Do you sometimes feel like you just can’t breath? Do you often feel drained of your life force and have little energy to get through the day? Thousands of my clients have come to me sick of suffering with the 21st century trials of being human. Chronic stress, anxiety, panic, depression, low energy, escalating emotion, unresolved burdens from childhood – all things that keep you from fully being you, enjoying the simple pleasures of life, reaching your dreams, and anything else possible in this amazing life we’re given. And, if that’s not enough, trying to overcome all this can be downright overwhelming, time consuming and exhausting especially when you’re running on fumes.
This was my story until I stumbled on the key to unlocking a lifetime’s worth of burdens limiting my ability to live my life and reach my potential. The key I discovered was my breath – breathing consciously. I was blown away that something so simple, I took for granted, and did everyday could be the source of my freedom. And, I’m here to tell you – If I can do it you can do it too.
Thank you for downloading this special report and for your interest in exploring how the power of breath can help you. My aim is to offer you four introductory exercises to this usable, self-empowering, practical tool that will teach you to stop stress and anxiety in the moments they occur and better navigate and manage the inevitable, difficult moments that arise in your life.
I am heartened to see a growing interest in utilizing breath as a self-empowering, therapeutic tool. Advances in brain science, interpersonal neurobiology, and somatic psychotherapy are bringing to light not only the everyday uses of healthy breathing, but also safe, clinical applications for this work much in the same way MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction), caught the wave in the past decade.
I honor and applaud your interest in this natural, emerging and transformative modality, and invite you to join with me in the exploration and application of a new frontier of empowered healing that is extremely effective and can benefit everyone.
I offer you this introduction to the power of breath, or what I call Somatic Breath Therapy. My invitation is for you to incorporate conscious breathing as a foundation for increasing resilience, improving your ability to integrate and rewire life’s inevitable stressors and invigorate your life-force energy so you can live a more relaxed and wholehearted life.
When conscious breathing is practiced regularly it quickly helps to restore you to a more peaceful yet energized state during stressful times. It doesn’t make the stress go away, but it stops it in its tracks so you can choose a new way of being. It gives you tools and over time helps to rewire your nervous system so stressors that once took 3 months to recover from will only take three weeks, then maybe only three days, or even three hours…
Take a moment before we go on to close your eyes and reflect on how you are breathing right now. Are holding your breath while you are reading, or barely breathing? Take a deep breath and exhale with a sigh….
Let’s get started.
Four Conscious Breath Exercises To Overcome Stress and Give You More Energy
- Take a Deep Breath, But Not Any Ordinary Breath
- Breath Awareness: a Key Aspect of Mindfulness Practice
- Get in Your Body: Increase Body Awareness –
Learn to Breathe an Open, Healthy Breath
- Use Your Open, Healthy Breath Not to Just Feel Better, But BE Better
EXERCISE #1 – Take a Deep Breath – But Not Any Ordinary Breath
Breathing is something we take for granted. Everybody breathes to stay alive. If you’re reading this, somewhere along the line I bet you’ve awakened to the idea that there’s more to breathing than meets the eye. You’re right there’s much more. Also, you might even be wondering if you breathe correctly, or are getting full benefit from the breathing you’re doing. Learning to breathe correctly is the most powerful first line of defense when faced with any life stressor. It helps to bridge the gap between what you’re experiencing and how you’re feeling.
When you instinctively take a deep breath, and release it with a sigh, it makes you feel better. Why? Because a deep breath moves energy, delivers awareness and oxygen, impacts the nervous system and creates a momentary pause for something new to take place. When you take a deep breath in and let it go you stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system – that part of the Autonomic Nervous System whose job it is to ‘rest and digest’ – in other words, YOU RELAX!
In that more restful state, if only fleetingly, you’re able to become more aware of the present moment rather than the past or future where stressful thoughts tend to take you. The true gift and simplicity of your breath is that it not only mirrors the relationship between what’s happening in your body and your mind in the moment, it also gives you a chance to improve that relationship.
Take deep breaths often, especially during times of increased stress. If you get in the habit of doing this several times a day with conscious intention, you can change your entire life experience, and greatly improve your physical health.
Here’s the key – learn to take a truly effective deep breath – not all deep breaths are created equal! This is truly the secret to getting the most physiological, experiential and relaxation benefit from any deep breathing practice.
Most people take only a chest breath, a belly breath, keep it shallow, have an inadvertent pause at the top, or force and blow the inhalation or exhalation. An effective breath should be like a gentle but intentional wave, starting in the lower
belly and rising all the way up to the throat with full lateral chest expansion; there is no pause at the top, and the exhale is simply a recoiling and relaxation of tissues; finally in effective breathing, there’s a natural pause at the bottom before the next breath starts.
