What could be more basic than breathing? Inhale, exhale, repeat…right? Not exactly. While Western science and medicine focuses on breathing as a bodily function integral to survival, Eastern health sciences approach it as nourishment for both body and spirit. The Chinese believe that mindful breathing, or “breathwork,” has numerous benefits, including improved focus and efficiency, increased positivity, and greater physical and mental energy. Traditional Chinese medicine practitioner Alex Tan suggests following these steps to get started:
1. Get comfortable. Tan recommends standing or sitting with your spine straight, your neck elongated, and the crown of your head reaching up toward the sky. Relax your muscles completely—if necessary, concentrate on each muscle group as it loses tension and relaxes.
2. Observe your breath. Become conscious of your breathing and notice any patterns. Are you breathing slowly or quickly? Do your breaths come easily or are they labored? Recognize the continuous cycle of breathing in and breathing out.
3. Concentrate on inhaling and exhaling. Become mindful of each inhale and exhale. As you inhale, fill your lungs fully with air, expanding your belly to allow the the lungs to fill completely. Push all of the air out with the exhale as slowly as possible. Begin to shift your focus primarily to controlling your exhalation, which will lead to slower, more controlled breathing overall.
4. Breathe through your nose. Inhale and exhale only through the nose. Your mouth should be closed with your tongue pressed against the roof, but your teeth should be relaxed and unclenched.
5. Keep your mind present. The goal of breathwork is to focus on each breath and the cycle of breathing. If you start thinking about your to-do list or let your mind wander, you’ll no longer be in control. Be mindful of each breath as your lungs fill with oxygen on the inhale and slowly release it on the exhale. Concentrate on the process of breathing in and out, or focus your attention on your abdomen as it expands and contracts with each breath.
6. Consider timing. Breathwork can be practiced any time, but Tan recommends doing it early in the morning to prepare your body and mind for the day ahead. Try incorporating it into these exercises for a more mindful morning. Wait at least an hour after eating to begin, and don’t drink anything cold for a half an hour after you’ve finished a session. No matter what time of day you choose for mindful breathing, Tan advises making it a regular practice at the same time each day as regularity is important to overall wellness.
Once you can breathe mindfully, it becomes easier to be present in other parts of your life. Soon, you’ll be able to meditate without trying at all.