Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

The Subtle Yet Profound Art of Breathing

Breathing intentionally can enhance your health and well-being.

CC0 Creative Commons
Source: CC0 Creative Commons

If you know the art of breathing you have the strength, wisdom, and courage of ten tigers. ~ Chinese proverb

Breathing is the simplest and most direct way to bring the mind together with the body. As the lynchpin in the mind-body connection, breathing anchors all mindfulness practices as well as most forms of meditation. It happens automatically and unconsciously—you don’t have to think about breathing to stay alive; it just happens. (Among the few circumstances in which this natural function is obstructed in a potentially life-threatening way involves opioids. One of the side effects of opioid use is respiratory depression and when people overdose on opioids their breathing becomes so depressed that it actually stops.)

However, breathing is also one of the very few involuntary bodily functions over which you can exert intentional influence; you can deliberately modify how you breathe in ways that promote health, well-being, and mindful awareness. Breathing intentionally is one of the most elemental yet powerful ways to bring yourself to present-moment awareness, quiet the mind, and self-calm.

When you breathe in deeply on your inhale, you take more air into your lungs, which means more oxygen enters the bloodstream, where it circulates throughout the body to the brain and vital organs. Breathing out fully upon exhale expels more carbon dioxide (CO2)—a waste product generated as your body uses up oxygen—from your body. When CO2 accumulates in the body past a certain point, it causes adverse effects on nervous system, respiratory, and cardiac functioning. So when you don’t exhale completely, carbon dioxide remains in the body and accumulates in your cells, producing fatigue and causing you to yawn, diminishing mental clarity and increasing stress. Exhaling fully also makes it easier to breathe in more oxygen on the subsequent inhale.

The combination of consciously breathing in deeply and breathing out fully deactivates the sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system and turns off the body’s stress response while simultaneously engaging the parasympathetic division and triggering the relaxation response. As a result, muscle tension, heart rate, and blood pressure decrease; digestion improves; immune system function increases, and the whole body moves toward a greater state of relaxation. When oxygenated blood flow to the brain increases, it creates a calming effect, along with an increase in energy and concentration.

When we feel anxious, fearful, stressed, or otherwise in pain, our breathing becomes rapid and shallow; therefore, people who consistently feel anxious and stressed may actually be chronically under-breathing, taking mostly quick, shallow breaths and sometimes even briefly holding their breath without realizing it. In contrast, when our breathing becomes slower and deeper, we experience decreases in anxiety, fear, stress, and pain. In this way, intentional breathing can help regulate the central nervous system.

Intentional breathing practice

• Consciously tune in to and observe your breathing.

• Become more aware of breathing in on your inhale and out on your exhale.

• As you breathe, place the front of your tongue on the roof of your mouth slightly behind your top front teeth. According to the Chinese health paradigm—which includes practices as diverse as acupuncture, Tai Chi, and Chi Kung—having your tongue on the roof of your mouth continuously stimulates and balances the body’s primary energy meridians. It also allows saliva to flow more naturally, decreasing the need to swallow.

• If at all possible, breathe through your nose. Breathing through the nose tends to be smoother, and quieter. If for any reason you can’t breathe through your nose, it’s perfectly okay to breathe through your mouth.

• Allow your breathing to become slower, deeper, and quieter.

• Exhale completely, squeezing out as much air as you can before beginning your next inhale.

• Breathe abdominally—breathing in through the stomach rather than the chest brings more oxygen into the body. Some people find it helpful to put their hand on their stomach as an anchor. So when they inhale, their stomach pushes their hand outward, and their exhale brings their hand in toward their spine.

• If you notice your attention drifting, gently bring your awareness back to your breath, continuing to breathe slowly and deeply.

4-7-8 breathing

This specific technique can be helpful for anyone who needs more structure in his or her intentional breathing practice.

• Inhale through your nose for a count of four seconds. When you inhale for four seconds, you force yourself to take in more oxygen.

• Hold your breath for seven seconds. Briefly holding your breath allows the oxygen to spread throughout your bloodstreamand hasthe added benefit of a slight boost in alertness and energy.

• Exhale through your mouth for a count of eight seconds. This allows you to expel more carbon dioxide from your lungs steadily and completely.

Because breathing occurs automatically most people rarely think about it or consider it a skill that can be developed to enhance their cognitive, emotional, physical, and spiritual equilibrium. At any time during the course of the day you can become more consciously aware of your breathing. As you tune in to the quality of your breathing you can notice and observe the extent to which it’s rapid and shallow. You can then use that awareness to shift the structure of your breathing, making it slower and deeper, breathing in fully and exhaling completely. And notice what happens.

Copyright 2018 Dan Mager, MSW

Author of Some Assembly Required: A Balanced Approach to Recovery from Addiction and Chronic Pain and Roots and Wings: Mindful Parenting in Recovery