Breathing Exercises to Combat the Daily Grind
Life is beautiful—and, often times, a little crazy. That’s why, in the midst of it all, it is crucial we remember to breathe (literally!). Amid the chaos, and sometimes unbeknownst to us, we will hold our breath in times of excitement, stress, anxiety, giddiness, or surprise. Any Board Certified Massage Therapist (BCTMB) will surely tell you how important breathing is to your overall health, but have you ever stopped to think about why it is so important?
When we hold our breath, it’s a lot like initiating a negative domino effect within our bodies. Within precious seconds of holding our breath, we immediately limit the amount of oxygen to our muscles—and that causes our muscles to tense. Our chest muscles are then constantly over-activated, our head is pulled forward, and our shoulders hunched up. Eventually, if we hold our breath long enough, we may cause our lower back and pelvis to misalign—which has the power to overarch our backs and throw off our entire body’s skeletal balance. It’s frightening to think about just writing it!
Regular treatments with your Board Certified Massage Therapist (BCTMB) is the first step to increasing your body awareness, as well as learning important and effective tips for how to improve your breathing. With regular visits, your massage therapist can help to make breathing exercises a regular healthy habit—empowering us to be able to face any situation that might have otherwise caused us to hold our breath.
Life is often unpredictable. That is why it is important to practice breathing exercises on your own—especially if you do not have access to your Board Certified Massage Therapist (BCTMB) during one of those hectic moments. In fact, there are plenty of things you can do on your own to practice breathing (and avoid holding your breath!).
Below are several breathing activities to try—great for beginners and advanced practitioners alike:
How to do it: Combat stress and tightened muscles in any area of the body. Simply close your eyes, maintain deep, slow breathes, and focus on tensing and relaxing each muscle group. Breathe through your nose as you tense and relax each muscle group, holding your breath for three to five seconds; then, breathe out through the mouth to release. Some like to start from the neck and shoulders (that’s my practice), but often others prefer to start with the feet and toes, then move upward.
When to do it: Progressive Relaxation can be used at any time you have a few moments to focus on the technique and breathe softly and gently—whether it be at home, at work, on a break, or early in the morning to prepare for a focused, successful day. The breath here is shallow and rhythmic—a great mind-body starter exercise for any beginner.
Yoga Sama Vritti Pranayama or “Equal Breathing”
How to do it: Yoga, balance, and mindfulness all begin with the breath. To start, inhale through your nose for a count of four; then, exhale for a count of four (that’s the Pranayama!). More advanced Yogis often aim for six to eight counts per breath, with the goal of calming the nervous system, increasing focus, and reducing stress.
When to do it: This technique is especially effective before bed. If you have trouble falling asleep, this technique can help take your conscious mind away from the hustle and bustle of the day—or whatever might be distracting you—to allow for a more restful, restorative sleep.
Abdominal Breathing Techniques
How to do it: With one hand on your chest and the other on your belly (abdomen), take a deep breath in through the nose. Ensure your diaphragm (not the chest) inflates. How do you know? Watch to see that the lower hand on the abdomen rises up—the upper hand on the chest should remain still. The goal is to take six to ten deep, slow breaths per minute for ten minutes each day. It’s like a massage to the internal organs, especially the digestive tract, to immediately reduce heart rate and blood pressure.
When to do it: Abdominal breathing is a great technique to use before any stressful situation. You do not have to use the hands if you are in a public place (i.e. before an interview or an exam); however, this technique needs practice on a daily basis and will likely become more natural within about six weeks of daily practice.
Nadi Shodhana or “Alternate Nostril Breathing”
How to do it: Another technique popular with Yogis to bring calm and balance, and align the conscious with the subconscious. Start in the traditional meditative pose, sitting with crossed legs and hold the right thumb over the right nostril. Inhale deeply through the left nostril. At the peak of inhalation, close off the left nostril with the ring finger, then exhale through the right nostril. Continue the pattern, inhaling through the right nostril, closing it off with the right thumb, and exhaling through the left nostril. To start, practice this for a count of ten breaths.
When to do it: Try this technique for focus and energy throughout the day. I do not recommend to practice it at night, as you may be too alert to fall asleep.
How to do it: Imagine your happy place. It can have sounds and kinesthetic elements, too! Some envision a sandy breach and feel the sand between the toes, or a gentle breeze on their face—whatever suits you. Then, slowly breathe deeply while focusing on your special place, releasing all negative thoughts. Replace those negatives with positive, uplifting thoughts and images. The power here is within your own mind to combat that Daily Grind.
When to do it: When at home or in a quite undisturbed place. Again, this technique requires daily practice to refocus the mind, while the breath calms the body, and is a great intermediate exercise.
Kapalabhati or “Skull Shining Breath”
How to do it: Begin with a long slow inhale (in breath), followed by a quick, powerful exhale (out breath) that stems from the lower belly. Once comfortable with the contraction, up the pace to one inhale-exhale (all through the nose) every one to two seconds, for a total of ten breaths. This is a more advanced breathing technique to invigorate your mind and body.
When to do it: This is a great way start any day, activity, or project positively.
Lots of information, but I hope information you will find useful! Keep in mind that the right breathing exercise for you may be different for someone else. We are all unique individuals with different circumstances and stresses. The best way to determine which exercise is right for you can begin with a simple conversation with your Board Certified Massage Therapist. Together, you may discuss what exercises are best suited for your body, taking into consideration any physical ailments, stresses, environment restrictions, etc.
When using breathing exercises, if you feel any sense of light headedness or dizziness, stop immediately and take shallow breaths for just two or three repetitions—focusing the mind on the area to be relaxed.
Regardless of where life may lead us, practicing mindful and effective breathing techniques will ensure we won’t miss a beat of it (literally!). Benefits of practicing mindful breathing extend beyond the muscular and skeletal benefits, too, including:
- Improved respiration,
- Improved circulatory health,
- Improved energy,
- Lower blood pressure,
- Enhanced cognitive functioning,
- Increased self-awareness,
- Ability to let go of negativity,
- Improved emotion regulation,
- And much more!
While stress and frustration may always be there, the good news is, so will our breath! Together with these exercises and a positive mindset, you have the tools to combat the Daily Grind.
Tell us… What is your preferred breathing exercise and why?
Massage Therapists! What breathing technique do you recommend most often?
This blog was written by:
Leena S. Guptha
D.O., MBA, BCTMB