An effective breath is always initiated with your diaphragm. The diaphragm is the muscle nature has designed for breathing – it is a dome-shaped muscle attached to the lower ribs and during inhalation pushes downwards toward the pelvic floor. When you start inhaling, your belly should expand, like a balloon. But don’t force it excessively – that would mean you are using your abdominal muscles. An effective deep breath is about 2/3 diaphragmatic and 1/3 chest.
Try it right now. Don’t force anything, and remember to relax your exhale. See if you can find your diaphragm. It takes some practice to teach your body a new way of breathing.
Challenge yourself to take breath breaks during the day. Observe if you feel different after an effective breath. Notice if making this shift in your breathing opens up more space to relax and refocus.
Exercise #2 –Breath Awareness: A Key Aspect of Mindfulness Practice
Sometime in the last century, when yoga got to be known as something other than a bland, white milk product, several eastern spiritual traditions began making inroads into the West. Central to most of them was meditation, the practice of sitting quietly and turning conscious attention inward, either focusing on a particular word or sound, sensory/perceptual experience or the rise and fall of the breath. The idea was to attend to these things nonjudgmentally and non-reactively, while simply observing the sensory stimuli inside and outside of the body. The key to this is that with practice you become more of an experiencing self or “experiencer” rather than just a victim of your thoughts and perceptions.
Since then and in its current evolution, Mindfulness is defined as the ability to maintain with equanimity a moment-by-moment awareness of your thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment. Easier said than done? Perhaps, but in order to achieve this and give your brain the opportunity to rewire, you must engage in a regular practice of Mindfulness meditation which involves the awareness of your breath.
Breath awareness is an integral aspect of Mindfulness practice. During the more common Mindfulness practice you are invited to become aware of your breathing. You witness your breath, while thoughts, feelings, body sensations arise, and gently return your attention back to noticing the flow of breathing in your body. Notice every nuance, from air entering your nostrils to the rise and fall of your belly. If you are conscious of breathing an natural breath, one initiated by your diaphragm, you will receive greater benefit from your Mindfulness practice.
By non-judgmentally witnessing your thoughts, feelings and sensations and practicing the redirection of your attention back to the breath, you increase your ability to maintain moment-by-moment awareness as the experiencer. From chronic pain to daily traffic to negative judgments, most of us are hammered by intrusive thoughts, pent-up emotions and sensory overloads. There’s a steady stream of hyper-information coursing through us that over time, we end up believing we’re nothing more than our thoughts, feelings or sensations, end up judging ourselves even more, and fall into the abyss of self-criticism and anxiety.
Just say WOA To Your Thoughts, Feelings, Pains or Sensations
What Mindfulness actually produces is what I call the WOA factor or Wedge of Awareness. By practicing Mindfulness, you drive a wedge of awareness between the mental chatter running in the background, and what you want to become conscious: being in the present moment and knowing you are not defined by your thoughts, feelings and sensations.
Interpersonal neurobiologist, Dr. Dan Siegel, in his Neurobiology of WE names five qualities of Mindfulness that have evolved from the years of developmental research (especially through the work of Dr. Ruth Baer at the University of Kentucky):
- Being aware of what’s happening when it’s happening
- Non-judgmental (acceptance)
- Ability to name what’s going on inside you
- Ability to be self-observant
Mindfulness is both an essential short term and long-term strategy to cope with life’s stressors large and small. So – here’s a basic practice of using Mindfulness to cope restless thoughts, anxiety or difficulty. I’ve broken it down into three levels – try each level in the following order. As you grow comfortable and feel more confident with each one, move to the next level.
Level 1 – Redirect Your Attention
One of the easiest ways to practice Mindfulness as we’ve said is by directing your attention toward your breath. Easy, right? Well… actually… why don’t you try it now. Make yourself comfortable, preferably in a seated, comfortable position (but not driving or operating heavy equipment!) and take a deep breath! Gently turn your inner attention to the natural movement of your inhalation and exhalation and after a few more deep breaths let your breath relax and be natural.
Behold the miracle of life breathing you right now. As you do this for a few moments, you may notice your thoughts may come back suddenly and race across your mind. That’s ok. Gently return your attention back to the breath. When you notice yourself becoming aware of your thoughts, feelings and sensations again, simply and gently return your attention back to the breath – over and over if need be. It definitely takes practice!
