Breathing Principles Series - Breathing Techniques and Visualizations
We’ve already seen that breathing becomes rapid and shallow when we’re stressed. We’ve also discussed that deep breathing can help to engage the parasympathetic nervous system and the ‘rest and digest’ state.
But there are other ways you can stay calm with the right breathing – and in fact, you can also use your breathing in the long term to improve your overall psychological state and health. Moreover, these techniques can be highly effective when combined with meditation.
And there’s a good chance that most people reading this are currently breathing incorrectly! Curious? Read on…
Abdominal breathing is essentially the type of breathing we should all be engaging in all the time but most of us don’t remember how to do it.
To test if you are breathing correctly, put one hand on your stomach and one hand on your chest. Now breathe normally and ask yourself which hand moved first – did your stomach or your chest rise to begin with?
Most of us will find that it’s our chest that moves first but this limit show much oxygen we can take in and stifles the proper activation of the parasympathetic nervous system.
The way we’re meant to breathe is with the stomach first. Our abdomen pushes outward, which creates space in the abdominal cavity. In turn, this allows the diaphragm to drop into that space and then we can expand out lungs using the greater amount of space this has freed up. We thereby take in more air and feel better – and if you watch a baby breathe this is the technique they use naturally. We only learn to breathe with the chest, which is much shallower – because we spend so long during the day sitting at a desk with our bodies hunched over.
Focus on letting your stomach breathe first and you’ll find its much more revitalizing and reinvigorating. Use this while practicing meditation and then try to make it your usual habit.
Other Breathing Methods and Visualizations
Another type of breathing you can use is called ‘sama vritti’ or ‘equal breathing’. This type of breathing is taught in yoga and involves breathing in and out through the nose steadily for four seconds each. So that’s one long inhalation and then one long exhalation. This is designed to put your breathing back under control and it forces you to breathe more deeply.
Progressive relaxation meanwhile is a type of breathing and muscle relaxation exercise. Here you use steady breathing and visualize each part of your body on each breath. So, on the first breath you might imagine your head.
Then your neck. Then your shoulders. Then your chest.
On each inhalation, tense the muscles slightly and try to ‘feel’ where the muscle is and how tight it is. Then, on each exhalation, release that tension and allow the muscle to completely relax and become entirely flaccid and limp. You can also visualize it ‘sinking’ into the bed or the seat underneath you for added effect.
This is an excellent form of relaxation that relieves stress and that can be a great help with meditation or sleep.
Remember too that you can also use visualization in other ways to help keep yourself calm. Perhaps one of the best examples of this is to visualize your ‘happy place’. This should be a place you remember or a place you’ve imagined that is entirely relaxing and that makes you feel safe and at ease. You can ‘visit’ this place any time in your mind’s eye and that will help you to feel more relaxed.
Visualization can also be used to imagine whatever it is you’re afraid of going well, thereby making you feel as though it will be successful rather than letting you visualize the worst-case scenario.