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5 Breathing Exercises Used for Relaxation

Author and Trusted NTP practitioner

Campbell Will

Breath Body Therapy

Campbell will help you to develop a better relationship with the breath and body. Developing an understanding of the respiratory system is a stepping stone to controlling energy, emotional well-being, reactivity, and productivity.
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Sep 03, 2021

5 Breathing Exercises Used for Relaxation

In recent times, it's never been more important and necessary for us to find ways to release anxiety and stress. If we are constantly operating in a heightened state of anxiety or stress, we are compromising our immune system and our well-being overall. Our stress response is designed to be short lived, and once the stressor has passed, the nervous system shifts back into a state of recovery. When we constantly find ourselves stuck in stressful situations, our immune system is compromised, we are more prone to high blood pressure and inflammation, our digestion is disrupted and our sleep is not restorative.

It is very important to understand that the way we breathe corresponds to the way we feel as it affects our sympathetic activity. If you have explored your breathing rate, you may have noticed that when you breathe quickly your heart rate goes up. Conversely, when you slow your breath down, particularly the exhale, you improve your heart rate variability. When looking at the autonomic nervous system; the sympathetic branch is the accelerator, and the parasympathetic branch is the brake. How we breathe is critically important as it influences our nervous system.

You've likely heard of the Vagus Nerve. Well this amazing nerve runs from your brain all the way down through the entire body, to most of the organs, into the diaphragm and gut. Its purpose is to send signals about the state of the body to the brain and adjust the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system. This, of course, has its effects on feelings of calm, heart rate, digestion, and more. The vagus nerve has the job of slowing down your heart when it speeds up and helps to maintain a steady rhythm.

Stimulate the Vagus Nerve With a Relaxation Breathing Exercise

When you understand a bit of the science behind the process of the vagus nerve, it's easier to understand why activating the vagal power and helping to find the "brake" for relaxation can be done with the breath. Breathing is one of the best relaxation techniques we can do to improve the state of our health. Because the breath corresponds to the state of your body and mind, and the breath is under conscious control, practicing certain breathing patterns allows us to influence our current state of being. That means you can control how you feel. It's empowering to realize that you can essentially "hack" your nervous system through the correct breathing technique.

In the exercises below, you will learn how to use the "brake" of your nervous system for relaxation by focusing on the different phases of respiration. I encourage you to find a comfortable seat or lay down for all of the below. In addition, an important blanket statement for these breath exercises is diaphragmatic breathing, a type of breathing that has more beneficial effects than shallow breathing. It basically means breathing from your diaphragm, as opposed to chest breathing that emphasises the upper chest and shoulders. What helps is to put one hand on your abdomen and one on your chest, to ensure you're breathing from the diaphragm up into the ribs.

Also, remember, everyone is unique, so try these exercises at different times and see which breathing technique works best for you!

1-2 Ratio Breathing

The longer the exhale, the more stimulus on the vagus nerve, the more 'calming' message is sent to the brain.

  1. Sit or lay comfortably and close down the eyes (if it's safe to do so)
  2. Simply count the duration of your inhale (eg. 3)
  3. Now match the duration of your exhale (eg. 3 in, 3 out)
  4. Every few breaths, add 1 to the exhale, making it a little softer and longer (eg. 3 in, 4 out // 3 in, 5 out // 3 in, 6 out)
  5. Once you achieve an exhale that is double the length of the inhale, sustain this pattern for 3-5 minutes.
  6. Concentrate on relaxing the shoulders with every exhale

Coherence Breathing

Perhaps coherent breathing, also known as Resonant Frequency Breathing, is the most studied breath pattern. This form of rhythmic breathing influences the rhythm of the heart and also of the brain. Through the process of synchronization, the breath influences the rest of the body.

  1. Sit or lay comfortably and close down the eyes (if it's safe to do so)
  2. Place one hand on your stomach, and one hand on your heart
  3. Breathe entirely through your nose, softly
  4. Begin by breathing in for four seconds and then out for four seconds. Do this for 10 breaths.
  5. Now lengthen the inhales and exhales to five seconds. Again repeat for 10 rounds
  6. Now try extending further to six second inhales and exhales. If 6 seconds feels too challenging, come back to five and try to maintain for 3-5 minutes

Humming or "bee breath"

One way we can increase vagal nerve stimulation is by humming or buzzing. The additional vibrations are thought to increase nerve stimulation resulting in a faster shift into the parasympathetic state. Furthermore, humming increases Nitric Oxide which helps to open airways and blood vessels.

  1. Sit or lay comfortably and close down the eyes (if it's safe to do so)
  2. Start by taking a few natural breaths per minute
  3. Keep your lips lightly sealed, inhale through the nostrils to the top of your capacity
  4. Pause for a moment and then begin to exhale and make the sound of the letter M (or hum), feeling a vibration in the chest, throat or lips
  5. Continue with the sound for as long as you can (the longer the exhale, the better) until you need to inhale, then repeat
  6. Practice as long as it feels good

Physiological Sigh

Our brain has a set of neurons called Sigh Neurons which are triggered involuntarily to make us sigh around 12 times per hour. This is the body's way of balancing the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide and induces a state of relaxation. This technique was developed from a lab at Stanford (Huberman Lab) that focuses primarily on fear and breathing. The double inhale, prolonged exhale mimics the effects of a sigh and reduces stress levels.

  1. Sit or lay comfortably and close down the eyes (if it's safe to do so)
  2. Take a comfortable inhale. Pause. Then take a second inhale (both nasally)
  3. Let the exhale go softly and slowly through the nose or the mouth.
  4. The duration of the exhale should be longer than the two inhales.
  5. Repeat. Double inhale // Long exhale.
  6. Effects are noted with even just 1 breath, but can be repeated 5 times for maximum benefit

Triangle Breathing

Also known as Nature's Breath, this is the spontaneous breathing pattern mammals fall into when they are asleep. If you've ever watched your dog sleeping you will notice an obvious inhale, exhale, and then a distinct pause. This pause is where the nervous system really slows down.

  1. Sit or lay comfortably and close down the eyes (if it's safe to do so)
  2. Breathe in for three counts as you trace the first side of the triangle
  3. Breathe out for three counts as you trace the second side of the triangle
  4. Hold your breath for three counts as you trace the final side of the triangle
  5. Think of letting the inhale 'float' in, letting the exhale 'wash' out, then simply pausing
  6. Practice as long as it feels good

I hope that you can find some relief and relaxation with the above exercises. Mastering these breathing skills will increase your body awareness, which ultimately leads to a wide array of health benefits. If you have any questions about how these slow breathing techniques work, or have comments about your unique experience, don't hesitate to reach out to me.

Happy Breathing!

FAQs About Breathing for Relaxation

How many times a day should you do breathing exercises?

Do belly breathing for 5 to 10 minutes at least three to four times a day. It may seem difficult at first, but over time it will become easier and will feel more natural.

Is deep breathing good for the heart?

Yes, it absolutely is. Taking a deep breath sends a calming message to your brain. This therapy can lower your heart and breathing rate, decrease your blood pressure, reduce muscle tension and help you feel less stressed and more relaxed.

Can deep breathing lower cholesterol?

Yes, it can. Deep breathing exercises contribute to maintaining a healthy cardio-respiratory system. It produces nitric oxide, which is linked to healthy cholesterol and a healthy heart.

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