In time, you will realize that the attention you command is the most influential aspect of your conscious being, for it not only helps to manage the flow of thoughts and feelings but also changes the nature of your response as well. Even with a simple practice of 5 minutes a day, you can learn to use your attention and step forward and through whatever you’re sinking into. And if you can’t find the strength to step forward to face your difficulty, you can at least switch your attention and take a healthy retreat to that which you know can nurture you: the natural rhythm of life breathing your body.
Level 2 – Witness or Name Your Thoughts and Feelings
Now let’s take it one step further. During this practice, imagine yourself as a witness, not just the helpless observer over-identified with all of your thoughts. Notice how
your thoughts and beliefs actually seem to generate the very emotions you might be struggling with. Each time you think to yourself, for example, “I’m a loser and I’m never going to get this right!” Can you feel yourself getting depressed or anxious
when you think a thought like that? Try this thought instead: “Actually I’m just HAVING this thought, I’m really NOT this thought….” Can you feel the difference?
You are not your thoughts; you are only having your thoughts! Notice, which thought sets off which emotions. If the thought just won’t let go, then you can simply NAME the thoughts and feelings and say to yourself, “thinking, thinking, thinking…” or “feeling, feeling, feeling…” Then, gently return your attention back to the flow of the breath. You don’t need to be harsh with yourself, just gently and consistently return your attention back to your experiencing self.
Remember, your thoughts are not always representative of the totality of who you are; in fact, they rarely represent the reality of YOU. Thoughts are usually a habitual attempt by a biologically hard-wired part of you to understand or adapt to a situation, usually from the past. They can be very convincing. They’re easy to believe if you don’t question them. Breathe with them, gently name them, then return your attention back to your own life-giving breath.
Level 3 – Acceptance and Non-Judgment
Once you’ve redirected your attention and named your thoughts or feelings, you have taken an important step back toward the reality of the present moment. Good for you, cause this is where acceptance hangs out! Practicing peaceful acceptance toward whatever is arising can free you from your judgments of the past and your expectations of the future.
More than an action, acceptance is an attitude, a way of being open to and tolerating whatever is arising with equanimity. You feel it in your body. Practicing acceptance and non-judgment is the ability to be with what is happening, while it’s happening, without reactivity. Even though you may be experiencing something difficult or painful, adding the perspective of acceptance and non-judgment is an important next step.
Try it now. Use breath awareness and directed attention as your Mindfulness practice to witness, name and accept your perceptual experience instead of being swallowed by it. This simple technique can be a powerful strategy to integrate and negotiate day-to-day difficulties and the normal challenges of living life in today’s world. Embrace the possibility of living your life this way; but remember it takes practice, a little bit each and every day.
Exercise # 3 – Get in Your Body: Increase Body Awareness – Learn to Breathe an Open, Healthy Breath
Most people know instinctively they need to improve their breathing. Life-long ineffective breathing habits often point to a life-long disconnection with your body. Being disconnected from your body often means a sense of disconnection from your life. This next exercise will help you on the path to deeper embodiment, and more connected living by recovering what we call an Open Healthy Breath. An Open, Healthy Breath is the kind of breath most people are born with. It’s where your breath moves fully and easily and responds to the moment-to-moment needs of your body, mind and spirit.
An Open, Healthy Breath regulates your nervous system, increases oxygen, and relaxes you, thereby reducing stress and anxiety. It also helps you fall asleep more easily – these are all things that encourage healthy living and a deeper sense of positivity and connection to your life. Over time, cultivating an Open, Healthy Breath interrupts your stress patterns, rewires your brain, and allows you to make a more peaceful and fulfilling home in your body and mind.
In times of crisis, staying aware of your breath and knowing how to breathe freely and fully will also help you to improve your sense of belonging. Learning to BE with your breath is learning to BE in your body, and with intention and practice, it will help you understand why you might have disconnected from your body in the first place.
Here are two breath-body awareness practices to give you a feel for how your own body breathes and introduce you to the experience of an Open, Health Breath.
Practice 1 – Get to Know How Your Breath Feels in Your body
- Lie comfortably on the floor on your back, or sit in a chair with your back supported. Gently place one hand on your lower belly and one hand on your chest. Take a full breath in and let it go. Begin to breathe in and out through your nose in a natural rhythm. Simply notice and feel where and how the breath is moving in your body.
Are there any places where you can’t feel your body breathing? Don’t worry, if you do, that’s normal. Breath awareness takes practice and you’ve got to slow down long enough, learn to retrain your awareness and let yourself feel what’s actually happening in your body. Most of us have taken our breath for granted for a long, long time.
