Breathing exercises - a bridge between body and mind

Dr Sandy Calvert is a retired neonatologist and runs a retreat centre primarily for health professionals, called Ratford Retreat Centre. Here she recommends breathing exercises to help improve your sense of wellbeing.
Dr Sandy Calvert

Breathing alters in pattern and rhythm at different times, and in different emotional states. It is more than just a vital act that sustains life, for it also mirrors our physical, mental and emotional state and shows us a bridge between body and mind.

Breathing is one of the few bodily processes that can either be voluntary or involuntary. It has the wonderful attribute of having a direct link to the functioning of the autonomic nervous system and so is a really useful ‘way in’ to reducing hyperarousal and a stressed state.

By consciously increasing our awareness about breathing, it is possible to:

  • improve our sense of wellbeing
  • decrease our level of stress
  • help to bring about interconnectedness between our minds and bodies.

Below are two simple breathing exercises that may help to reduce stress and anxiety.

Exercise 1 - Diaphragmatic breathing (DB)

There are two main types of breathing:

  • Chest breathing: This type of breathing is characterised by an upward and outward movement of the chest and is found most commonly during vigorous exercise or emergency situations. It is also found as an unconscious pattern in adults who are over-stressed/exhausted. It stimulates the sympathetic system keeping the body in a state of tension and arousal even when it is not necessary.
  • Diaphragmatic breathing (DB): DB is driven by the use of the diaphragm rather than the chest wall. When we breathe in, the diaphragm contracts, flattens and descends, sucking air into the lungs. As the diaphragm descends, it pushes the abdominal contents down, which forces the abdominal wall out. When we breathe out the diaphragm relaxes, air is forced out of the lungs and the abdominal wall flattens.

DB is the most efficient and relaxed way of getting enough air. It activates the parasympathetic nervous system promoting regenerating processes – sleep, digestion, and relaxation responses – the body at peace.

DB also avoids the over breathing or erratic breathing seen in chest breathing which removes excess CO2 and upsets the acid/alkali balance of the blood. The resulting unpleasant symptoms – mental, muscular, circulatory and nervous – can themselves cause anxiety.

Diaphragmatic breathing training

There are various levels of progression. Once you have mastered one level you can move to the next.

  • Level 1 – crocodile position – on your front with your hands grasping the opposite upper arm and your chin resting on your hands. Great for emergencies/panic. Just breathe easily in this position
  • Level 2 – on your back (or side if you are pregnant) – as described below
  • Level 3 – same process as for level 2 but sitting.
  • Level 4 – now the same standing. The key is simply to check you are using abdominal breathing – do this by quietly putting a hand on your chest and abdomen and correcting the breathing if needed.
  • Level 5 – walking
  • Level 6 – exercising

The following describes level 2 – lying down.

  1. Find a quiet room where you will be undisturbed for about 10-15 minutes. Lie down on the bed or floor. Undo tight clothing and remove your shoes. Spend a few moments settling yourself down. You may wish to bend your knees and have your feet flat on floor.
  2. Close your eyes, spread your feet 12-18 inches apart, and check that your head, neck and spine are in a straight line. Focus your attention on your breathing. Do not try and change your breathing for the moment. Become aware of how fast or slow you are breathing, whether you are breathing with your chest or your diaphragm. Notice whether there are any gaps or pauses between your inhalation and exhalation.
  3. Now, put one hand on your upper chest and one hand on your abdomen just below your rib cage. Relax the shoulders and hands. As you exhale gently, press the lower hand to flatten your abdomen. You can also put a book on your upper abdomen to help your awareness. As you inhale, allow the abdomen to rise, as you exhale, allow the abdomen to flatten. There should be little or no movement in the chest
  4. Allow yourself a little time to get into a regular rhythm. It may help to imagine that as you are breathing in, you draw a half circle with your breath around your body, and as you breathe out, you complete the other half of the circle. Allow your breath to become smooth, easy and regular.
  5. Let your exhalation slow down and be conscious of a comfortable pause before allowing your inhalation to follow smoothly and easily. If any distractions, thoughts or worries come into your mind, allow them to come, and then allow them to go and bring your attention back to your breathing.
  6. When you are ready to end this exercise, take a few deeper breaths. Bring some awareness of movement back into your fingers and toes. Open your eyes slowly, and turn over onto one side before gently sitting up.
  7. Once you are accomplished with this technique try to make the out-breath twice as long as the in-breath. Then finish as (6).
  8. Once (7) is mastered, control your breathing so that you take around six breaths per minute. Then finish as (6).

Exercise 2 - the 4/7/8/3 breath

This exercise is easier done when you have time and space to focus exclusively on your breathing but can be done at any time.

  • Breathe in through your nose for a count of 4.
  • Hold your breath for a count of 7.
  • Breathe out long for a count of 8.
  • Hold your breath for a count of 3.
  • Repeat five times or more.

At first you may find this difficult and a feeling of anxiety and/or breathlessness may arise. With practice you will become comfortable with it and see its benefits. It can be helpful if you are having difficulty sleeping – do it when you go to bed. Or use it intermittently during the day.

Watch a YouTube video on diaphragmatic breathing techniques