Breathwork Steps We Can All Take
What helped me silence my irrational voice? A mindset shift.
No one likes to feel stressed, including me. But life seems to be full of situations that get us worked up, doesn’t it? Just the other day at the grocery store, someone with a full cart cut me off heading to the only short check-out line. My initial reaction was my breathing got shallow and fast, my neck and shoulders stiffened, I started to get a headache, and I had the urge to just push the cart away and leave the store.
Again, at the end of a workday, I was finishing an impending task, and the system went down. Of course, the document was unsaved. My responses were very similar, this time with an urge to throw the computer out the window.
These irrationalities and imbalances I only become aware of after I consciously decide to calm myself. My instinct is to address whatever issue or task made me stressed in the first place, to get it over with so I can return to a happy, relaxed state of being.
It’s hard to even consider taking just 1 minute for a few deep breaths when moments like this happen. Even if I sometimes think to myself, “I should really take a moment here to…” before the thought would finish another thought interrupted, telling me “but you don’t have time!”
What helped me silence my irrational voice? A mindset shift. The key for me to remember is that we can control how we respond to stress (read stress response), no matter the situation. Part of my response, besides having some of the Food for Sleep, Mental health, and Relaxation, is to perform breathwork.
Our article Breathe Slow, Stay Calm, Live Long details the many scientific links to controlled breathing and relaxation. But for me, it took time and practice to even get to the point of controlling my breath during the most stressful times.
I began by practicing breathwork in times when I was already in a calm and relaxed mood, usually at home. I would open YouTube, find guided breathing sessions with calming background music, and follow along until I got bored.
From the combination of videos, knowledge, and practice, I found that this form of Zen breathing worked best for me:
- Sit down in a chair with my back against the chair back, feet planted on the ground shoulder width apart (optional)
- Fold my hands together in my lap, over the navel, relaxing my shoulders
- Look at a point about 3 yards in front of me, to get a slight forward bend to the neck
- Inhale deeply through the nose about 5 seconds
- Hold 1 sec
- Exhale deeply through the nose and slowly for as long as I can, feeling my belly contract. (I aim for 20-25 seconds but when I just started out was doing around 10-15 seconds). Aim to always go longer here
- Repeat inhale, feeling belly expand.
- Repeat this process 5-10 minutes (or however long or short I wish) Throughout the exercise, I imagined my feet as roots planted in the ground. On my inhale, the energy of the earth below my feet was being sucked up until it reached my navel region. Similarly, I imagined the air I was taking in being sucked down to the navel region. Keeping my hands in my lap, even touching the area, helps me stay centered here. The two energies meet and revitalize me. On the exhale, I imagine all the waste and toxins leaving my body, all the pent-up stress and tension just being let go. Each time I practice, I try to take longer exhales.
When I was able to consistently do this in a calm and peaceful environment, I started building the habit for things that would normally make me mildly impatient, like at the grocery store line. This is why the first step of my practice outlines above is optional. I don’t need to be sitting.
Breathwork is more than just controlled breathing for me, too. I must focus on things and use my imagination to stay in a calm state. I can both focus on the numbers of seconds as I breathe, along with the contact with my navel and the imagined energy flowing there during my Zen practices. Without such focus and imagination, I either fall asleep, or more likely, get overwhelmed and more stressed out from the pressures and thoughts from my unaddressed tasks.
Another thing I focus on while performing breathwork is my body. I scan for any area of physical pain or tension. For me, it’s usually in the shoulders and neck. I then touch these areas and imagine when I’m inhaling that healing energy is filling those areas, and when I exhale, the pain is being expelled. I constantly give myself shoulder massages in the grocery store lines.
The main thing I notice is that my breathing has been shallow. So, I keep one hand on my chest, and another on my navel, to bring awareness as I breathe to first take in enough air to expand my chest, and then to keep inhaling until my abdomen expands.
Sometimes it helps to just get away from a work area, too, if I have time. Getting outside, sitting in a park bench to perform the breathwork, inhaling fresh air better focuses me on those imagined healing energies coming into my body. If I do not have the time, at the very least I make sure all my electronic devices are set off for the short time I do have.
I use these moments as opportunities to calm myself and gain a greater appreciation for the small things in life. Over time, the habit built up, and I was able to unconsciously start controlled breathing in very stressful times, too.
Now in times of the greatest stress, I stop everything, close my eyes, and use all these tools I’ve learned along the way until the tension eases. It doesn’t take long. 2-5 minutes is often enough. I also notice that I can return to my tasks and finish with a renewed vigor. In the process, I even get creative solutions I would have never considered if I only had the mindset of getting the project over with.
Dr. Dinesh Banstola found several other effective breathing techniques that were effective for 48 people in his article referenced below.  There are also many software apps and YouTube videos that can help you get started and even guide you along the way.
We’re all very different in how we deal with stress. And the resources here are just a small portion of the ways people can effectively respond to stress. If you have any ways that you find work for you, feel free to share them in the comments below!
 Banstola, Dinesh. "Effect of Yoga Breathing Exercises on Ventilatory Function." Journal of Gandaki Medical College-Nepal 9, no. 2 (2017): 17-22. doi:10.3126/jgmcn.v9i2.17861. Available online at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/318793982_Effect_of_Yoga_Breathing_Exercises_on_Ventilatory_Function