Of all the tools found within healing arts and natural health practices, breathing could be rated as number one. Recently, breathing techniques have been studied by institutions like the National Institutes for Health for the positive impact they have on the functionality of the body, including (or even especially, the brain). Breathing can aid in optimizing everything from digestion, to blood pressure, to processing stress. In fact, a significant portion of the classical yoga practice deals specifically with breathing techniques. This vast body of breathing techniques is called “pranayama,” which could be translated as “energy control.”
Some forms of breathing have been shown to induce the “relaxation response,” to lower the activity of the sympathetic nervous system (which manages our “fight or flight” mechanism) and increase the work of the more restorative parasympathetic nervous system.
Try the equalizing breath practice if you would like to tap into a calmer, clearer version of yourself. Use this when you drive; as you sit in a meeting; before you discipline those you coach or parent. Anytime is a good time for the equalizing breath, and even more so as we head into a typically busy time of the year.
The Equalizing Breath Practice, Stage 1:
Sit with an elongated spine so that your chest and belly are “open” and not collapsed. This will offer more space for your breath to enter and fill your lungs.
Close your eyes and take a few breaths without trying to make any changes to the way you breathe. Observe the number of counts or seconds it takes you to inhale…and then to exhale. Gradually, without striving or straining, attempt to equalize the number you count for the inhalation and exhalation. For example, inhale as you silently count to four; exhale as you silently count to four. This focused way of breathing can help to relax the nervous system, the mind, and perhaps even muscular strain.
Attempt this technique anytime you can. Of course, you can keep your eyes open if you happen to be driving or otherwise need your vision.
Stage 2 of Practice:
At some point, Stage 1 will become easy for you. Don’t rush it; you will work against yourself and create more stress if you move on before your body is ready. When Stage 1 is mastered, begin to extend the exhalation part of the cycle for two more counts than the inhalation. For example, inhale for 5; exhale for 7. This technique can offer a powerful diffusion of stress, anxiety, and so on, if practiced regularly. Remember, these natural techniques need to happen regularly and frequently in order to work.
Stage 3 of Practice, the Elongated Exhalation:
When Stage 2 becomes easy for you, work toward doubling the count of the exhalation over the inhalation. For example, inhale for 6; exhale for 12. Your breathing cycle will be growing longer with each stage you master. The total number of counts it takes to complete one breath will gradually increase as you develop the skill to expand your lung’s capacity and to control the pattern of breathing in an unobtrusive way.
Give It A Whirl
The best way to see if this, or any other practice, is working for you is to put it to the test. Do you anticipate a house full of relatives anytime soon? Do you need to have a difficult conversation with a student, team member, or colleague? Before you approach your next challenging situation, find three minutes and a little privacy to test drive the equalizing breath. See how it goes.