5 Breathing Exercises You Can Learn in 5 Minutes for a Calmer Life

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For beginners as well as the pros

As the distractions and stressors in our environment increase, most of live in a constant fight-or-flight mode. Besides bitching about the guy who cut you off on the road, your performance drops and your relationships feel dull.

The major reason behind our predicament, is we’re not present. To add to that, there are hundreds of physiological factors that cause stress in our lives.

The solution to all that? Your breath.

The breath is connected in more intimate ways with the body, soul, and our nervous system than we can ever imagine.

Steven Kotler, the author of The Rise of Superman, says that a mindfulness or breathing practice is a must to have more flow and focus in our lives.

My obsession with breathing practices is natural given that I meditate for two hours every day and focus a lot on mental performance. After practicing all of these exercises almost regularly, I can vouch for their effectiveness.

They’ve helped me reduce stress, anxiety, improve concentration, focus, awareness, and most importantly, live a calmer life.

Diaphragmatic Breathing

Before going into any other breathing exercise, it is important to learn the right way to breathe. This simple habit can alone reduce your stress levels drastically. It can also reduce symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, depression and anxiety, and sleeplessness.

The diaphragm is a dome-like muscle below your chest. It contracts when you inhale and provides space for the lungs to expand.

When you don’t use your diaphragm to breathe, your lungs don’t get enough air. This activates the fight-or-flight response in your body which spikes your stress levels.

The simplest way to fix this is to breathe from your belly. When you inhale, your stomach should expand, and when you exhale, it should contract.

Most people don’t do this a) because of bad habits and b) to avoid revealing their waist-size. These are not good excuses to skip proper breathing which is the only thing you can’t live without.

To get rid of your bad breathing habits, start by taking 5 minutes every day to breathe from your belly. If you do it for long enough, abdominal breathing will become a habit.

It then lays a good foundation to learn other breathing techniques that require above-average breathing capacity.

Even Count Breathing

This is the easiest and the most popular one you’ll find. It’s used by a wide range of people including Navy SEALs, police officers, nurses, and corporate executives.

Here’s how you do it.

Breathe in for four seconds → Hold for four seconds → Breath out for four seconds → Repeat.

Try one round right now. It’s best for situations where you find yourself getting too excited or fearful. It calms the nervous system and increases awareness in the present moment.

Once you’re comfortable with four seconds, you can increase the time as you like. Make sure to keep it equal for all steps.

Side Note: An alternative to this is Box Breathing. It adds an extra hold after you exhale. Breathe in for four seconds → Hold for four seconds → Breath out for four seconds → Hold for four seconds → Repeat.

Alternate Nostril Breathing

Nadi Shodhana as it’s called in Sanskrit is an even better way to calm the nervous system and balance both hemispheres of the brain.

It helps you lower your heart rate and improve respiratory endurance.

From a yogic perspective, ‘Nadi’ is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘channel’ or ‘flow’ and ‘Shodhana’ means ‘purification’. Therefore, Nadi Shodhana is primarily aimed at clearing and purifying the subtle channels of the mind and body, while balancing its masculine and feminine aspects.

Here’s how it goes:

  • Close your eyes and exhale completely

  • Close your right nostril with your right thumb

  • Breathe in through the left nostril

  • Close the left nostril as well with your fingers and hold the breath

  • Release the right nostril and exhale

  • Immediately inhale with your right nostril

  • Close the right nostril as well and hold

  • Release the left nostril and exhale

This is what one round looks like. You can do this as many times as you like. Even three to five rounds are great to experience the benefits.

As with even-count breathing, you can inhale, exhale, and hold for the same count, as per your breathing capacity.

Expanding Sun Breath

This is a great follow-up to alternate nostril breathing. It is especially beneficial to improve concentration.

It adds a chin-lock, called Jaladhara Bandha, to the technique.

To practice this, when you hold the breath during alternate nostril breathing, bring your chin to the chest. While eyes still closed, gaze at the point between the eyebrows. When you’re ready to exhale, bring your head back parallel to the floor and continue as usual.

Why the point between the eyebrows? Because it’s the esoteric center of concentration. It is also the part where your frontal lobe of the brain, largely responsible for attention and concentration, is located.

This technique focuses your energy in the frontal lobe. By doing so it aids improves focus and awareness.

Since it can be difficult to understand, here’s a guided video explanation.

Breath of Fire

No, you won’t become a dragon throwing flames out of your mouth.

The Sanskrit name for this is Kapalbhati Pranayama. Kapalbathi literally translates into ‘a shining forehead’ which is what happens when you practice this.

Your forehead shines from the inside, symbolizing a healthy, sharp intellect. It also helps in weight loss, removes toxins from your body, and increases the energy available to the brain.

Here’s how it goes:

  • Sit comfortably with a straight spine, away from any backrest.

  • Breathe in through your belly

  • Key point: When you exhale, pull your stomach back in towards the spine. Don’t push too hard, remain within the limits of your comfort. It should be a forceful, strong but not a violent exhalation.

  • Then relax your stomach. The breath naturally flows in so you don’t have to breathe in consciously.

This is one breath. Practice around twenty breaths to complete one round. Since you’re not breathing in and exhaling rapidly, each breath takes around one second. Thus, one round does not take longer than thirty seconds.

You can repeat two more rounds and sit in silence to observe how your body and brain feel.

Don’t practice this on a full stomach. Wait for two hours after a full meal to practice this. Keep your body still, and relaxed.

Though the technique feels powerful, be gentle in your practice. Forcefulness produces agitation which is counterproductive to our goal.

Again, since it’s not a usual exercise, here’s a guided video demonstration.

The first three are easier compared to the last two.

So pick what you like and do it right now.

We all have five minutes. And if you don’t have five minutes for yourself, you don’t have a life.

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Written on August 12, 2020