Meditation is certainly a useful tool for the mind and the body. However, many people find it hard to meditate because when we sit still and quiet our external stimulation, all of the racing thoughts, feelings, and sensations bubble up to the surface.
Breathwork, on the other hand, is an active form of meditation that allows us to disconnect from the mind and be guided by our body and heart. As we breathe out thoughts, beliefs, memories, actions that do not support our growth, we return to our wholeness and feel more equipped to handle stress, anxiety, and lingering trauma. There are many different breathwork techniques, and each one has a unique purpose and effect on the body. Here are three beginner techniques that deserve a spot in your repertoire and some recommendations for how and when to use them.
When you feel overwhelmed: The 4-7-8 breath.
The Relaxing Breath from Andrew Weil, M.D., also known as 4-7-8 breathing, helps to slow down and calm the body. It slows the heart rate, brings our consciousness to the present moment, and slows the nervous system, bringing a feeling of calm and peace. This breath is ideal when you are feeling overwhelmed, anxious, angry, triggered, and have trouble sleeping. It has the added bonus of teaching the body to take in less (in a culture where we saturate the mind and body with external stimulation), how to create space between inhale and exhale, as well as how to release excess energy and thought from the body.
How to do it:
The traditional way of doing 4-7-8 breathing is to empty the lungs of air, breathe in through your nose for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 7 seconds, exhale out of the mouth for 8 seconds, and repeat at least 4 times.
As you breathe in, imagine the grounded and nourishing energy of the earth, mountains, trees, plants, flowers, fruits, vegetables, and herbs coming up into your body. As you hold your breath, visualize the breath spiraling up the center of your body (through the seven chakras) and pulling any energy or thought that does not serve you. Then as you exhale over 8 seconds, imagine that excess energy releasing out of the mouth, and visualize light pouring through the top of your head back down to your feet and the earth below you.
When you need an energy boost: The 4-4-4-4 breath.
Box Breathing comes through the Navy SEAL lineage and is also known as Square breathing, or 4-4-4-4 breath. This breathwork technique slows the heart rate and deepens concentration. It heightens efficiency and performance, as well as provides stress relief. It's best to use in the morning to wake up, in the middle of the day if sleepy, or before a big project or meeting that requires your focus.
To practice this technique, start by releasing all of the air from your chest, and hold your breath for 4 seconds, then breathe through the nose for 4 seconds, then hold your breath for 4 seconds, then exhale out of the nose for 4 seconds. Repeat this cycle for 5 minutes to feel the effects.
As you are inhaling, imagine the earth element of the north rising up and nourishing the physical body. As you hold your breath, imagine the breath swooping through the mind like the wind element of the east, clearing out any thoughts that do not serve and keeping the thoughts that do serve you. As you exhale out of the mouth, imagine the fire element of the south that resides in the center and heart of our body, burning any thoughts and feelings in our emotional heart and belly to release through the mouth (traditional box breath exhales out of the nose, but I like to exhale out of the mouth to incorporate the heart energy).
As you hold your breath for the last 4 seconds, ask the loving higher self, the gentle feminine water element of the west, to come into your presence and be with and guide you through the waves of your life.
When you feel yourself getting worked up: The 5-5 breath.
While our natural tendency is to breathe at a rate of two or three seconds per minute, Coherent Breathing, or the 5-5 breath, is a controlled and conscious breathing practice that slows down our breathing to 4 seconds and then 5 seconds. The 5-5 breath is ideal for an overall sense of calm and can be practiced throughout the day.
How to do it:
To start, focus on the natural rhythm of your breath to obtain a baseline length of each inhale and exhale. Then for 1 minute, breathe in for 4 seconds, and exhale for 4 seconds. Then repeat for 5 seconds, then repeat for 6 seconds, and if you want to, gradually expand to 10 seconds. Start with 5 minutes total and work your way up over time to 20 minutes. Imagine the earth energy rising up into the body, and then the thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations in the body that you no longer want to hold on to, releasing out of the body through the exhale.
The best way to know which technique is right for you is to first identify what you are struggling with and what you are seeking. These are suggestions, but as with any healing modality, it is best to experiment with each form to see which one feels most aligned with where you are. Remember, your breath is your inherent healer and guide inside of you.