.