Disclaimer – Should you choose to practice the breathing techniques below, please pay careful attention to the effects they have on your body, especially if you are a beginner. Stop if you experience sensations such as lightheadedness, nausea, or shortness of breath. I am not a medical professional, and the information you will learn is not a substitute for medical treatment. Please consult appropriately with your doctor, especially if you have any underlying physical conditions.
How many times a day do you stop and notice or intentionally change your breath? Breathing comes naturally to all of us – it literally gives us life – but did you know that controlling your breath can provide additional benefits? Various breathing techniques can help regulate the nervous system in positive ways.
First, take a deep breath.
What did you notice? Was the breath quick and forceful or was it slow and steady until you couldn’t inhale any more? Did your shoulders shrug or did your chest or belly puff out?
Noticing these physical cues can help us tune in to what is going on in our nervous system. Any time our shoulders shrug and live near our ears, that sends a signal to our brain that we are in danger. It activates the “fight or flight” part of our nervous system. By consciously moving our breath to a different part of our body and slowing down the pace of our breath cycles, we can cue our nervous system that it’s ok to go into the “rest and digest” state.
So how do we do this? Keep reading for two of my favorite breathing techniques to engage the “rest and digest” part of our nervous system, thus having a calming effect on our mind and body.
The first is called the “Take 5”. I first learned about this technique while attending TCEA’s Campus Technology Specialist Academy in 2020. Kristen McKenney Baggett taught it as part of her “Early Riser Yoga” session, and I love how it combines the breath with tactile sensation.
To perform this technique, simply hold out one hand with fingers spread wide in front of you. With the index finger of your other hand, start at the base of the thumb near the wrist. Inhale has you trace a line up to the tip of your thumb. Exhale as you come down the other side of your thumb. Inhale as you trace a line up to the tip of your index finger, and exhale and you trace down the other side of your index finger. Repeat on all fingers of your hand.
This is something subtle you and your students can do when you are feeling stressed or anxious. You can even use it as a visual cue or reminder when you notice someone else getting stressed. Hold up your hand and remind them to “Take 5.” Whether you are standing in a long line and someone cuts in front of you or your students are about to take a test, there is something especially calming about combining your breath with the physical touch of your fingers. It is so simple yet incredibly useful in cultivating a sense of calm.
Bhramari Pranayama (“bee breathing”)
The second is Bhramari Pranayama (sometimes referred to as “bee breathing”). This is my personal favorite and one of the best exercises you can do to calm the mind and reduce anxiety as well as lower blood pressure. It can be practiced anywhere and is nearly instantaneous in getting rid of agitation, frustration, or stress. The simplest way to describe this breathing technique is that you hum on the exhale. The vibrations created from this type of breath also can be beneficial in loosening sinus mucus or pressure. In my experience, I have also found the added benefit of getting on my knees and forearms and letting my head hang to get my head below my heart while performing this type of breath. Again, that is a personal preference. You do you, and if this is your first time, I suggest trying this type of breath work while seated.
There are a couple of options in performing Bhramari Pranayama or bee breathing. However, the most simple way to do this type of breathing is to inhale deeply through the nose and make a gentle humming sound as you exhale through the nose. As you hum on your exhale, you should feel the sound vibrations in your body. That humming sound will be reminiscent of a bee buzz; it also reminds me of a cat purring. I don’t know if any of you own a cat or have ever held a cat while it’s purring, but cat purrs have magical healing powers for cultivating calm in humans (“not scientifically proven”). This is your chance to provide that magical healing for yourself. You are relaxing from the inside out.
Whichever option you choose, take a few moments when you are done to notice how your body feels. Did your heart rate slow down? Are the contractions and expansions with each inhale and exhale slower and more controlled? Do you “feel” calmer? Hopefully, at least one of the techniques resonated with you so now you have a helpful tool the next time you start to feel stress creeping into your life. Let me know your thoughts below.