“You can live two months without food and two weeks without water, but you can live only a few minutes without air.”
A Taoist master once said that, and there is a lot of great information in that one little sentence. The three basic fundamental needs for every human to be healthy: air, water, food. Food is number three. Water is number two, and air is number one. We can also draw from that sentence how much we take air for granted. Most people can get pretty far on nourishing food and clean water, but imagine if they exercised the organs that take in the air as well?
There are two kinds of breaths. Cleansing and energizing. The exercises I will be discussing do both. We should not take our breathing for granted, especially if you are a smoker or live in a polluted city. There is a reason why if you are a city dweller, like myself, and you go out in nature or a hike in the woods, you feel rejuvenated afterwards. Fresh air does the body good!
Before we begin we want to be relaxed at home sitting or lying down on a yoga mat, in bed, or anywhere without distractions. Not a swimming pool or behind the wheel at a stoplight. If we are able to do this outside, great, but it’s not totally necessary. Do not do breathing exercises after you have eaten. It is best on an empty stomach. I like to do my breathing exercises in the morning for about 30 minutes with a window open just so there is some fresh air. You can sit or lie down, but for now let’s just sit with our shoulders rounded, spine erect, and tongue firm against the palate. Some say it’s ok to inhale with your mouth, but I don’t necessarily agree with that. I prefer nose inhalation, but whatever is more comfortable for you. Same goes with exhalation, whichever is comfortable.
The final tip before we begin is to breathe with your diaphragm. This is very important. Think of seeing a baby breathe. A good way to practice breathing with your diaphragm is by lying on your back with one hand on your stomach and one hand on your chest. On inhalation you want the stomach hand to rise first, then the chest hand. On exhalation you want the reverse. Chest hand down first, then stomach hand. The Taoists and yogis refer to the diaphragm as the second heart due to its ability to circulate blood and lymph fluid throughout the body, while taking a load off of the heart. This takes time to make a habit of, so don’t worry if you catch yourself chest breathing. Now, let’s dive into the exercises.
The Bellows Breath
This is a common breathing exercise in both yoga and Taoist traditions. This breathing exercise is done for cleansing the body and should be done at the beginning of your breathing regimen to rid your lungs of the stale and toxic air that has been sitting at the bottom of your lungs.
Start by fully exhaling the air via nose or mouth. Contract your abdomen towards the end of the exhalation to really get all the air out. Once evacuated, allow your lungs to fill about a third to halfway with air (no more than halfway), and forcefully expel out with a gust of air while contracting the abdominal wall. Focus should be put on getting air out, not in. We are looking to get about 20 breaths per minute. It should sound like bellows fanning a fire. If you feel like you are running out of breath, take a few deep breaths, then go back to the bellows. Do this for about 2 minutes or so. This is also good for whenever you are feeling tired at work and need a pick-me-up. What this does is rid the body of carbon dioxide and re-oxygenate the bloodstream.
Alternate Nostril Breathing
This is a great exercise for taking control of the autonomic nervous system, which is in charge of the rest and digest system, as well as the fight or flight system. These are known as the parasympathetic and the sympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic kicks in when under stress. The parasympathetic is activated when digesting, healing, or resting. What most people don’t know is that we can consciously control these systems with practice and the breath.
As for the breathing exercise there are a couple ways of doing this. There is the alternate method meaning you have your thumb and forefinger inhaling and exhaling switching back and forth. This will create a balanced autonomic nervous system between the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. We also can focus on one side. For example, if we are stressed out but about to eat dinner, then we may want to do some left nostril breathing. 5 seconds in, 5 seconds out.
This way our body is prepared to consume and digest food. We cannot digest food when we are stressed. It is physiologically impossible. The food will go in, yeah sure, but it will not be assimilated properly. The bowel transit time will be thrown off, and we can run into putrefaction or fermentation throughout the alimentary canal. We can also do left nostril breathing before bed to activate the parasympathetic. Another example would be if we were about to get on stage for a speech or getting ready for a race. We would want the sympathetic nervous system activated, so we would do deep right nostril breathing to consciously activate that system.
I highly suggest adding alternate nostril breathing to your day. Even if it’s a minute or two a day.
The Wim Hof Charge Breathing Exercise
If there are any Wim Hof fans out there, then you are familiar with this breathing exercise. This exercise is focusing on getting air in and charging the body with oxygen. This exercise is very simple. You breathe in fully but comfortably, but do not exhale to the point of abdominal contraction. Make it a natural exhalation. Circular, as Wim would say. Breathe in 30-40 breaths. After the last breath, exhale completely to the point of abdominal contraction and hold your breath for as long as you can. When you need to breathe again, inhale fully, and retain it for 10-15 seconds while focusing on your forehead. Then exhale, and write down your holding time prior to the retention and start up again. You can do anywhere from 3-5 rounds of this. I will write some advanced techniques to add to your retentions at the bottom of this post. This is great to do before meditation.
