The principles of breathwork, or controlled breathing, can be applied to any exercise or activity via the conscious manipulation and awareness of air flow entering and exiting the body. In addition to the transformative effects that breath training can impart to any specific training routine, breathwork, itself, can be taught as an isolated exercise with both meditative and restorative benefits.
I have outlined three specific types of breathing exercises, which I’ve learned and practiced over the past 10 years through my experience in the Russian Martial Arts. The physical mechanics of these exercises can appear quite simple, but the mental and emotional depth found within them can be as sophisticated as the participant allows. Remember, breathing is natural and fluid, and even when controlled it should not seem forced or irregular.
If you seem to lose your focus within the exercise and your breath becomes unnatural, you should stop immediately. Then, take a deep breath in through your nose... and blow out quickly through pursed lips. Restore yourself, as often as required, and then continue as you feel able.
Exercise #1 - WAVE BREATHING - Stress Reduction
1 - Lie in a relaxed position, preferably on the ground, and close your eyes
2 - Breathe in gently through your nose, and out through your mouth
3 - Gently contract the muscles of your feet (no more than 50% tension) as you inhale, guiding the air into the lower body and relaxing everything above your ankles
4 - Slowly relax the muscles of your feet as your exhale, returning your body to baseline state
5 - On the next inhale, contract your feet and then bring your breath and muscle contractions higher up the body to the knees, still making sure not to tense even the tiniest bit above these areas (especially in the face)
6 - Exhale and release the knees, and then follow with relaxing the feet completely
7 - You can sequentially move the breath up the body, and down the body, as if you were lying on the beach and the tide was rising and receding beneath you
8 - Bring the breath flow and muscle contractions to a level no higher than your neck, always making sure to keep your face soft, pleasant-looking, and free from anxiety or tension
This is a fantastic exercise to be done at night after a long, stressful day of work or training. The key to your success with it is in your ability to “specifically” isolate just the areas you are targeting with your breathing, and completely relaxing everything else. There is a serene, almost meditative quality to this exercise that makes it appropriate for any person and condition.
Exercise #2 - STRETCHING YOUR BREATH - Walking Endurance
1 - Walk, strut, or stroll at a comfortable and even pace (eg. around the park)
2 - Breathe in over 2 steps (ie. halfway at each step), then
3 - Breathe out over the next 2 steps (ie. 4 steps equals one breath cycle)
4 - When you are ready, progress your breathing in over 3 steps (ie. one-third at each step), “stretching” it across a full, and even inhalation
5 - Breathe out over the next 3 steps (ie. 6 steps equals one breath cycle
6 - Eventually progress your inhale/exhale repetitions in a sequential manner to a target number that feels challenging, but not distressing
7 - When finished, restore yourself with deep, pursed breathing until you feel relaxed
This is a very challenging variation of breath training, because the purpose of the exercise is to gradually bring yourself to a self-imposed limit, which is inherently uncomfortable. The key to reaping benefit with this method of training is by making sure the volume of air breathed in and out is at even, smooth increments. The movement of air flow is not staccato, or step-like as if on a graph, but fluid, and sinusoidal. Do not make yourself distressed or panicked! The goal is to improve your lung capacity and regulate your sympathetic nervous system. Always restore yourself with recovery breathing until you feel relaxed and able to breathe in a normal manner again. You should feel tired, but refreshed and not exhausted.
Following an type of rigorous activity, your breathing may be rapid, and seem exhausted and difficult to control. Use the next exercise to help yourself recover more calmly and efficiently.
Exercise #3 - PYRAMID BREATHING - Recovery
1 - Stretch your breath in over a count of 2 seconds (ascending the pyramid)
2 - Stretch your breath out over a count of 2 seconds (descending the pyramid)
3 - Don’t breathe for a count of 2 seconds (base of the pyramid)
4 - Progress the count to 3 seconds as you see fit, until you feel restored
It is important to note that the concept of the “breath hold” is stigmatized in Western Medicine, because of the potentially dangerous blood pressure fluctuations when practiced improperly. There are Eastern disciplines that can take breath holding to extremes, such that they should only be undertaken with careful guidance and medical supervision. The restorative exercise of pyramidal breathing is not a “breath hold” exercise, and should by no means create tension, anxiety, or any blood pressure consequence. If, however, you have any personal concerns because of your medical history, you should definitely discuss them with your doctor first.
Much of what has been discussed is but a small, generalized, helpful introduction to the seemingly infinite world of breathing exercises found spotted across ancient cultures around the globe. You may already be familiar with breathing used in the Indian discipline of Yoga, the Chinese Tai Chi, or even the Russian martial art of Systema.