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In a previous post, I shared how your breathing and body/mind state relate to one another through the autonomic system, as well as how trauma and triggers should be considered when breathing to regulate your physical and mental state. You can read that here.

In this post, I’m going to outline two breathing practices that I like for everyday or as-desired use. I’ll point out what they might be useful for and when and how you can enter into them with compassion and consideration for yourself and your story.

 

Breathing can be a stand-alone practice

You’ve likely encountered breathing practices as meditation and in yoga or other somatic forms. You can also adopt a stand-alone breathing practice.

Why might you want to do that?

  • If/when they feel good
  • If they create an effect of influence on your mood and regulation that you like
  • To improve health in any number of ways – there’s some research on effects of various breathing approaches, but not everything you’ll hear is proven or has evidence to back it up.

I’ll address breathing and general health in a future post, so let’s move on to examples of “feel good” and “mood shifting” breathing practices.

What “feels good” will be individual, so I’m offering a “relaxing breathing” practice along with some suggestions for how you might explore and acknowledge what feels good to you when you’re hoping to rest and relax. I encourage you to leave aside expectations or assumptions and trust how you feel in a given moment, even if it takes a while to figure out how that is. You’ll see it took me years to frame my own experiences within conscious choice.

 

Practice #1 – Relaxing Breathing

The objective of this practice is to relax and feel good doing so. I encourage you to consider environment, body, relationship, and time – all can affect your experience.

Environment

  • Where do you feel comfortable? In a certain room in your home? Outdoors? In a public space? In a private space?
  • What makes the space feel even better? Nothing? Candles? Music?
  • I suggest you follow your instinct and go to as much or as little trouble as makes you feel good.
  • For me, a hardwood floor, dim or natural-only lighting, and music create the perfect environment –all features of the dance studios that were my happy place growing up.

Body

  • What’s a comfortable form to set your body in? Do you want to lie down or stay seated? Lying down could be on your back, on your belly, or on your side. You could use pillows and blankets and eye pillows. Or sitting on a park bench just as you are.
  • For me, lying on the floor is ideal (a practice borrowed from years of dance training), knees bent, blanket over belly make it sublime (additions learned through my restorative yoga practice!).

Relationship

  • Will it be more comfortable for you to do this practice alone or with someone you trust?
  • Will you enjoy having both experiences or is another person or being alone a requirement?
  • For me, being in a group class with a teacher I trust adds a layer of comfort that I don’t get on my own. And practicing this solo, I sometimes get to a place of open reflection with myself that I don’t usually experience in a class. So, I like both.

Time

  • How much time will you give yourself? Is it bounded by external obligations? Or by your desire to stay with the practice?
  • If you want to set a time boundary, are you using it to encourage yourself to stay with the practice for a certain length of time, or to make sure you get up in time for the next thing?
  • If you don’t set a time boundary, will you take note afterwards of how long your practice was?
  • For me, the length of time always makes a difference. 1 minute can be useful if I’m trying to clear my head quickly, but if I really want to relax, I’d say 10 minutes is my minimum and 30 minutes my maximum (unless I fall asleep!). I don’t use a timer unless I know I have to get up for an appointment. I don’t “make” myself to stay for a certain length of time when I’m just trying to relax (though I will do that when I’m sitting for meditation).

So those are the non-breathing factors that I think all make a difference. Whether they make a big difference or just a background difference for you only you can determine.

 

A breathing practice for rest (with 3 options)
  • I encourage you to begin by just noticing your breathing.
  • If you like, you can continue simply observing your breathing. (Option 1)
  • If you prefer, you can eventually begin to consciously deepen or slow your breathing. (Option 2)
  • Alternatively, you can consciously attempt to lengthen your exhales. The thought of slowing your exhale can be enough for this or, if you prefer, you can count your inhale and exhale and then use that count to gradually slow your breath until your exhale is longer than your inhale, and maybe 1-2 counts longer than it was before. (Option 3)

That’s it.

In sum: make yourself comfortable in any way you like and observe or slow your breathing. Doing such a “simple” practice may take more intention and be more challenging than you anticipate, which is why I gave you the examples of my own preferences – preferences that have always been with me and took years of observation and reflection to recognize.

 

Practice #2 – Mood Shifting

The objective of this practice is to shift your mood from either sluggish/depressed or frenetic/anxious to relatively centered/grounded. So, it can liven up low energy or emotions, and calm down high energy or emotions. You might have different words to describe the shift or how you feel, and I encourage you to use the words that make sense to you.

For this practice, I invite you to consider environment, body, relationship, and time just as you may have done above. I’ve added some thoughts specific to this practice. And just a heads up, since it will give context to some of my comments, the practice is alternate nostril breathing, in which you use your right hand to alternately block one nostril at a time.

Environment

  • Where do you feel comfortable or safe to try shifting your mood? In a certain room in your home? Outdoors? In a public space? In a private space?
  • What makes the space you choose support your ease even more? Nothing in particular? Candles? Music?
  • I suggest you follow your instinct and go to as much or as little trouble as makes you feel prepared.
  • For me, in truth location doesn’t matter as much in this practice as it does when I want to relax – just so long as no one’s watching who wouldn’t understand what I was doing. That makes me self-conscious.

