We breathe 15,000 to 20,000 times every single day, and the way we do transforms our experience of life. Via nose or mouth, right nostril or left, belly expansion or chest expansion, longer inhale or longer exhale, rhythmically or erratically, slowly or quickly, mindfully or inattentively, the way we choose to breathe (and it is a choice) is powerful.
In 2022, I took a year-long breathwork course with Seattle yoga teacher and Ayurvedic counselor Ellie Rose that remodeled my understanding of breath. As part of the course, our crew of 12 yoga teachers committed to daily breath awareness and pranayama — breath practice, attending to and intentionally modifying our breath 20 minutes a day, and often more.
Throughout the course I observed tremendous changes in myself and my colleagues, as we shared our experiences and inspired one another to keep at it. One student's frequent, intense and longstanding panic attacks stopped without recurrence by month four. Another student was able to cease snoring, according to her auditorily-vigilant app, and wake rested with regularity for the first time in her memory. A third student was relieved of her frequent need for her asthma inhaler. Several students were freed of insomnia. My Raynaud’s syndrome, in which my fingers turned white and blue with stress or mild cold exposure, evaporated.
All of us gained energy and vitality. And all of us unearthed an ever-accessible, free tool — breath — to change our mood and impact our nervous system, inviting ease and vitality.
As Robin Rothenberg emphasizes in her book “Restoring Prana,” pranayama involves more than mere awareness of breath; it involves active and constructive modification of breath. Whereas awareness of subconscious breathing patterns is an eye-opening first step, tangible, lasting shifts come with a daily practice of breath pattern modulation. Fortunately, pranayama becomes easier and more fulfilling over time, and its fruits nurture every moment of our lives.
Breath observation: Begin by observing your own breath with curiosity. Notice the rhythm of your breath. When is it steady? When does it error toward erratic? How do you breathe when you feel stressed versus joyful versus angry? Do you sigh? When? Do you hold your breath at times? When? Do you breathe through your nose or your mouth? Does that change with exercise? How do your belly and chest move when you inhale and when you exhale? I would suggest that you note daily observations in a journal, documenting patterns over several weeks.
Subtle breathing: There are a plethora of breathing practices that foster wellbeing, each with unique benefits such as relaxation, enhanced energy, improved cognitive and athletic performance and mood brightening. Some of these practices include short breath suspensions, silent mantra breathing, bee breathing, breath of fire, nadi shodhana and subtle breathing. I find subtle breathing to be especially beneficial, an ideal practice to begin with.
For the subtle breathing practice, begin by taking a comfortable seated position with one hand on your belly and one hand on your heart. Close your mouth in order to breathe solely through your nose. Initiate a soft, slow and rhythmic breath pattern. Cultivate a subtle quality such that if you place your hand 4 inches in front of your nose you can barely feel your breath.
Now attend to your belly and chest, fostering easeful movement in your belly and diaphragm yet stillness in your chest. As you inhale your belly expands. As you exhale your belly moves softly in and up, very, very gently engaging your transverse abdominals like you are zipping up snug jeans. Remember to allow your auxiliary breathing muscles above your diaphragm — scalenes, pectoralis, trapezius and intercostal muscles — to remain at rest.
The goal is to foster a slight air hunger — desire to take in more air — while breathing slowly with complete calm. The air hunger piece is key, both because it helps us maintain awareness of our breath and because it counterintuitively heralds improved oxygenation of our tissues as well as an easeful nervous system. If the air hunger ignites any strain or chaos into your mind or breath, you have reduced your breath volume too much. Maintain an air hunger level only to the extent that you feel you could maintain your light breath volume and slow, relaxed rhythm with ease for a long time.
I invite you to notice how your mindset shifts when you breathe in this subtle way. What other changes do you notice? Does your temperature change? Warmth in your fingers and increased saliva in your mouth can be indicators you're breathing subtly, successfully riding the edge of air hunger. This breath not only invites calm alertness in the moment, but it shifts the set point of the nervous system over time into the parasympathetic state of rest, digest and heal — versus the sympathetic state of fight, flight and freeze.
Subtle breathing reduces overall breath volume by about 30 percent, which increases blood carbon dioxide levels. This leads to blood vessel dilation and enhanced oxygenation of the cells and organs, due to the Bohr effect, which in turn increases cellular production of adenosine triphosphate, enhancing energy and vitality.
Aim for two minutes to start, working up to 20 minutes a day or more. It is normal for your mind to wander during the exercise, but every time you notice your mind begin to wander, gently bring your attention back to your breath, returning to the subtle breath and the edge of air hunger. As you gain proficiency it can be fun to incorporate the subtle breath into other activities such as washing dishes, driving, yoga, walking and even working.
Initially It may be helpful to find a practitioner to provide guidance; I often help patients attend to and shift their breathing patterns now, and they find it transformative. Robin Rothenberg's “Svadhaya Breath Journal” is likewise an excellent aid in bringing awareness to and unlocking the power of breath. So too is the free Buteyko Clinic app. Happy breathing!
Annie Lindberg is a licensed practitioner and the owner of The Point Acupuncture and Ayurveda in Madison Park