When it comes to the low-hanging fruit of healthier habits, it doesn’t get any easier than taking several deep breaths. In fact, if you’re anything like me, the only hard part may be remembering to do it! (Sis, do you ever find yourself holding your breath without even realizing it? I’ve noticed that after I’ve merged into rush hour traffic or performed some other tricky driving maneuver that requires focus, my shoulders drop, and I let out a long, strong exhale.)
Benefits of breath work, a.k.a. breathing exercises
Tense moments or periods, especially, are when we need to breeeeaaathe deeply. “Breath work is an active meditation that helps to shift the effects of trauma that has manifested in our bodies out of the body by reframing our nervous system’s response to certain triggers, along with decreasing stress and anxiety,” Jasmine Marie, CEO and founder of the wellness platform Black Girls Breathing (blackgirlsbreathing.com) told Sisters. This anytime, anywhere, free and simple act, as a regular practice, can support our happiness and well-being in so many ways.
Certain yoga breathing exercises may help regulate insulin sensitivity and blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes.
For instance, certain yoga breathing exercises may help regulate insulin sensitivity and blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes, according to the Journal of Yoga and Physical Therapy. Trying to lose weight? Small studies have linked breathing exercises to increased metabolic rate and reductions in fat and weight, says Healthline.
Trying to lose weight? Small studies have linked breathing exercises to increased metabolic rate and reductions in fat and weight.
According to the health and wellness website Verywell Mind, deep breathing, which recruits the diaphragm, may also help to:
- enhance sleep
- support post-workout recovery
- sharpen mental focus
- manage stress
- relieve depression
- reduce anxiety
A mind-body-spirit practice
Yoga and meditation teacher Kathryn D. Leary, who is CEO of Irie Movement Inc., points to research findings from Johns Hopkins Medicine. The studies suggest that making nonjudgmental self-awareness a practice can be one of the most effective ways we might improve mood and anxiety. Breathing consciously, as a part of meditation, can help us heighten present-moment self-awareness in a nonjudgmental way. In addition to focusing on the breath, we can tune in to the senses of taste, sight, touch, smell and hearing to anchor us. Leary says the head-clearing practice can also help us “move away from limited thinking.”
Types of breathing exercises
Many breathing techniques practiced for wellness are rooted in centuries-old healing traditions. Among the most popular:
Diaphragmatic or “belly” breathing focuses on activating the diaphragm, the dome-shaped muscle below the lungs that is the workhorse of respiration. It may help with shortness of breath. Find tips for diaphragmatic or “belly” breathing here.
Pursed-lip breathing, helpful during moments of anxiety, involves an inhale through the nose, then a slow and intentional release of the air through a tiny mouth aperture. Find how-tos here.
Box breathing is an exercise that requires holding the breath for short, even intervals after both inhalation and exhalation. Helpful for when you need to be calm under pressure, it’s said to be part of Navy SEAL training. Find how-tos here.
4-7-8 breathing, which may be helpful for falling asleep, also involves a hold, as well as a slow, audible exhale. (Kind of reminds me of yawning.) Find tips for 4-7-8 breathing here.
Easy ways to bring the benefits of conscious breathing into your day
Leary, who is cocreator of the wellness platform OneFirelight (onefirelight.com), shares several ways in which we can consciously make breathing a mind-, body- and spirit-focused practice.
Schedule breathing breaks
Like any developing habit, making this one stick will be easier if we systematize it. “I have a friend who sets her [alarm] for one o’clock [as a reminder to] stop whatever she’s doing and take a deep breath,” says Leary.
Stay in the present moment
Leary encourages those attending or streaming her classes to “unplug from the challenges and the issues.” She believes that simply being still and taking a breath creates a space within for good to flow. “The universe is always trying to send us good energy. But if we don’t [get] still and allow it to flow to us, it doesn’t.”
Get some fresh air and watch the sky
Leary likes to visit the rooftop of her New York City home and “just be with the sky.” In good weather, you can open a window. But even if it’s closed, enjoying a view of open space as you expand your lungs can bring an expansiveness to your mindset. When choosing locations for instructional videos on the OneFirelight fitness app, Leary prioritized filming in natural settings, including the mountains and beaches of Jamaica. Likewise, she encourages bringing exercise, including breathing exercises, outdoors. “Just breathing in fresh oxygen outside is a very natural experience. I can touch a leaf, I can watch a bird fly,” she says.
Incorporate spirituality into breath work, if you choose
Leary points out that neither breath work nor meditation is a religion, but the practice connects us to our life force. “You can call it God force. You can call it the universe. You can call it source. Whatever you wish to call it. We all have to breathe. It’s the first thing we do when we come here. It’s the last thing we do [before] we leave.”
Focus on life-giving energy
A favorite five-minute power-up inspired by a friend from her college days, the late reggae legend Bob Marley, is a go-to for Leary. “As I exhale, I imagine I’m pulling divine light down from above. Bob Marley [sings that] you must ‘hope good down from above,’ and so that’s my meditation. I’m breathing in, pulling energy up from the earth, holding it so that my body [can] absorb that powerful energy. And as I exhale, I’m pushing out negative energy from the body, from my tissues, my cells, my organs, my glands, and at the same time pulling energy down from above.”
Create a ritual
Leary says that a reverence for rituals is an important connection to our African ancestry. A ritual is different from a routine in that it may invoke feelings of mindfulness, intention, peace, solace, healing or deeper meaning. As part of her personal ritual, Leary likes to incorporate various crystals, which she believes help us connect to beauty, self-love, nurturing and the natural world. Your personal ritual might include a flameless candle, audio of ocean waves, an aromatherapy mist, a cup of tea or whatever else helps you feel centered and grounded.
Be conscious of your breathing during all fitness activities
Practice paying attention to your breath in addition to body positioning and exertion, whether you are doing strength, agility, cardiovascular or balance exercises. Leary, whose site also offers instruction in movement such as kickboxing, dance and Pilates, sees a benefit in “[bringing] the body, mind, spirit, ethos that you think of with yoga to all aspects of fitness.”
Sync your breathing with a mellow song
You’ve likely used music to help your body find a rhythm during repetitive exercises such as walking or biceps curls. Research has found that we also tend to adjust our breathing to the tempo of our chosen workout jam. This is a form of what scientists call “rhythmic entrainment.” To encourage longer, slower breaths, try listening to a genre with a mellower tempo such as country, reggae or chillout. Leary, for instance, favors reggae music for lending “irie” island vibes to fitness, setting many workouts to music from Bob Marley and the Wailers, and similar artists. A reggae tune ranges in tempo from 80 to 110 beats per minute (BPM), which is slower than, say, the typical trap track, ranging from 130 to 150 BPM. Find spacious island grooves on the Sisters Tropical Escape playlist. “Instead of having to do your cardio to glaring techno music or screaming, there’s another way to do it,” Leary says. “You can … [benefit] from … soul-nurturing music.”
We can breathe easy and enjoy a similar effect during inactive periods by listening to relaxation tracks (you know — spa music). Remember: deep belly breath. Exhale slowly. Aaaaah! Now, that’s better.