- Notice if there is movement in both your belly and your chest. Where is the movement initiated? Is there a pause at the top and/or at the bottom of each cycle of respiration? Observe as you continue to inhale and exhale.
What do you feel? Are there any places of tension that just won’t go away? Again, don’t worry – this is an awareness exercise – you don’t need to change anything just yet. It’s very normal to want to do it right, and we’ll get to that in the next exercise.
- How does your exhalation feel – is it forced and choppy, slow and controlled, or easy and relaxed? Are there any places in the movement that feel stuck? Are there any places of pain, suddenly present or perhaps lingering from before? For now, just use Mindfulness to witness whatever is showing up and breathe with it!
Practice 2 – Relearn What an Open Healthy Breath Feels Like
Let’s review and deepen the definition of an Open Healthy Breath. Again, this is the kind of breath most people are born with, where your breath moves fully and easily, and responds to the moment-to-moment needs of your body, that is, before we developed restricted or dysfunctional breathing habits. For those of you who would like a detailed explanation including the physiology, here it is:
An Open Healthy Breath:
A smooth, responsive contraction of the diaphragmatic muscle (more specifically about 70% of the overall respiratory movement), which creates a vacuum in the torso drawing air into the lungs that then fully outspreads as three apparent ‘secondary’ movements in the belly, all of which appearing like a smooth ocean wave:
- Compression of the internal organs downwards, toward and pushing down upon the pelvic floor, with the appearance of slight lower belly expansion
- Nominal abdominal contraction (approximately 10% vs. 90% diaphragmatic in the belly portion of the breath) that in symphony with the compression of the internal organs causes a swelling of the lower belly just above the pubic bone out and up towards the navel/mid belly
- A continuous wave (extension) of mid belly movement above the navel and toward the lower ribs and Xiphoid Process, with simultaneous start of chest expansion
- A gradual and unrestricted swelling of the belly rising into chest expansion that engages, depending upon the need, various intercostal, scalene, sternocleidomastoid and other related respiratory muscles
- Chest expansion encompassing anterior, posterior as well as lateral movement of the entire rib cage (more specifically about 25% of the overall respiratory movement)
- Continued chest lift/expansion into the ‘high chest’ region supported and fulfilled by a subtle but noticeable clavicular lift, (more specifically about 5% of the overall respiratory movement)
- At the top of the inhalation – simultaneous full contraction of the diaphragm (pushing down) with tendon insertion slightly pulling up on the 1-3 Lumbar vertebra, in combination with the clavicular lift (pulling up) – which produces a full extension of the sternocleidomastoid muscles and causes a slight but important ‘stretching and massaging’ of other internal organs and tissues, e.g. pericardial muscles, aorta, vena cava, esophageal hiatus, etc.
- A smooth, circular transition into exhalation, with a natural reflexive recoiling of diaphragmatic and other respiratory muscles/tissues in combination with the downward pull of gravity, causing a natural release of the air in the lungs
Hang in there with me, and let’s get back to how to experience it:
- Now, without effort, bring your awareness to your relaxed belly and see if you can initiate your inhalation here (with your diaphragm). Invite the breath to expand in your lower belly and feel it rise all the way up to your chest. The goal is for your breath to move like a wave, initiated from the diaphragm, and rise all the way up to your chest.
- Imagine there is a balloon being filled in your belly – this means you are working the diaphragm. This is the dome-shaped muscle attached to the lower ribs that naturally pushes downwards toward the pelvic floor. Simply extending or forcing your belly upwards or outwards usually means you are using your surface muscles, the abdominals or abs.
- To check for abdominal vs. diaphragm muscle use, gently press your fingertips into your upper belly while lying on the floor. Lift your head. The muscles you feel being contracted are your abs. For the most part let those muscles be relaxed if you can while you fill your belly with air. The diaphragm is a deeper movement that expands the entire lower torso and is much easier to do!
- With each exhale, simply let go, right away – let your breath release on its own. Let go and let gravity! There’s no need to expel all the air from your lungs. Relax with each exhale. Let there be a natural pause at the bottom of each breath.
Continue the practice and every time you inhale, imagine fresh new rejuvenating life force filling you up. With every exhalation feel tension and stress leaving every cell of your body. Let gravity do the work, not you. Keep breathing this way for a few minutes and see how you feel. Simply notice what’s happening in your mind and/or in your body as you begin to reclaim your birthright of an Open, Healthy Breath.
