Calming the Soul with Deep Breathing

By Jenny Fulton

Have you ever forgotten to breathe?

Wait. What?

Isn’t breathing an involuntary and automatic bodily function?

Well, yes, but, there’s more to it than that.

I received a glimpse of this fact in high school. Although I was a good runner, any time I lined up at the starting line for a long-distance race, I would yawn. While the other girls looked like cats about to pounce, I bore a closer resemblance to a cat ready to sleep. I couldn’t help it. As much as I fought the urge to yawn, my body always won.

A savvy coach finally filled me in. I was getting so nervous before the race that I was forgetting to breathe deeply enough for my body to get sufficient oxygen. To make up for this lack, I yawned.

Breathing. It sounds like such a simple thing. Apparently, though, the practice of deep breathing is an intentional act. It easily falls off the radar if we’re nervous, stressed, distracted, or in great pain. Its benefits reach beyond that of merely keeping us alive.

Benefits of Deep Breathing

Over the years, a number of studies have demonstrated the benefits of deep breathing. The results have shown this practice can: 

  • Reduce stress
  • Calm emotions
  • Reduce pain
  • Enable the body to relax
  • Enhance focus
  • Improve overall health

Why We Need It

  • Reduce Stress: Life can be stressful. Even though we live in a time in which life-expectancy is higher than ever, opportunities for fear and anxiety abound. For example:
    • The toddler is doing her best to prove true the old adage, “curiosity killed the cat.”
    • The teenager is using you as target practice for a future career in law or politics.
    • We never have enough time and energy for all the chores needing to be done.
    • Our family is plagued by one health problem after another.
    • Every news channel is highlighting a doomsday report of the coronavirus.
    • Your boss wants it done yesterday with resources you don’t have.
    • We desire and expect to present ourselves and our work to perfection.

We have a tendency to place ourselves, and sometimes others, under immense pressure to succeed at work and home. Utilizing deep breathing exercises is one way we can manage our stress in a positive way.

  • Calm Emotions: Our feelings can be difficult to deal with, understand, and name. We may get extremely angry without knowing why and may not know how to handle that anger. Extreme fear, sadness, or anxiety may unexpectedly overwhelm us. Deep breathing can quickly and efficiently help restore calm and focus, at least until we can analyze the emotions and deal more in depth with their source.
  • Reduce Pain: In the labor class for my first baby, the instructor taught us some deep breathing exercises to help us endure the contractions. My husband, John, learned them with me so he could encourage me in those moments. Other people perform these activities to enable them to better deal with chronic pain.  
  • Enable the Body to Relax: Stress, fear, and anxiety cause our muscles to tense. This can make it difficult for us to wind down and go to sleep at night. John frequently faces this challenge. Performing breathing exercises right before bed helps his body calm down and loosen up. When the muscles relax, the mind and emotions follow.
  • Enhance Focus: We often struggle with focusing on the tasks at hand. Deep breathing puts the emphasis on one simple job: breathe in, breathe out. This helps the mind put aside other distractions and readies it to pay attention to the work we need to do from one moment to the next (rather than check each of our social media accounts).
  • Improve Overall Health: As with many modern scientific findings, there is still much we don’t know, so this last point is to cover all the unknowns and acknowledge that, for one reason or another, engaging in regular deep breathing exercises is good for us.

Types of Deep Breathing Exercises

A quick Internet search will provide a wide variety of breathing exercises. For your convenience, I’ve summarized some I’ve found and organized them according to type. The links at the bottom will take you to sites with more breathing exercises and reveal my sources for each of the following.

Quick and Easy

  1. Focus on the Breath: Inhale deeply through your nose and exhale through your mouth. Pay attention to the air coming into your nostrils and to your stomach as it rises and falls with each breath. You can do this with your eyes open or closed, sitting or lying down.
  1. Protection Hands: Open your palms, bend your thumbs down, and wrap your fingers around them. This position invites you to focus inward. With your hands in these inward fists, rest your left hand on your left thigh and your right hand on your right thigh. Take a slow, deep breath in through your nose and a long, slow breath out through your mouth. Repeat this five times.

Fast Release

  1. Tension release: Take a deep breath and hold it as you curl your toes for about 5 seconds, then release your breath all at once. Take another deep breath and hold it as you tense your muscles one area at a time. Exhale in one forceful blow, immediately relaxing your muscles.
  1. Sigh the Blues Away: Inhale deeply through your nose. As you’re breathing in, tighten all your muscles and feel your shoulders rise to your ears. You may want to clench your fists, toes, and facial muscles. When you exhale through your mouth, relax all of your muscles, allow your shoulders to drop, and let out a big SIGH! Repeat this three times.
  1. Modified Lion’s Breath: Either sitting straight up on the floor or in a chair, imagine you’re a lion. Let out all of your breath with a big, open mouth. Breathe in through your nose and fill your belly with air. When you can’t breathe in anymore, open your mouth as wide as you can. Breathe out with a “HA” sound. Repeat several times.

