When we feel anxious our breathing becomes disordered and when our breathing rhythm is disrupted, it exacerbates anxiety. The fastest way to self-regulate anxiety, stress and the effects of trauma is to regulate the breath through breathing exercises. There is an old yogic saying: To control the breath is to control the mind. It’s helpful for us to have different breathing exercise options to choose among; perhaps we are at home or preparing for bed, or we might be shopping or working on zoom when the need arises to find calm, breathe, and ground ourselves. Explore, play, experiment with the following options, and see which ones are right for you.
The 4-7-8 breathing exercise is one of my go-to exercises especially when I am feeling anxious, stressed, or when I’m in need of an energy boost. It’s easy, requires just a few minutes, and can be done wherever you are.
1. 4-7-8 Relaxed Breathing Exercise
Sit up with a straight back. Place your tongue behind your top front row of teeth and leave your tongue there during the breathing practice. Engage in a full-body exhale and make a whooshing noise. Then, inhale using your nose and count silently to four. Then count to seven and hold your breath. Again make the whooshing noise as you exhale using only your mouth this time. This is considered the first breath cycle. Repeat this at least 5-10 times. I often do this before I fall asleep. When I go to bed, I am already preparing to relax and this is a perfect way to induce sleep.
The Breath of Fire and the Long Slow Breaths
The Breath of Fire and the Long Slow Breath are helpful during stress and when we are finding ourselves sighing or shallow breathing. They are also ideal for people who want to quit smoking. These exercises help to restore oxygen to the blood and brain.
2. Breath of Fire Breathing Exercise
Breath of Fire is from the Kundalini yoga tradition and is also called Kapalabhati, (Shannahoff-Khalsa, 2006), which means, “skull lightning,” presumably because it enhances awareness but also perhaps because it lightens or “loosens the lid.” This particular breathing exercise can be used for a minute when one is feeling really stressed or the urge to smoke. It is energizing and decreases cravings.
Breath of Fire consists of alternating short, forceful exhales and slightly longer, passive inhales. Exhales are generated by powerful contractions of the lower belly (between the pubic bone and lower belly), which push air out of the lungs. Inhales are responses to the release of this contraction, which sucks air back into the lungs.
Begin by sitting up in a comfortable position, lengthening your spine upward, and bringing your chin back and in slightly, so that the back of your head aligns with your spine. Close your eyes and bring your awareness to your lower belly. Cup one hand lightly in the other and press them gently against your lower belly so your hands rest between the belly button and the pubic bone. Relax your abdominal muscles. Begin breathing quickly through the nose, with equal inhales and exhales. It should be as though you are sniffing very rapidly, and the breath is shallow. Find your own pace and rhythm, and stay relaxed as the diaphragm pulses naturally with the breath.
As you exhale imagine that your skull is lightening and loosening its grip on the neck. Start off slowly with this exercise until you get the rhythm, and then repeat eight to 10 times at about one exhale-inhale cycle every second or two. You can increase your pace to two exhale-inhale cycles every second as you improve at contracting/releasing your lower belly. Do 25 to 30 cycles at first. Gradually increase the number of cycles to comfort.
Caution: If you experience dizziness or vertigo during this exercise, have a history of hyperventilation or if you are menstruating, practice relaxed abdominal breathing or the long deep breath instead. If you have a history of high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, epilepsy, or ulcers, practice caution while doing this exercise.
3. Long Slow Breath Breathing Exercise
In times of high stress or when feeling anxious, practice taking long, deep breaths for one to two minutes, counting to four on the in-breath, then hold for four counts. Count to four on the exhale, and then hold for four counts before inhaling again. Repeat this four to eight times.
4. Ha Breath/Woodchopper Breathing Exercise
Let’s make noise! The Ha Breath/ Woodchopper exercise is great when you feel yourself holding your breath, sighing, feeling out of control or even angry and frustrated (Korn, 2013). Here you make noise along with our movement, it’s fun to let it all go!
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, your feet pointing outward, knees slightly bent. Imagine yourself to be a woodchopper. Breathing in, lift your extended arms over your head as if you were holding an axe. Your pelvis should be tipped forward so that your back is arched slightly. Take care not to overextend your shoulders backward. As you breathe out (with a loud HA sound) bring your arms forward while simultaneously bending your forward, tilting the hip, and curving your head down as if you were chopping wood. The HA is said on the downward thrust. Let your arms swing toward the ground and through and between the legs. Speed may vary according to what you feel most comfortable with. This simple exercise releases frustrations and pent-up emotions as well as tension along the spine, pelvis, neck, and shoulders. The woodchopper/HA breath is a good lead into “laughter yoga for the body and brain.
Find more exercises like this and other tips for relaxation and trauma relief in my book Rhythms of Recovery: Integrative Medicine for PTSD and Complex Trauma, or watch me teach these and other exercises in my certification courses at the Leslie Korn Institute for Integrative Medicine.
Korn, Leslie, (2013) Rhythms of Recovery: Integrative Medicine for PTSD and Complex Trauma, Routledge, N.Y.
Shannahoff-Khalsa, D.(2006). Kundalini yoga meditation: Techniques specific for psychiatric disorders, couples therapy, and personal growth. New York: Norton
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