Using Breathing for Healing

By Meg Madvig, LCSW
| Excerpted from The Vine, Spring 2010 |

Sharon was tired of feeling tired. Throughout her days, she often found herself uneasy and tense and night after night she would lie in bed feeling restless, filled with thoughts and worries. Wanting to take some control of these things, she was unsure how. At the prompting of her therapist, she began to use intentional breathing or “breathwork” to assist with her feelings of anxiety.

The benefit of breathwork to assist with life stresses is recognized by both medical doctors and mental health professionals. Andrew Weil, MD, author and physician, states, “There is no single more powerful – or more simple – daily practice to further your health and well-being than breathwork.”

Dr. Weil states that stress is a primary or aggravating cause of many illnesses, both physical and emotional. Breathwork is the best way to increase the body’s ability to relax, and by giving the body a chance to relax, the body’s healing system can work better. Research shows that using regular relaxation breathwork improves general health and improves digestion, circulation, irregular heartbeat, insomnia and panic disorders as well as other anxiety states.

Breathing is the only bodily function which can be controlled by two completely different sets of systems. It can be completely conscious or completely unconscious and it can be completely voluntary or completely involuntary. When a person is upset, angry, anxious, or in pain, their breathing is fast, shallow, loud and irregular. The goal of breathwork is to change this pattern and to encourage the breathing to be deeper, quieter, slower and more regular. In other words, by establishing patterns consciously and voluntarily one can impact the unconscious and involuntary breathing, or autonomic nervous system. The end result promotes a more relaxed state.

Breathwork has other practical advantages. It is free, always available and simple to learn. It requires no equipment and can be done virtually anywhere. Also, it gives individuals, both children and adults, a sense of control.

To start doing breathwork is quite simple. Begin by selecting a quiet, relaxing location with no distractions. Find a comfortable place to sit (keep your back/spine straight if possible) and avoid tight clothing which might cause you to be distracted. Keep your head in a comfortable position. Your eyes can be closed, open or half-open—whatever feels most natural to you. Begin each breath by inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth. As with any practice, the more you use breathwork, the more you will experience its benefits. Therefore, commit to practice breathing several times daily. Begin with just a few minutes a day, perhaps first thing in the morning and last thing in the evening.

Try this simple exercise to begin doing breathwork: Get comfortable. Remember to inhale through the nose and exhale through the mouth. Put your hand on your stomach just beneath the belly button and each time you inhale try to lift your hand. Then, gently exhale through your mouth. Repeat this pattern for 10 breath cycles. This will get you intentionally breathing into your abdomen, a must for relaxation breathing. As you become comfortable breathing into your abdomen, attempt to make each breath deeper, quieter, slower and more regular.

Another simple yet effective technique is the “neutral breath” exercise. Begin by putting your attention on your breathing. Make no attempt to influence your breathing, just follow it with your mind. Your attention may wander to thoughts, but gently bring your attention back to your breathing. The basic premise of this exercise is that when your mind is on your breathing, it cannot be on anything else. Try this exercise for two to three minutes at first and increase the time as a form of meditation and means to relaxation.

The “breath counting” technique is also simple to learn. To begin this exercise, start with an exhale breath and count “one” to yourself. Inhale and then the next time you exhale, count “two”, and so on up to “five”. Then begin a new cycle, counting “one” on the next exhalation. Never count higher than five as you will know if your mind wondered. Try to do this for two to ten minutes as a form of meditation and relaxation.

In my own practice, I choose to use intentional breathing in places where I am required to wait, places that previously have been stress producing for me. So, I remind myself to breathe during those waiting periods (for example during television commercials, at red lights, and while in line at stores). When I find myself in those situations, I simply say internally “Meg, breathe” and I intentionally make my breath slower, deeper, quieter and more regular. When the commercial is over, the light turns green or it’s my turn to check out, I feel more relaxed. I have almost come to enjoy those required wait times in my life and I definitely feel less stressed out afterwards!

Sharon, mentioned at the beginning of this article, learned some basic breathwork techniques from her therapist and began practicing them at home. She discovered breathwork to have many benefits in her life. Keeping her present in the moment, it takes the focus off her past pains and future worries. By staying grounded in the now, she feels she has more control. In addition, by being intentional about making her breath deeper, quieter and more regular several times throughout her day, she finds that her body is in a more relaxed state. Overall, Sharon’s anxiety level has decreased and her sleeping has greatly improved. And it was all right under her nose!