Recently I listened to a guided meditation by Tamara Levitt on my Calm iPhone app where she led listeners through an interesting exercise that taught me something new about breathing.
First Levitt had me breathe for a minute, using my usual breathing. I recall that no counting was done with this first exercise. Then she asked listeners to breathe more slowly, and to count those breaths for a minute that she timed. I had six in and out breaths during that minute.
Then Levitt said to breathe slowly again, but to extend the duration of each in breath by inhaling more deeply when it seemed that no more air could be taken in, and also to extend the duration of each out breath by exhaling more deeply when it seemed that no more air could be expelled.
She timed that minute also. I had four in and out breaths during that minute.
Levitt then talked about how deep breathing of this sort activates a relaxation response in the brain. So she recommended using the extra-deep-breathing technique if someone is anxious about a doctor visit, presentation at work, or whatever.
I've been experimenting with this in my own life and it does seem to work, seemingly for two reasons.
One is that the body does respond to slow deep breathing by relaxing, since fast shallow breathing is associated with a stress response, as when you're worried about being attacked by a stranger on a dark deserted sidewalk.
The other reason is that slow deep breathing, where I inhale and exhale more air past the point where I usually think I've done a full inhalation and exhalation, requires me to concentrate on my breath -- which means my mind isn't full of thoughts about a situation that is making me anxious.
This is different from merely following my breath, something I've been doing for a long time in my mindfulness and meditation practice. A BBC story (registration may be required), Why slowing your breathing helps you relax, talks about this difference.
Recent scientific research has shown that while quick, shallow and unfocused breathing may contribute to a host of problems, including anxiety, depression and high blood pressure, cultivating greater control over our lungs can bring many benefits to our mental and physical health. Intriguingly, scientists are finding that a particular frequency of breath – at around six exhalations a minute – can be especially restorative, triggering a “relaxation response” in the brain and body.
...Indeed, you may be forgiven for wondering whether breathwork is simply another name for mindfulness, given that many meditation courses already encourage participants to focus their attention on their inhalation and exhalation.
Mindfulness, however, tends to involve passive observation – “watching the breath” – whereas breathwork requires you to actively change the way you breathe. This includes ensuring that you breathe with your diaphragm (rather than the movement of your chest) so that you can fill your lungs with more air, while consciously slowing the pace of your breathing from your resting average.
According to practitioners, those slow, deep breaths set off a cascade of physiological responses that accelerate your descent into a more complete state of relaxation, compared to more passive mindfulness exercises.
“It acts as a speed ramp into the meditation practice, helping to calm the mind quicker so that you get more bang for your buck while meditating,” explains Richie Bostock, a breathwork coach based in London whose book, Exhale, will be published later this year. “In fact, I call some of the routines I teach ‘Meditation on Rocket Fuel’ because of the profound effect it has on calming the mind quickly and getting you to that place of no-thought.”
I just ordered Bostock's book, so will have more to say about this subject after I try the breathing exercises he recommends. Here's another article from Harvard Health Publishing to peruse, Relaxation techniques: Breath control helps quell errant stress response.
This is a great example of how the mind and body are intimately related. We are physical beings having a physical experience, not the oft-quoted and misleading We are spiritual beings having a physical experience. That way leads to some serious pitfalls, including a dissociation between our mind and body.
Smiling is an even easier thing to do than control the breath. Research shows that smiling can trick your brain into feeling happier, something that seems true when I try it. Here's another story that makes the same point: Forcing a Smile May Improve Your Mood, Study Suggests.