Don’t worry if thoughts, feelings or sensations arise – just gently draw your attention back to the respiratory movement. This type of breathing is good for resting, sitting and doing gentle activity, not strenuous activity. Like the other exercises, it takes repetition. Don’t worry if you don’t master it right away. You’ve spent years habituating your current breathing habits, and learning to open your breath back up takes practice.
EXERCISE #4 – Use Your Open, Healthy Breath Not to Just Feel Better, But BE Better
Building on conscious breathing as a tool for anyone to use to improve health and wellbeing is the emerging field of breath as a somatic therapy. Somatic Breath Therapy, developed by the Power of Breath Institute, sometimes called conscious connected breathing or therapeutic breathwork, utilizes the human respiratory system to accomplish its work. The foundational premise for how Somatic Breath Therapy works is threefold.
First, as you intentionally change the nature, depth, rhythm and rate of respiration, along with skilled practitioner interventions, you offer the body an opportunity to recover from dysfunctional breathing patterns set into place from the past.
Secondly, as you delve into your past and the associated trauma and coping strategies through your breath, you are using a physiological system that is self-regulating. In other words, the amount of healing energy generated by your current breath capacity directly reflects and regulates the degree you will engage any past traumatic material. Your body already knows what your mind can handle.
Third, as you co-participate (with a breath therapist) with this technique you create a safe, interpersonal resonance between you and practitioner; you generate a WE space, a sacred container in which deep integration and healing takes place. Most difficult life experience came at the hands of others. This safe, therapeutic relationship helps you to integrate and rewire those residues from the past.
Somatic Breath Therapy addresses the assumption that dysfunctional breathing results from unresolved trauma and is correlated to your present experience of stress, anxiety, depression and dissatisfaction. Dysfunctional breathing shows up as breathing too fast, too shallow, with irregularity, only in the chest or belly, and/or forcing, pushing or controlling the exhale (or any of the other things you may have noticed in the exercise above!)
These unhealthy breathing patterns get established from as early as your birth, right through childhood and adolescence, and are reflected in how you respond to your environment, others and yourself. With growing evidence that validates the body-mind connection, logic dictates that in order to heal your life, you have to work with both the mind and the body. Somatic Breath Therapy approaches healing the body-mind through conscious breathing as well as conscious focal attention (Mindfulness).
Respiration is one of the only physiological systems in the human body that is both autonomic and voluntary; in other words, it is both conscious and subconscious. What this means is the miracle of your own respiratory system in conjunction with cortical attention is one of the most direct ways to bridge this gap, and can therefore directly impact how you think, feel and respond both cognitively and somatically.
Somatic Breath Therapy is facilitated by a trained, skilled practitioner, and can be offered one-on-one, or in groups. Once the tool is learned it can be practiced alone reinforcing the empowering nature of this technique. The next exercise is a sample of how to use your breath therapeutically.
Practice – Get a Taste of How to Use Your Breath Therapeutically
- Lie comfortably on the floor. Gently place one hand on the lower belly and one hand on your chest. This time, begin to breathe in and out through your mouth, with your jaw relaxed. Make sure your breath originates in your lower belly, rises like an ocean wave throughout the torso to the upper chest, and then is exhaled effortlessly. Breathing through your mouth dramatically increases the amount of oxygen coming into your body.
- Normally when you breathe there’s a pause at the bottom of your breath. Now, in order to increase your awareness and healing potential of this breath exercise, close the gap at the bottom of the breath, i.e. eliminate any pause. This is what is called a connected or circular breathing pattern.
- Again, relax your exhale – let the exhalation simply drop out with gravity. It’s not important to get all the air out of your lungs. Most of the air will go out in a matter of a few seconds.
- After about 3 to 5 minutes of connected breaths, you should notice a shift in how you feel. You may start to feel lightheaded, begin to tingle and feel strange sensations. This is normal. This is a process called Activation, where the therapeutic benefit starts to kick in. For safety, and the purpose of this exercise, when you begin to notice activation starting to occur, simply witness what you are feeling and let your breath return to your own normal breathing pattern. RELAX – and simply notice how you feel.
Under the expert supervision of a breath therapist, if you were to continue connected breathing in this way you would stay in the activated state, which would allow for the work to happen, the movement, releases and process of integration to occur. In this state, the long-term aspects of dysfunction and trauma held in the body-mind begin to surface and rebalance. Your practitioner knows how to monitor your breath and skillfully apply interventions to help your body create new, healthy breathing patterns.
Wrapping it up
Remember to use your breath as medicine when you are anxious, stressed, have low energy or can’t sleep. Using breath exercises and reclaiming your Open, Healthy Breath will help you start living an open, healthy life. See if you can make it a habit to remember to breathe.