Breath more, stress less

Sure, you’ve probably been told that you have to decrease stress in your life. I mean, after the year that was 2020, we could all probably use a little stress management.

But meditation sounds like such a daunting task.

Personally, I’ve never been “good” at it. I know it’s a practice, and I know that if I was more consistent than I would be better, but sitting still for a long period of time just isn’t for me. I prefer my “meditation” to happen during runs or walks in the outdoors, spending time in nature or just with myself.

But what if there was another way to decrease stress and a different form of meditation?

In 2020, I started breathing.

I know, I know, we have to breathe to live. But I mean consciously taking time to only breathe.

…Could it be…I was…meditating?

That word that seems so big, boiled down to a simple practice that we do roughly 22,000 times per day without even thinking about it.

Benefits of breathing

Deep, purposeful breathing has a host of benefits when performed. These may include:

  • Controlling the nervous system, by practicing returning to the “rest and digest” state
  • Increases efficiency of oxygen use in the body
  • Improves athletic performance and recovery
  • Increases energy production
  • Improve immune system
  • Maintain diaphragm musculature
  • Lowers stress levels
  • Improves heart rate variability (time between heart beats)
  • Lowers blood pressure and heart rate
  • Improves sleep
  • Reduces anxiety and negative emotions

Truly this only scratches the surface on the benefits of deep breathing.

In 2020, I utilized deep breathing nightly before going to sleep – unless I was just too tired and fell right to sleep. But those times were few and far between, as I typically am someone who struggles to fall asleep. In the last 6 months of the year, I invested in Whoop to track some metrics and see patterns in my habits. On days I used deep breathing exercises, my REM (deep) sleep, increased by up to 20%.

But don’t just take my word for it! There are plenty of studies regarding deep breathing and breath control. One review looked at 15 studies focusing on breathing related to cardio-respiratory and central nervous systems. They found that measurable psychological and behavioral outcomes as a result of breathing control techniques included: increased comfort, relaxation, pleasantness, alertness, and reduced symptoms of arousal, anxiety, depression, anger, and confusion.

Deep breathing is truly incredible and I would argue that everyone can benefit from this daily practice.

The Practice

Our breaths throughout the day, unless we’ve been training it, are likely shallow, chest-breathing. This can be a result of stress, anxiety, or even trying to “keep our stomachs flat”.

This last one is especially interesting to me, as a woman. In the media, women are supposed to be curvy, but not too curvy and only in all the right places. As a result, over time, we’ve been sold a narrative that our stomachs should be flat at all times – even as we breathe. This causes the lungs to rise upward, into the chest, shoulders, and neck. As a result, we may notice upper back and neck tightness. (You know, those symptoms that we may notice more often with stress?)

This is a diaphragm of the lungs and you can see the diaphragm at the bottom of the lungs and rib cage.

This is a disordered breathing pattern.

Instead of these shallow breaths, we want to use our diaphragm. As we inhale, it should contract and pull the air deep into our lungs.

You can see this illustrated in the diagram on the right. As we inhale, we contract and “pull” air into the lungs. As we exhale, we relax the diaphragm and the air escapes in our breath out.

One of my personal favorite drills to begin rebuilding a proper breathing pattern is the hooklying supine breathing drill with hand feedback.

In this position, we’re able to use the floor for feedback to make sure that we have a neutral spine alignment. In addition, our hands provide tactile cues to breath deep, as if “into the stomach”, instead of the chest.

With our hands there, we want to feel the hand on the stomach rise first and the hand on the chest rise second – NOT the other way around. This can make sure we’re breathing deep and using our diaphragm to do so. I wrote an Instagram post on this, with a video of this drill. You can check it out by clicking here!

Start with just 8-10 breaths, once a day. This can be in the morning or at night before bed, or in the middle of the day. But set time aside to breathe. Start slow and keep the focus on your breath. As you increase the time, it’s only natural for the mind to start to wander. Allow yourself to recognize the thought, but then return the focus to your breath. I like counting my breaths, if I’m particularly scatter-brained.

At Unity, we use it in our RAMP (warm-up) pre-workout in order to bring the body into that “rest and digest”, parasympathetic, system. Deep breathing is truly a hidden secret. It doesn’t have to take much time or be a complicated routine in order to see benefits from it.

The Challenge

Set aside time each day of this week to take 8-10 deep breaths in this hooklying position. Notice your feelings and emotions before you start and how they change after you’re finished. Take note of what you can feel in the moment, and how that may benefit you in your everyday life.

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