Counted Breathing

  1. 8-4-7 breathing: Exhale through your mouth for 8 seconds. Inhale quietly through your nose for 4 seconds. Hold your breath for 7 seconds.
  1. Pursed Lips Breathing: Breathe in for 4 or 5 seconds, then exhale through pursed lips. This forces the air to take longer getting out than it did getting it, which helps to slow your breathing.
  1. The Deep-Dive Breath: In 4 or 5 second intervals for each section, inhale through your nose, hold your breath, and exhale through your mouth.
  1. Counted Breathing: Breathe in through your nose for 5 seconds, hold your breath for 3 seconds, then breathe out through your mouth for 5 seconds.

Visual Breathing

  1. Breathing Colors: Add an element of visualization and increased focus to the breathing process by incorporating colors. Imagine you’re breathing in one color and breathing out another. You can even assign thoughts or emotions to these colors – breathe out anger, breathe in forgiveness, breathe out stress, breathe in God’s peace…
  1. Triangle Breathing: Like the above exercise, this can help you increase your focus by adding another element of visualization. Close your eyes. As you’re breathing in, imagine you’re traveling up one side of an equilateral triangle (or mountain). As you breathe out, imagine you’re going down the other side and back to the starting point. This encourages you to breath out twice as long as you’re breathing in.
  1. Breath Focus: While you engage in deep breathing, use a picture in your mind and a word or phrase to help you feel more relaxed. Close your eyes. You may decide to imagine a place outside or some other place that makes you feel at peace and connected to God. As you breathe in, think on God’s love and peace. As you breathe out, imagine your stress, anxiety, tension, anger, etc. being pushed out with the air. You may want to try this with a word or phrase in mind. As you inhale, you might think, “I breathe in God’s love and peace.” When you exhale, you could think something like, “I breathe out my stress, fear, and anxiety.” Continue as needed.

Laying-down Breathing

  1. Laying Down Belly Breaths: Lie on your back in bed or on the floor with a pillow under your head and knees. Place one hand on your belly and the other on your chest. Breathe in through your nose. Feel your belly rise as it fills with air. Breathe out through your nose and feel your belly fall. The hand on your belly should move more than the one that’s on your chest.
  2. Progressive Muscle Relaxation: Lie comfortably on the floor and take a few deep breaths to relax as you get ready for this exercise. Then begin. As you breathe in, tense your foot muscles, then relax them as you breathe out. Do this again with your calf muscles, then thigh muscles, belly, chest, fingers, arms, shoulders, neck, and face.

Breathing Plus Movement

  1. Breathing with Movement: Complete a movement while you breathe. For example, you could slowly lift your arms as you inhale, then slowly lower them as you exhale. 
  1. Balloon Breaths: With your elbows relaxed, pretend you’re holding a large balloon in both hands. When you inhale, gently pull your fingers apart so there’s plenty of space between them. When you exhale, slowly bring your fingers back to gently touch. 

For more breathing exercises, and to check out my sources, take a look at these sites: WebMD, The Friendship Bench, Britannica Digital Learning, Willy Wood Teaching, Mindful Schools

A Simply Complex Wonder

Breathing. It’s a vitally simple function with incredible impact. As a runner, it enabled me to push myself farther and faster. In the midst of labor contractions, it helped me work through the pain. As a parent, it helps me calm down and resist the urge to lash out when I’m frustrated. Learning more about various breathing techniques has given me another tool to help myself and my children manage their energy and emotions. While it isn’t a miracle solution to every problem, it is one of the ways God has provided to help us calm our body, mind, and emotions. With the physical elements relaxed, we can better listen to and receive the spiritual peace of God as well.

Give some of these a try and let me know what you think! Are there other breathing exercises you do that I didn’t include? If so, I’d love to hear about them.

_ _ _

*Image by Phúc Mã from Pixabay

11 comments

  1. Jenny : Thanks so much for posting this ! This is vital to our health, and should be taught to everyone. The world would be a calmer place. I love the comment you made about toddlers, and teenagers….🤗
    I learned deep breathing techniques through taking vocal lessons years ago. Now that is my natural style of breathing, and it is so helpful, as you describe.
    A well oxygenated body functions well.
    Thanks for sharing also how it assists athletes and during Labour.
    I wish every medical clinic offered courses in breathing.
    God bless you for this post ! 🤗

    Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, Jenny , it is the basis of good singing. When I am watching a a singer, I watch to see if their shoulders rise when they sing. They shouldn’t, since the breathing should be coming from the abdomen. Most of our vocal lesson time was spent on breathing correctly. Again, thanks for sharing. This is a very comprehensive post !

        Liked by 1 person

  2. That is so interesting that your coach could tell that you weren’t breathing properly by a yawn! I have had anxiety my entire life and never knew to watch for that! I practice deep breathing on a regular basis so I really appreciate these methods. Thank you 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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