I first learned about breathwork as pranayama through yoga practice, moving through poses synchronized with breathing. And later Dr Andrew Weil taught me about the 4-7-8 breathing technique during my Integrative Medicine fellowship at the University of Arizona.
I have found breathwork to be deceptively simple and yet enormously underrated as a healing modality. Dr Weil has long been a proponent of breathwork, noting that “Practicing a regular, mindful breathing exercise can be calming and energizing and can even help with stress-related health problems ranging from panic attacks to digestive disorders.”
The science of breathwork and breathing techniques have been richly detailed by James Nestor in the book “Breath: The new science of a lost art.” While more work is needed to validate early studies, suffice it to say that modern research appears to support the healing properties of ancient breathing practices through a variety of complex mechanisms.
Despite these various positive experiences with breathwork, and considerable success with yoga, I believed for the longest time that I lacked the patience to do sitting practice. I felt like I had to be moving my body while also practicing breathwork, as if to sit and breathe were somehow not productive enough.
I had been curious enough to try to learn taichi, a form of qigong practice, a couple of times, but it didn’t take. And even when the opportunity came up, I will admit to feeling less than enthused about the idea of attending a four day sitting meditation qigong class. I basically only attended because I was keeping my mom company in class.
Our teacher started by teaching us how to sit comfortably at the outer edge of a chair and how to position the tip of our tongues against the hard palate. She then instructed us to take short inhales (like a quiet sniff), followed by longer slow exhales.
Of course I wanted to revert to my familiar ujjayi yoga breathing at first, but the teacher gently encouraged me to release other ideas or techniques I may have learned. I was to envision drawing the air in through my nose and directing it downwards towards my energy core or dan tian, located just below my navel.
We started with 20 minute sessions, which were gradually extended to 120 minutes over the course of four days. After each session, the teacher went around the room and asked each student to share their experience. At first I noticed only some sleepiness (which is totally normal). Then I began to notice increased production of saliva, relief from mild nasal congestion, and achiness from prolonged sitting.
Anyone who has tried to meditate can tell you that it is a challenge to quiet the mind. After all, our minds can have up to 40,000 thoughts per day. But when I was able to focus on directing my breath downward and to let go of thoughts, I began to experience a lightness and softening in my body.
In Chinese medicine, it’s known as breaking through the qi channels or meridians. To my biomedical brain, it was more about creating the habit of focusing on the breath and noticing what was happening internally, whether with physical sensations or thoughts.
Letting go of thoughts meant just not engaging in that moment, which also allowed the mind to be free of emotion. Just allowing or surrendering to the breath cycle led to a stillness and weightlessness that I would attribute to signaling within the parasympathetic nervous system (ie vagal nerve) and release of endorphins.
Ready to try it?
If you already have a meditation practice, it’s easiest enough to try out a new breathing practice. If you don’t, I’d encourage you to get an app or turn on some spa music for 5-10 minutes.
Step 1: Sit on the outer third of a chair with legs apart, leaning forward slightly, with your hands resting gently on your thighs in a soft tripod stance.
Step 2: Position the tip of your tongue against the back of your two upper front teeth and close your eyes.
Step 3; Take a short inhale like a silent sniff, and then a long slow exhale. Do this at least 10 times to begin with.
Step 4: Focus on the breath coming in where the nostrils meet and envision drawing that short inhale into your nose, then redirecting the breath out slowly downwards towards the navel.
There are numerous breathing techniques to explore and try. Breathwork is free, always available to us, and takes very little time to learn. I have found this yuan qi 原气 practice to be extraordinarily calming, and wonderful for sleep. Something new to consider for the new year of the Tiger.