Leaning into the Exhale: How to Use Your Breath to De-Stress
With the hectic holiday season just around the corner and with all the craziness going on in the world, we need a way to stay calm, centered and relaxed. So this month I want to talk about using breathwork for preventing and eliminating stress, work-life balance, and relaxation.
My friend and multiple world record holder Stig Severinsen sums up the anti-stress, anti-anxiety breathing rule of thumb in this way: “relaxation is in the exhalation.” What that means is, if you want to relax, stay calm, or reduce your anxiety, you need to learn how to “lean into the exhale.”
You see, when you inhale, you automatically activate the sympathetic branch of your autonomic nervous system (the fight or flight response); and when you exhale, you naturally activate the parasympathetic branch of your ANS (the rest and recover mode).
In Chapter 2 of my upcoming book, Just Breathe, I talk about the connection between breathing and the nervous system; and in Chapter 3 we go more deeply into it. Here, I’d just like to give you a couple of quick tips on how to use your breath to counter stress, tension, nervousness or anxiety.
Have you noticed that when the pressure is on, the top athletes and artists in the world take a conscious breath? Have you noticed that they breathe just before they shoot, swing, throw, kick, or dive? That’s not a coincidence. High performers and people who work in high stakes or life or death situations use their breath to manage their psychological, emotional, and physiological state. And you can do the same.
When you notice yourself becoming stressed or upset, tense or anxious, do this:
1. stop and focus on your breath for a few moments
2. then give yourself a couple of deliberate sighs of relief
3. loosen your jaw, neck, and shoulders as you exhale
4. use the exhale to drop into a place of stillness and peace within
After a few of these soothing sighs of relief, focus on lengthening the exhale, and relaxing more deeply as you do. Begin to make your exhales at least twice as long as your inhales. Then take the relaxation even further: when the air stops coming out, continue to exhale mentally or energetically. Imagine that you are continuing to exhale.
From the outside, it will seem that you are holding your breath after the exhale, but on the inside, your experience should be that you are continuing to exhale. The idea is to “ride” the exhale down into a place of peace and stillness. Remain soft and loose as you drop deeper into this place of open relaxation.
If you make your inhale fuller or bigger, if you gently give your inhale a little extra stretch or expansion, then you will trigger a more powerful release on the exhale, and you will trigger the relaxation response.
Practice making the exhales longer. Start by inhaling for a count of 2 and exhaling for a count of 4, then continue to mentally exhale or rest in the pause after the exhale for an additional count of 4… Then maybe inhale for a count of 3 and exhale for a count of 6, adding an open pause at the end of the exhale for an additional count of 6.
Remember to continue to exhale energetically or imagine exhaling mentally after all the air stops coming out. Remaining relaxed and open, and continuing to lean into the exhale… letting go more deeply…
With practice, you can get free of stress and tension and return to a state of peace and relaxation, of comfort and calmness, with just one or two of these conscious breaths.
Good luck with your practice and many blessings on your path.