Our breath provides communication between our conscious mind and our autonomic nervous system (which operates without our conscious control). This means that our breath is a magical tool for shifting our emotional and physiological state. This somatic connection between conscious awareness and subconscious body processing explains the historical emphasis on breath as a tool for spiritual transformation. Yes, the yogis were onto something.
So, if you need a shift in perception, change your breath.
In this article, I’m going to discuss two of the simplest, most reliable ways to change your mental/emotional state with simple breathing exercises. One of the best parts about both practices is that some science exists to explain why it works. And they are available to you for free, whenever you need a reset.
Practice #1. Simply take some slow, deep breaths.
The advice, “take a deep breath”, is so commonly employed that it almost seems trite. But like most cliches, it is grounded in some truth.
There is compelling research that you can subvert the conscious mind and influence your emotional state by consciously shifting your breathing patterns. More specifically, slow, deep, and relaxed breathing can shift you from a “negative” emotional state to a “positive” one.
Why does it work?
Studies (Philippot, Chapelle, and Blairy 2002) have shown that there are predictable breathing patterns associated with various emotional states (joy, fear, sadness, anger). Even more interestingly, they’ve shown this is a bidirectional relationship - you breathe a certain way when experiencing emotional states, and also breathing in a certain pattern can predictably induce those states. Joy was correlated with slow, deep and relaxed breathing. Conversely, sadness was associated with irregular and shallow breathing.
Use this anytime you’d like a reset by taking a few consciously slow and deep breaths.
Start by taking a full, deep inhale and release a long exhale. Do this in a way that feels conscious but not strained -- aim to keep the breathing pattern relaxed.
Repeat until you feel a shift in your emotional state.
Practice #2. Lengthen your exhale, so it is slightly longer than your inhale.
Why does it work?
As mentioned above, our breath is the link between our conscious mind and our autonomic nervous system. One way it exerts this influence is that the inhale is controlled by the sympathetic (“fight or flight”) nervous system, while the exhalation is controlled by the parasympathetic nervous (“rest and digest”) system. When you shift to a slightly longer exhalation, you are switching yourself into a parasympathetic dominant state. This leads to feelings of calm and relaxation.
The following breathing exercise is a powerful tool to downshift into your parasympathetic nervous system. In the parasympathetic or "rest and digest" state, healing and regeneration can occur.
The simplest way to do this, is to take a big inhale, and let out an even longer, slow exhale. You can make this a formal practice by counting the breaths and making the exhale twice as long as your inhale - full instructions below.
To begin, take a few slow, deep breaths
Inhale for the count of 3. Pause at the end of the inhale.
Exhale for the count of 6
Repeat for at least 3 breaths.
Notice how you feel!
*Adjust the count according to your own comfortable breathing rate, for example, you can breathe in for the count of 2, out for 4 (experiment with any 1:2 ratio depending on what feels best for you). The most important thing is that your exhale is longer than your inhale.