Breathing for Relaxation and Focus: A step-by-step guide
Updated: Apr 19
"...calm is retained by the controlled exhalation or retention of the breath." - The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (p. 54)
Photo by Max van den Oetelaar on Unsplash
I toss and turn at night wondering why we don't learn controlled breathing like we learn the ABCs. What would my childhood and adolescence have been like if my grade school teachers started each day with group breathing practices? In all likelihood, I still would have been a complete hormonal disaster, but at least I would've had a tool to help ease the tough times.
Maybe controlled breathing is disregarded as a healing and preventative health tool because it's free. There's nothing to sell. Maybe its not mainstream because it's simple. Or maybe controlled breathing is so obvious that we think it can't be a real solution.
Whatever the case, the science is clear that controlling the way we breathe can have beneficial effects on our minds and bodies. Western science is now able to quantify the physiological and psychological benefits of what our ancestors have been practicing for millennia.
The beauty of controlled breathing is that you can do it anytime, anywhere, and it is completely free. You can do it for 10 seconds or you can do it for 20 minutes.
There are a number of breathing techniques to use for different purposes (e.g., rapid breathing to increase the heart rate), but below I outline the steps for a breathing practice that will relax the body and help to focus thoughts and emotions. The breathing technique is called Coherent Breathing.
How to Practice Coherent Breathing
1. Sit comfortably with your spine erect or lie comfortably on your back. Relax your shoulders, your jaw, and anywhere else you're holding tight.
2. Close your eyes or soften your gaze to focus on a single point
3. Breathe in through your nose to the point where you completely fill your belly and chest. Open your mouth and exhale all of your air. Repeat.
4. Zip your lips and begin to breathe in and out of your nose
5. Breathe gently, making sure the breath is filling your belly first, then the chest without force or exertion. There is no need to overfill your lungs or push air out. Do not force or strain to lengthen your inhales and exhales. This will come naturally with practice.
6. Play the Coherent Breathing Video. Inhale when you hear the high chime. Exhale when you hear the low chime. You will be inhaling for 6 seconds and exhaling for 6 seconds.
-note: the video is 51 minutes in length. I recommend beginning with 1 minute of practice and working your way up. In this case, begin the video at 50 minutes so that you will know when you're finished without having to open your eyes to check the time.
Tips for Coherent Breathing
Maintain your attention on the feeling of your breath moving in and out of your nose or your belly
When your thoughts drifts away, bring your attention back to the breath and to the sound of the chimes in the video
Try your best to maintain stillness and keep from fidgeting
The only way for controlled breathing to make a difference in your life is to make it a habit. Start small. I began my practice by doing one minute of coherent breathing every time I would sit at my desk. Think of a time or an activity that you do everyday that would trigger the habit of practicing your breathing.