Leading with the brain in mind.

Mindful Breathing Exercises for Stress Relief and Clarity

The average person breathes about 23,000 times every 24 hours – it’s something we do without even thinking about it. It’s worth it, though, to think about our breathing at least a few times a day.

In the words of Dr. Andrew Weil, a pioneer and leader in the field of integrative medicine and holistic health, “Practicing regular, mindful breathing can be calming and energizing and can even help with stress-related health problems ranging from panic attacks to digestive disorders.”

With that in mind, here are three mindful breathing exercises, courtesy of Dr. Weil:

4-7-8 (or Relaxing Breath) Exercise

A natural tranquilizer for the nervous system, this exercise is best performed in a seated position when learning. The tip of your tongue should touch the ridge of tissue just behind your upper front teeth and remain there for the entire exercise.

  • Start by exhaling completely through your mouth, making a whooshing sound.

  • Close your mouth then inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.

  • Hold that breath for a count of seven.

  • Exhale with a whoosh sound through your mouth to a count of eight.

That is considered one cycle; the cycle should be repeated three more times; don’t exceed more than four cycles during your first month of practice. This exercise is beneficial for decreasing stress and reducing tension, and is also helpful for falling asleep.

The Stimulating Breath

Also known as “Bellows Breath,” this technique raises vital energy while increasing mental clarity. It’s noisy and produces a quick movement of the diaphragm (hence the bellows name).

  • With your mouth closed and relaxed, inhale and exhale rapidly through your nose. Breath duration should be equal and as short as possible.

  • Try for two or three in-and-out breath cycles per second.

  • Don’t do for more than 15 seconds on your first try. Breathe regularly for a minute and then do another round. Each time you practice the Stimulating Breath, increase your time by about five seconds, until you reach a full minute.

Don’t do this exercise if you’re pregnant, have uncontrolled hypertension, epilepsy, seizures or panic disorder.

Breath Counting

This breathing technique is a form of meditation often used in Zen practice.

Begin by sitting in a comfortable position with your spine straight and head slightly inclined forward. Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Then let the breath come naturally without trying to influence it. Depth and rhythm may vary, but should be slow and quiet.

  • To begin the exercise, count “one” to yourself as you exhale.

  • The next time you exhale, count “two,” and so on, until you reach “five” (to be clear, you’re just counting your exhalations, not holding them for that count).

  • Then begin a new cycle, counting “one” on the next exhalation.

Count only when you exhale. Don’t be surprised if your attention wanders. Start with trying 5 minutes of meditation and work up to 10 minutes, and so on.

Each of these exercises can be done anywhere, takes little time and requires no equipment. Like any new exercise regime, learning to breathe mindfully takes practice and commitment, but you’ll quickly find the benefits are worth it!

Sandra McDowell, MA, CEC, PCC

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