The magic of mindful breathing
But... what is mindful breathing?
Mindful breathing is a form of meditation and is all about focusing on your breath. This can be with either its natural rhythm or in a structured pattern, such as taking a long, deep breath and holding it for a while before exhaling. Breathing consciously in this way allows you to become conscious of the sensations in your body as you inhale and exhale.
You’ll notice that while you’re calm, your breath is expansive and relaxed, engaging your lungs, ribs, and belly. However, when you’re stressed or anxious, your main breathing muscles switch off and your breath is short and shallow both in your upper chest and shoulders. Thinking about your breath might seem like something you do all the time, but in reality, our attention is usually distracted by our hectic lives and wild internal monologue.
Focusing on our breathing can help us find stability in times of stress. However, the benefit of mindful breathing is that it can be done anywhere and at any time! Even five minutes of mindful breathing, while sitting in traffic or before starting your day, can make a huge difference to your mindset.
Here’s the science...
While it would be easy to write mindful breathing off as another “wellness trend”, there’s enough science to make even the biggest skeptic tempted to give it a try. Strap-in for a quick biology lesson...
Breathing is part of the Autonomic Nervous System. This has two aspects, the sympathetic nervous system, and the parasympathetic nervous system. Our sympathetic nervous system is in charge of our fight or flight response. When our body is in this mode, it becomes primed to either escape or take on danger. Adrenaline pumps around our body, cortisol is released and our heart rate increases. While this is a useful natural reaction for our primal brain to have – to protect us from danger – in our day-to-day, average lifestyles, it’s a physical response that can have a negative effect on our mental health.
When you practice mindful breathing, your breathing rhythm tends to slow down. The body sends a signal to the brain to turn up your parasympathetic nervous system (the calmer side of the brain) and dials down your sympathetic nervous system, which tells your body to relax. You’ll notice that as this starts to happen, your jaw will unclench, your muscles loosen up, and both your mind and body will feel calmer.
The benefits of mindful breathing
Periods of sustained stress (and subsequent faster breathing) can have serious long term health implications. High levels of cortisol have been connected with an increased risk of heart disease, insomnia, weight gain, and digestive problems. Being in this constant state of high alert can also increase your chances of developing anxiety and depression. Mindful breathing reduces the production of cortisol in your body, which in turn, reduces the risk of all these illnesses.
Reconnecting with the natural rhythm of our breath requires us to take the time to look inwards – often you’ll realize that your breathing pattern is a reflection of your emotional state and that you can alter the way you feel by controlling your breath.
A practice for all phases of life
Mindful breathing can be a really useful technique for time-poor, stress-rich new mothers. This can be a stage when women feel disconnected from their bodies, totally overwhelmed with their new roles, and attempting to navigate the postpartum shifts they’re experiencing. Even a few minutes of mindful breathing can help you reconnect with your sense of self, while everything around you feels chaotic. It’s something you can even try when breastfeeding – combining bonding with your baby with a bit of “me-time.”
But it’s not just the early stages of motherhood that comes with its challenges. Anxiety, low mood, and stress are some of the most common symptoms of the menopause and are also all compounded by an increase of cortisol. Regular breath practice can help many women naturally calm themselves at this stage of their lives. Being ‘more present’ can help to improve focus and concentration, while empowering some to take on challenges that might seem overwhelming otherwise.
How to try mindful breathing
The great thing about mindful breathing is that it can be done anywhere, anytime – and you only need a few spare minutes. If you’re new to the practice, it can take a little while to get into it… but, once you do, you’ll be reaping the benefits in no time.
- Find a relaxed, comfortable position: This could be sitting down in your favorite spot, or lying down on your bed or couch for a little time out.
- Notice and relax your body: Tune in to how you’re feeling at that moment. Are you holding tension anywhere? How does your skin feel against your clothes or your seat?
- Tune into your breath: Start to notice the natural flow of your breath, and the sensations of each inhalation and exhalation. Focus on the feelings in your nose and the back of your throat, and how your breath reaches your abdomen and chest.
- Slow your breathing: If your breath isn’t slowing down naturally, you can take a few deeper breaths and hold for four seconds before releasing gradually.
- Stay here for five to seven minutes: Once you find a rhythm that’s calming, stick with it for at least five minutes, while focusing on your breath the whole time. If your mind wanders, that’s okay! Just try and bring it back.
- Check-in before you check out: Tune into your body one more time. What’s changed since you started your practice? We’re betting that you’re feeling calmer and more grounded!