I had just read the news. I was making coffee and was clearly angry (yet again), slamming the coffee filter (which luckily is only paper) into its ceramic strainer and splashing water onto the counter and into the kettle to heat up. My husband looked over at me and said, “Just breathe. Breathe. Take a couple of deep breaths.” Though I didn’t respond to JB as kindly as I should have, he was right.
Inhalation brings oxygen into our bodies supporting cellular respiration which brings energy to every cell in our bodies. Exhalation helps us eliminate the carbon dioxide which is a by-product of this process. Both the taking in of the oxygen we need and the elimination of waste gases are equally important.
There are innumerable stress triggers today affecting our anxiety about the world, about this moment in history, about our lives. Anxiety abounds. Learning to breathe deeply, especially 2:1 breathing, can help us to calm our nervous systems while helping us to remain effective and centered in dealing with the many challenges we are facing.
Breathing Abdominally: Abdominal breathing allows for the most beneficial and efficient cellular respiration. We pull in the most oxygen as deeply as possible and eliminate the waste gasses efficiently. Abdominal breathing is simple but takes practice.
First, get comfortable: either laying on your back or sitting in a chair or on the floor or in a standing position. If you are standing or sitting, check to see that your body is aligned upright and not slumped forward. Quiet yourself. You can close your eyes if you wish, but this is not necessary. (A lot of people do close their eyes because it helps them to concentrate.) Let your hands lay or hang by your side or rest easily in your lap.
Now inhale through your nose into your abdomen, also known as your dantien (just below the navel), while keeping your chest still. As you breathe in, your abdomen/ dantien should expand. As you exhale through your nose, the abdomen/ dantien should pull in or contract. These breaths should not be forced in any way. Work to keep your breaths smooth and even. The transitions between inhalations and exhalations should be as gentle as possible. Keep breathing deeply for 5 or 10 minutes (or longer if you can). This abdominal breathing takes some practice to learn, because many of us are chest breathers. Don’t expect this to be easy at first.
2:1 breathing: This is a very old yogic technique, known as Rechaka, which helps us to move from our sympathetic nervous system of “Fight, Fright, Flight, or Freeze,” to our parasympathetic nervous system which allows for calm, rest, digestion. When we are anxious and stressed, our breaths shorten, with our inhalation usually longer than our exhalation. And it is specifically the exhalation that signals the relaxation response. By slowing the exhalation relative to inhalation, we are literally moving the nervous system into its parasympathetic mode.
Begin by breathing abdominally for 4 or 5 breaths. Then breathe in normally what feels like a full breath. Count how long that is. It could be a count of 4 or 5 or any number. Your exhalation should be twice the length as your inhalation, which means you need to slow down your exhalation. The counting helps to make sure your exhalation is long enough. This feels a little awkward at first but eventually, with practice, becomes very smooth. For some people it is easier to slow the exhalation by one or two counts with each breath until the exhalation is twice as long as the inhalation. You can practice this breathing for 4 or 5 minutes, then take a few normal breaths. Repeat for 4 or 5 minutes. Take a few more normal breaths. If you are comfortable, repeat a third time.
This practice is good for those who have trouble falling asleep or who have insomnia. When you are lying in bed, practicing this breathing will move you into the parasympathetic system and allow you to fully rest. When I have used this breathing in bed, I usually fall asleep before the third repetition.
This practice may also help to lower blood pressure. Some practitioners say that if you practice 10 to 15 minutes of 2:1 breathing when you first wake up and before you fall asleep, you may be able to permanently lower your blood-pressure and perhaps even lower the amount of any blood pressure medicine you take.
And, of course, 2:1 breathing helps with stress and anxiety. Just a few minutes of 2:1 breathing is enough to calm us down. Even after we have just read the news and we’re trying to make a cup of coffee without injuring anyone nearby.