Body

  • Sitting is probably the most advantage form for this breathing practice, but you might find you prefer standing or reclining in some cases.
  • If you choose to sit, is there one way you prefer sitting over another? Do you want to sit in a chair? On the floor? With or without cushions, blankets, or other supports?
  • If you choose to stand, is there one way you prefer standing over another? Shoes on or off?
  • If you choose to recline, is there one way you prefer reclining over another? Do you want to prop your upper body up? With or without cushions, blankets, or other supports?
  • For me, sitting in a chair so that my feet can be planted evenly on the floor feels best. It’s worth noting that I usually use this practice to calm down 😉

Relationship

  • Will it be more comfortable for you to do this practice alone or with someone you trust?
  • Will you enjoy having both experiences or is another person or being alone a requirement?
  • For me, I’m happy with or without others for this practice, with a slight preference to be alone. It’s one of my favorite ones to get lost in.

Time

  • How much time will you give yourself? Is it bounded by external obligations? Or by your desire to stay with the practice?
  • If you want to set a time boundary, are you using it to encourage yourself to stay with the practice for a certain length of time, or to make sure you get up in time for the next thing?
  • If you don’t set a time boundary, will you take note afterwards of how long your practice was? I.e., is how long you practiced important to you?
  • For me, my arm always tires before I’m ready to stop, so that’s my boundary! I prefer doing the practice when I have at least 10 minutes for it, but even 1 minute can be useful. My arm probably gives out around the 5 minute mark, which is when I stop doing the technique, and then I sit and breathe normally for several more minutes.

So those are the non-breathing factors that I think all make a difference. If you read all the options and my examples, you may note that while all the factors still matter, they don’t have as strong an effect on me, so the breathing practice ends up being the most important element (that’s just me, one case – your story will be your own, and I encourage you to explore as you like!).

 

A mood-shifting breathing practice with 2 options

Below are two versions of the alternate nostril breathing practice to read through and try if you like.

Alternate Nostril Breathing (aka Nadi Shodhana)
To alternate breathing in or out of one nostril at a time, you can block one nostril. The classical technique instructs using the right thumb to block right nostril, and right ring finger to block left nostril. The middle and pointer fingers can rest on the forehead or curl in toward the palm.

Below are the steps for one full round of alternate nostril breath. Classic teachings advise completing full rounds only – so if you do 5 rounds and you started by breathing in the left nostril, you’ll finish by breathing out the left nostril

  • First inhale: Gently block the right nostril with your right thumb while breathing in through the left nostril
  • At the end of your inhale, gently block both nostrils
  • First exhale: When you’re ready, open the right nostril and breathe out the right (keep the left nostril blocked)
  • Second inhale: At the end of your exhale, keep the left nostril blocked while breathing in through the right nostril
  • At the end of your inhale, gently block both nostrils
  • Second exhale: When you’re ready, open the left nostril and breathe out the left nostril (keeping the right nostril blocked)

It’s not nearly as complicated as it sounds written out. I think of the pattern like tossing a volleyball back and forth over the net: the idea is to breathe in or out “where the ball is” in the process of tossing back and forth. The bridge of the nose (or blocking both nostrils) is like the net: the space where you transition from breathing in one side to breathing out the other side. In one side, block both, out the other. In the same side, block both, out the other. And repeat.

The next version I’m sharing includes no blocking and some may find it more comfortable or easier to do.

Alternate Nostril Breathing without physically blocking the nostrils
This version is less precise in terms of directing air flow in and out one nostril at a time (which is fine!) and may feel more comfortable. It’s also the version I prefer if I want to be lying down.

Below are the steps for “prepping” the cycle and one full round. As with the regular version, I recommend completing a number of full rounds, rather than stopping in the middle of one cycle, largely just because it feels better to me, which may be a result of education rather than actual experience, so you know, grain of salt there.

Prepping the cycle

  • Become aware of air flow in and out your nostrils.
  • Then direct attention to your hands. I recommend placing the hands palms face up so that you can easily open and close them. Curl your fingers gently in towards their palms.
  • The next time you breathe in, direct attention to your left nostril, imagining you’re breathing in only through that nostril (but air may still enter the right nostril and that’s ok).
  • When you’re ready, breathe out while: opening your right fingers and directing attention to your right nostril, again imagining you’re breathing out only through the right nostril (but it’s still ok if air flows out the left nostril as well).
  • When you’re ready, breathe in through your right nostril while curling your right fingers gently in.
  • When you’re ready, breathe out through your left nostril while opening your left fingers gently.

One full cycle

  • When you’re ready, breathe in through your left nostril while curling your left fingers gently in.
  • When you’re ready, breathe out through your right nostril while opening your right fingers gently.
  • When you’re ready, breathe in through your right nostril while curling your right fingers gently in.
  • When you’re ready, breathe out through your left nostril while opening your left fingers gently.

It’s not uncommon to keep going longer than you anticipated with this one – or to stop because you’ve shifted into deep rest. Both are ok!

 

Next steps

I hope reading through these has been helpful and that you’re ready to try them out. If you’d like to try them with some guidance or in the company of others, I encourage you to join one of my yoga classes, as we always start with a breathing practice, and I often teach alternate nostril breathing.
Or check out the Everyday Meditation podcast (for nadi shodhana) and the Moved to Heal podcast (for gentle breath observation).

As always, if you have questions or experiences you’d like to share, I’d love to hear from you – you can use the comment box below anytime.

 
Be moving, be true, be you,
esther
 
 

photo credit mitchell luo, found on unsplash

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