Hatha Yoga Breathing technique
There are many Hatha yoga breathing techniques, but this is the one that I incorporate into my regimen. It is a breathing ratio of 1:4:2, meaning inhale for a count of one, retain for a count of four, and exhale for a count of two. For example, inhale for 5 seconds, retain for 20 seconds, and exhale for 10 seconds. That is typically the count that I go with.
Now, this breathing technique is a combination of charging and cleansing, being that you are exhaling for twice the amount you are inhaling. What we can do while doing this is begin to use visualization. Sort of like a make shift chi-gung exercise where we imagine light/energy/smiley faces/soldiers coming into our bodies during inhalation down towards our coccyx. Then if we have an ailing part of our body we place our attention on that part of the body during our retention. Remember, where the mind goes, energy follows. That can apply to both positive and negative feelings, so for obvious reasons, we want to bring positivity to that part of the body. When we are ready to exhale, we exhale at that part of the body. Science has proven that during retention there is almost like a stoppage in blood where we focus, so as blood builds up during retention, when we exhale, the blood then rushes to that point. This is great for stretching as well. Focus on the tense area when inhaling, hold it while still focusing on the area, then exhale at that area and push further into your stretch. Smile at your organs daily, as Taoist Master Mantak Chia would say.
Basic Rhythmic Breathing
This exercise is the easiest to do. All we need to do is breathe in, retain, exhale, and pause for the same duration. For example, 5 seconds in, 5 seconds hold, 5 seconds exhale, then 5 seconds pause and repeat.
Once you start to get the hang of breathing and incorporating them in your daily regimens you can start experiencing with what the Taoists refer to as the three locks during retention: the anal lock, the abdominal lock, and the neck lock. Applying these locks during breathing does wonders for the body and mind.
The first is the anal lock. Think of having to run to the bathroom when holding in a poop. There are two sphincter rings the anus controls. The outer and the inner. We want to lock both hard. A good time to practice squeezing this lock is when we are finishing up our business in the bathroom. We activate this lock at the end of inhalation to prevent air/chi/energy escaping, as well as stimulate the nerve endings that are at the tip of the tailbone.
The next lock is the abdominal lock. We aren’t flexing our abs per se, but we are bringing in the lower region of the abdomen below the naval once we have completed the anal lock during retention. What this does is massage the internal organs releasing stagnant blood and squeezes chi/energy/air up the spine.
The final is the neck lock. This is the easiest to apply. We contract our throat muscles and tuck our chins forward to close the throat.
What happens when we apply these locks and breathe rhythmically and regularly could fill a book. To make it simple, by applying these locks we are bringing spinal fluid up the spine and into the brain opening up our nerve centers throughout the body.
When doing these exercises really focus inward on your internal breaths, your heartbeat, and really become aware of your body, such as the sensations or the pain points you may need to put attention on. There are many benefits to establishing a regular regimen such as stress relief, boosting energy, better sleep, mental efficiency, improved digestion, better circulation, increased lung capacity, and improved athletic performance. We are alkaline by nature, but acidic by habit. Deep breathing re-alkalizes our body. Anything we can do to make our bodies less acidic, the better.
Stress relief is perhaps the most beneficial given our stress filled lives nowadays. Remember, the sympathetic is the ‘fight or flight’ system, where blood leaves the midsection to go to your limbs and extremities so you can literally fight, run, or hide. Therefore, if we are stressed constantly, our body can’t digest food the way it should or heal properly. By deep breathing we allow our bodies to get back to the equilibrium of the parasympathetic nervous system and our relaxed state that conserves our energy. As a people we are wound up and in that sympathetic nervous system too much and burning nerve energy 24/7.
Finally, some things you may notice when you start your breathing regimen is the feeling of heat in certain areas of the body, as well as tingling or numbing sensations. This is completely normal and should not be a concern. The heat is caused by cellular respiration and the accelerated movement of energy throughout your body. Numbness or tingling up the spine or your extremities happens for a similar reason. This is energy moving up your body via breath and oxygen. We are opening up these energy networks, and this is a good thing! When certain areas are deprived of blood, they tend to feel numb, like when your foot falls asleep. You may want to bring your focus to and breathe towards that area to get more energy to it. Once you get moving on your exercises these sensations should disappear, as your energy will have started to flow smoothly throughout your system.
Let’s live logically everyone by exercising our lungs and energy networks, so we can rest, heal, and get creative!
Breathe, my friends!