When you feel stressed, anxious or just have tight muscles, how do you approach improving how you feel? What about when your mind is busy or you can’t fall asleep? One option that can be beneficial in many situations is to work with the breath. By changing the pattern of your inhalations and exhalations, you can recruit the calming part of your nervous system. This is the parasympathic, or rest and digest, system.
A technique that I like is to extend the length of the exhalation compared to the duration of the inhalation. First, see what your normal breathing pattern is. Simply observing your breath, breathe in and out through your nose. Count to yourself or time how long the inhalation takes, then the exhalation. Now you know your baseline.
If the exhalation is already the longer portion, you have a good start. If not, the initial step will be to increase the length of the exhalation just slightly. The long-term goal is for the exhalation to be twice as long as the inhalation. It will probably take some time with consistent practice to achieve that 1:2 ratio.
Extend the exhalation exercise
Note: Stop and return to your normal breathing at any time if you feel uncomfortable.
- Sit upright or lie in a comfortable position.
- Take a normal breath in through the nose, counting or timing its length.
- Allow your breath to gently go out through the nose, counting or timing its length.
- If metering the breath out through your nose is difficult, then breathe out through pursed lips or through a straw instead (you will need to hold the straw with one hand). As you become more adept at this exercise, it is likely you will be able to shift to breathing out through the nose.
- At first, just try to have the exhalation a little longer than the inhalation. Eventually, work up to a 1:2 ratio. Do not extend the exhalation any more than twice the length of the inhalation.
- Repeat this pattern a total of 5 times. When you are confident in being able to maintain the pattern, you can gradually increase your practice time to 3-5 minutes.
- Return to normal breathing and observe how your body and mind feel.