Yes, it seems obvious, but not all breaths are created equal. A great, simple breathing exercise for calming both the nervous system and the overworked mind is a timed breath where the exhale is longer than the inhale. When your exhale is even a few counts longer than your inhale, the vagus nerve (running from the neck down through the diaphragm) sends a signal to your brain to turn up your parasympathetic nervous system and turn down your sympathetic nervous system.
The sympathetics command your fight or flight response, and when they fire, your heart rate and your breathing speed up, and stress hormones like cortisol start pumping through your bloodstream, preparing your body to face a threat. If the threat is, “A lion is chasing me and I need to run away,” this is helpful. If the threat is, “I am late to work” or, “I’m so upset with my mom,” this is not particularly helpful, and in fact it can be damaging – when cortisol is elevated for too long or too frequently it disturbs all the hormonal systems of the body.
The parasympathetics, on the other hand, control your rest, relax, and digest response. When the parasympathetic system is dominant, your breathing slows, your heart rate drops, your blood pressure lowers as the blood vessels relax, and your body is put into a state of calm and healing.
Putting your body in a parasympathetic state is easy. Pick a count for your inhale and a count for your exhale that is a little longer. I like starting with 2 counts in, and 4 counts out, with a one count pause at the top of the inhale and a one count pause at the bottom of the exhale.
Step by step instructions:
To begin, sit still and tall somewhere comfortable. Close your eyes and being breathing through your nose.
Then, inhale for a count of two… hold the breath in for a count of one… exhale gently, counting out for four… and finish by holding the breath out for a count of one. Keep your breathing even and smooth.
If the 2-4 count feels too short try increasing the breath lengths to 4 in and 6 out, or 6 in and 8 out, and so on. But if longer breaths create any anxiety there is no need to push yourself. The most important thing is that the exhale is longer than the inhale, not the absolute length of the breath.
Set a timer and breathe this way for at least five minutes! You will see a difference in your mood.
About Robin Friedlander
Robin Friedlander MD is an integrative physician practicing in New York City. She marries the best of yoga, meditation, Ayurveda, nutrition science, and western medicine to help people get to the root of their imbalances and find optimum health. Robin graduated from Columbia University’s medical school and trained in internal medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital. She is the author of HealthUncensored.com, where her passion is waking people up to their own potential for healthy, radiant living. She has lived in NYC for nine years but loves to jump ship, whether to India, Japan, or most recently Dutchess County, New York, where she’s getting to know the fields, the hills, and the dairy cows, her favorite new neighbors.
More on Breathing and Meditation:
We love to meditate; it’s really our favorite activity, like hanging out with a very near and dear friend. We’ve both been meditating since our early 20’s and together for the last 26. We have no idea who we would be nor how we could live in this mad and crazy world without it. But one thing’s for sure: whenever we run into a difference of opinion (Ed thinks the ceiling is flat while Deb thinks it’s white) it is only when we sit to meditate that such differences dissolve (the ceiling is both flat and white).
Now I’d like to share with you my favorite form of meditation, called “breath meditation.” I believe it is one of the most powerful, yet one of the easiest, meditations to learn. Before we begin, let’s talk a bit about the mind. The mind is made up of wave patterns. When we think, it causes wave patterns to occur in the brain. There are four main types of brain waves. The pattern we are normally in when awake and thinking is called “beta wave” or “beta state.” When we are dropping off to sleep and the mind begins to quiet, that is “alpha state.” When we are asleep or quietly meditating, that is “theta state.” The deepest state of sleep or of meditation (where there is no body awareness) is called “delta state.”
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