Breathing seems easy enough. If you’re lucky, you never have to think about it because your breath comes naturally, unimpeded, without any effort at all.
Still, learning how to breathe thoughtfully is important. Our breath and our health are inextricably linked and you can change your mental and physical state by understanding the ins and outs of your inhales and exhales, according to Ashley Neese, a breath specialist.
Neese teaches people how to breathe. She works with groups and individuals on cultivating awareness of their life force so they can use it mindfully to relax, feel happier, and even overcome lifelong traumas. Her new book, How to Breathe, released in April, tells a brief history of the breath as part of ancient spiritual and heath practices like meditation and yoga, and looks at the current science of breathing. It also provides 25 simple exercises that you can do at home to get in touch with the wind that blows through your body and gives you vitality.
“We are learning today through neuroscience research that a number of nerve cells in the brain stem connect breathing to different states of mind,” Neese writes. “This research is significant because it confirms what thinkers, healers, and mystics have known for ages; we have the power to shift our thinking by changing the way we breathe. And since it’s already common knowledge that our thoughts affect our overall health, energy, and well-being, it’s safe to conclude that changing our breathing can have a global effect on our entire body.”
Neese points out that adults typically breathe 12 to 20 breaths per minute, taking in oxygen and releasing carbon dioxide. About a quarter of the oxygen we inhale is used by the brain. Our breath is the “natural detoxifier” that keeps our minds and bodies clean and clear. You can use your inhalations and exhalations, then, to send a message to your nervous system, slow down your heart rate, and decrease stress whenever necessary.
The first exercise Neese offers is intended to have the opposite effect, however. “Just for fun,” she suggests, try holding your breath “while feeling joyful.” You will notice that it’s impossible. You can’t relax, and when you’re straining to breathe it becomes more difficult to think at all, much less appreciate the moment. Many of us go through life holding our breath unconsciously, and that’s what Neese is trying to correct with this exercise by making us more mindful.
The rest of the book targets particular feelings with specific movements and breaths. Here are a few to get you started on a practice of smart breathing.
The joy breath
If you do want to feel joyful, Neese has developed a three-minute pick-me-up intended to improve moods. She suggests you stand up tall with you feet hip-distance apart, bend your knees slightly, and let your arms rest at your side as you formulate the intention to feel joy. Then, take a few breaths, inhaling and exhaling through your nose only. Next, reach your arms upward as you inhale. Hold your breath for a couple of seconds, release your arms to your sides, and laugh out loud. Repeat this 10 times, being sure to breathe and laugh as deeply as possible.
You might feel funny forcing laughs at first, and Neese admits it can be awkward. But, she writes, “The joy breath is an invitation to switch your brain and body chemistry, thus changing the way you feel from the inside out.” She contends that joy is contagious and that if you practice this exercise, alone or with others, you’ll find this great feeling can be cultivated “with intention and willingness.”
Shifting negative thinking
If you’re stuck in a mental loop and keep ruminating over the same old thoughts, fear not. Neese has another quick fix for what she calls “your self-care tool kit,” which shifts your perceptions so that you can see more clearly and feel better immediately. She notes that it’s natural for the brain to focus on negativity, the things that go wrong, as this trait has helped humans survive for so long. But she argues that our “hardware is in need of an upgrade and that the breath can help us get there.”
For this exercise, stand up and set your intention to clear negative thoughts. Take three small consecutive breaths through your nose and then exhale through your mouth three times. Repeat these inhalations and exhalations for two full minutes and then rest for a minute, observing any changes in your mental state. “Breathing through the mouth in this practice helps to clear energy more quickly than an exhale through the nose,” Neese writes. “This can be a faster way to change our state, and in the case of a negative thought loop, can be very supportive for making that change happen quickly.”
The ability to bounce back from disappointments is critical to our mental and physical health. Increasingly, psychologists argue that more than any other skill, cultivating resilience ensures a high quality of life because the resilient individual is self-reliant and internally driven, able to deal with any circumstances and the many inevitable setbacks life presents.
Neese contends that we can use our breath to develop this skill. She says that her resilience breath-work, more than any of the other exercises she offers, “anchors you in the present [and] helps you feel alive.” Practicing this five-minute hack regularly will leave you feeling more flexible generally and with a deeper sense of self-worth, she says.
To get started, stand up tall with your feet hip-distance apart. Bend your knees. Let your arms rest at your sides as you set the intention to develop resilience. Breathe in out through your nose for a few cycles, then inhale deeply through your nose as you reach your arms out by your sides palms facing upward. Then slowly raise your arms above your head until your palms are facing each other in a prayer position. As you exhale, draw your palms down your midline, pausing briefly at your heart, and release your hands to your side. Repeat this cycle for three minutes, then relax with your arms at your side for a minute and reflect.
Neese recommends doing this exercise every morning before breakfast for a week. She believes that is all the time it will take for you to notice you can “uplift yourself, cultivate a stronger life force presence, and remind yourself that you’ve got this.”
It sounds too good to be true, perhaps, yet Neese swears by these free and easy exercises. Certainly, they seem worth trying.