Breathing connects you to the natural cycles of ups and downs, giving and receiving, and death and rebirth. These cycles govern everything around you. When you inhale, you receive energy and life; when you exhale, you let it go.
In fact, Yoga—together with other ancient disciplines—has always seen the breath as a source of mystical connection between physicality and spirit, and the most tangible representation of the vital energy—prana. Prana, known as Chi in Taoist tradition, is believed to be the life force that animates the entire universe.
The Benefits of Conscious Breathing
When you are under stress, you often hold your breath or breathe very fast. When you are relaxed, your exhalations are usually longer, deeper, and bring a sense of relief. However, you rarely notice the nuances of your breathing; in reality, there are only two ways of breathing: conscious and unconscious. Human breathing is controlled by your autonomous nervous system, which means that most of the time you breathe unconsciously, and do not regulate the quality or speed of your breaths.
In the past few decades, western scientists have been exploring how the nervous system can be affected with controlled, conscious breathing. For example, by regulating the quality of breaths—length, rhythm, intensity—you can switch from the sympathetic to the parasympathetic nervous system, and vice versa.
You do not even have to believe in Chi or Prana to feel the benefits of conscious breathing. While it usually takes some time to see the progress when healing the body with medical herbs or meditation, conscious breathing can give you immediate results that can be easily measured by heart rate, blood pressure, etc.
Numerous scientists, including Patricia L. Gerbarg, MD, coauthor of The Healing Power of the Breath, and Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), have been exploring the impact of conscious breathing on the nervous system, hormones, homeostasis, resilience, and mental health. If, in the past, breathwork was mostly connected to the obscure mystical practices of the East, today it is a regular therapeutic tool used in positive psychotherapy, positive psychology, stress management, MBSR, dance/movement therapy, and many other fields.
But is it enough just to breathe consciously? What is the key to real healing breathing? The answer is simple: it is its softness. To breathe softly means to breathe consciously but with an intensity that is just right for you. Softness is guided by intuition, and intuition knows better.
Today, many people talk about the importance of breathing deep, but in most cases, it is its lightness, sweetness, and stillness that makes breathing feel so good. In a world full of stress and anxiety, you may tend to breathe aggressively—too fast or too much. So, switching to softness and sweetness can help you relax and heal.
On my pilgrimage in the Himalayas, my Yoga and Buddhist teachers always encouraged me to breathe less. Most of them were mountain people who actually breathe quite differently than people who live in lower altitudes. For the mountain people, breathing less happens quite naturally due to the different oxygen density and even some oxygen deprivation, which actually can be stimulating in small doses. Soft and soothing breathwork usually involves practices that switch the body into the parasympathetic mode, activate restorative processes, and promote deep relaxation.
Breathe less, think less, talk less, worry less—that is what I learned in the Himalayas. It seems that happiness of those mountain people is rooted in softness, calmness, and the ability to relax, even when things go wrong. Let the softness of your breath be your first step toward happiness.
The following are examples of soft and soothing breathwork that you can try at home.
1. Anapanasati (Basics)
It is believed that the Anapanasati technique was created by the Buddha himself. The initial practice is simple, and its purpose is for you to feel the sensations caused by the movements of your breath in your body.
- Sit or lie down in stillness with your eyes closed. Observe the natural flow of your breath.
- To keep your mind focused, count your inhales and exhales from one to ten. Make sure that your breathing is neutral, soft, and sweet.
- Practice as long as it is pleasant.
2. Equal Breathing
The main principle of this exercise is to create an equal pattern of inhaling, suspending, exhaling, and suspending. For example, you can try a count of 2-2-2-2 or 3-3-3-3. Note: Do not hold your breath for longer than five-six counts.
- Get comfortable, close your eyes, and find your natural breath.
- Allow your body to relax and feel safe.
- When you are ready, inhale through the nose to a count of two, then suspend your breath on two, exhale on two, and then suspend your breath again on the same count before your next inhale.
- Repeat for 8-10 rounds.
3. Dirgha Pranayama
This breathing exercise involves slowly filling your lungs as much as possible. In fact, dirgha means “long” in Sanskrit, and is often referred to as “the complete breath”, “the yogic breath”, or “the three-part breath.”
- Lie down on your back, get comfortable, and put one hand on your belly and the other on your upper chest.
- Close your eyes and start observing your breathing. Make your breathing even and smooth.
- Now, inhale slowly into the lower abdomen and pelvic area, and feel your hand rise.
- Then, continue inhaling into the mid-section of the torso, expanding the diaphragm and the ribs.
- Finally, bring your breath into the upper chest and shoulders. Feel how your second hand rises up.
- Start exhaling slowly in the reverse order, releasing the upper chest first, then the diaphragm and ribs, and finally the lower abdomen.
- Expelling all the air, allow yourself to feel relief.
- Pause if you need to and then repeat a few more cycles at a slow pace.
4. Parasympathetic Breathing and the Vagus Nerve
One of the most fundamentally important elements in the restorative parasympathetic nervous system is the vagus nerve. This nerve works as a connector between many vital organs, linking the brain to the tongue, vocal cords, heart, lungs, digestive tract, and various hormone glands. It influences the internal processes of the body (e.g., inflammation, blood pressure, heart rate, digestion, and absorption of nutrients) and supports homeostasis and immunity. Working on the softness of the breath, especially with parasympathetic breathing exercises, helps to tone the vagus nerve and activate self-healing powers of the body.
- Get in a comfortable position, close your eyes, and start observing your breathing.
- When you are ready, inhale for a count of two, hold your breath in for a count of two, and then exhale gently, counting out to four.
- After you exhale fully, hold the breath again from two to four counts.
- Keep your breathing round and smooth. The main principle of parasympathetic breathing is elongating exhalations that become at least twice as long as your inhalations. You can experiment by creating different patterns, for example, try a “2-2-4-2, 4-2-8-2” or any other pattern that works for you.
- Repeat 8 to 10 times. Never exaggerate or push too hard. Remember, it is all about doing less, but feeling more.
Breathwork can be a powerful therapeutic practice. Try these four breathing techniques and let the softness of your breath be your first step toward healing and relaxation.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.
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