There is breathing, and then there is breathing.
The first one is the unconscious breathing that happens automatically, organically, because, of course if we are alive we are breathing. That is the breathing of our medulla and pons, parts of our brainstem that coordinate our basic functions of living. Of course we are breathing 🙂 If we are alive we must be breathing.
The second one is breathing, in a more conscious way. This breathing is intentional, purposeful, and focused. Unconscious breathing keeps us alive. sustains us, while conscious breathing connects us to others. When we breathe consciously, we are more likely to be present.
Conscious breathing regulates us, communicating with the autonomic nervous system when we get off kilter, anxious or out of control. It’s a tool that comes in our humanity tool box. A deep breath is a signal of safety. As humans, we are always alert to make sure we are safe.
There are many types of conscious breathing practices, and here’s three that I like and use the most:
- 4-7-8 Breathing
Each day, I do my “B1,” which is two 4-7-8 cycles, where each cycle is four total breaths. This breathing is a type of breathing in which you breathe in through the nose for 4 counts, hold for 7, and exhale through the mouth for 8 counts. That’s a total of 19 seconds for one breath, and 76 seconds for four. Dr. Andrew Weil calls it a natural tranquilizer. I love how in 76 seconds this makes me feel centered and calm. I even found an app called Breathe which is my timer and tracker. All it does is guide you through a four-breath cycle, and track it for you on a calendar. Push the button, breathe, finish and celebrate ala B.J. Fogg’s Tiny Habits.
2. 6-2-7 Centering Breath
Another of my favorite conscious breathing techniques is a 6-2-7 centering breath. For me, this is a more situational type of conscious breathing, for moments when I am dialed in too high and want to calm down quickly, or when I am feeling stressed or anxious. For example, a 6-2-7 breath is perfect in the middle of an intense tennis match, in between points or before serving. It’s how I tell my autonomic nervous system that everything is okay, and I can get present for the next moment of competition.
3. Flip the Switch
My newest breathing technique is a ‘flip the switch’ breath from Brian Johnson and my Optimize friends. The ‘flip the switch’ breath extends a 6-2-7 centering breath and takes it further, because it has a mood elevator and an affirmation built right in. First, say hi to the best version of yourself, like “Hey amazing me,” or “Hi rockstar self.” Then, stand up tall, with chest up and chin down. Smile to yourself (because smiling changes everything!) and take a nice deep breath through the nose, down to the belly and then exhale (longer than the inhale) through the nose. You can use the 6-2-7 cadence for the breath, and add the other elements. “Nose, low and slow” is what Oxygen Advantage author Patrick McKeown calls it. Boom, flip the switch! Ready and present for the next moment.
Conscious breathing is a beautiful tool that we have in our humanity tool box, if we remember to use it. It’s a way to communicate with the autonomic nervous system when we get off kilter, anxious or out of control. It’s a built in mindfulness tool, a way to connect us to others, and when we breathe consciously, we are more likely to be present. Breathe, be alive, more connected, to self and others.