RPB Week Four – Breathing for Relaxation

Reviewing the four breathing adaptations outlined in the introduction to this ‘The Mind Body Connection’ part of this course.

  1. Location of expansion
  2. Speed
  3. Rhythm
  4. Mouth or Nose

We know that more relaxed breathing will mean that the expansion of the body in mainly low in the abdomen, the speed of the breathing is slow, the rhythm will involve a relatively long relaxed inhalation and the air will be passing in and out through the nose.

When you are trying to relax that is quite a lot to think about!  So the exercises we will be working with this week will actually just focus on one of these adaptations at a time.  What we will find is that when we successfully change one of these factors, the other tend to naturally want to change as well.  We will be working with the factors of speed and rhythm, but you will find that naturally as you work on these, the expansion of your body will naturally be more from your abdomen and you will naturally want to breathe through your nose as you progress into these exercises.

Extending the Breath – Breathing for Relaxation

One useful method for doing this is to simply count the length of our inhalation and our exhalation.  Just seeing how long each of them is to begin with.  They may be quite short if you are very stressed or have been very active, and they may be quite different lengths from each other.  Equalize the length of the inhalation and the exhalation by making them both the same length as the one that was shortest.  Once you are comfortable breathing at this rate, extend the inhalation and the exhalation by one count each.  Again breathe at this rate until you are comfortable and then extend both the inhalation and the exhalation by another count each.  Repeat until you have reached the breathing rate you desire and feel relaxed, or until you start to feel uncomfortable extending the breath any further.

The rate at which we breathe has a very reliable relationship with our mental and physical state we breathe faster when we are in an excited state or under strenuous physical demands, and we breathe slower when our mind and body is relaxed.  A few rule of thumb guidelines for breathing rates are as follows

  • 1 second inhalation, 1 second exhalation or less – extreme physical exertion or mental excitement/stress
  • 2-3 second inhalation, 2-3 second exhalation – normal waking physical and mental activity
  • 7 second inhalation, 7 second exhalation – relaxed but alert activity, great for active forms of qigong energy work such as moving qigong exercises
  • 12 second inhalation, 12 second exhalation – deep relaxation, bridging the gap between conscious and unconscious awareness. Great for meditation.
  • Slower breathing… this can be useful for certain meditative practices, but there are dangers associated with this. Breathing at a slower  rate than 12 second inhalation and 12 second exhalation is not recommended without suitable skilled supervision.

You will notice in the ‘Extending the Breath’ exercise that you start by just counting and working with the rate you are already breathing at.  This is important. Trying to slow the breathing and the state of functioning of the body too quickly will cause internal resistance.  It is a bit like slamming on the brakes of your car too hard when you are travelling fast.  The results may be less than desirable.  It is better to slow down gradually little by little, the resulting relaxation will feel more natural and sustainable and not forced.

If you have already been practicing qigong exercises for some time, it is likely that you will be comfortable slowing your breathing down quite quickly and to quite a slow rate.  If you have not, it is common for many people to find that this is a gradual process.  For example if you habitually breath at a rate of 1 or 2 seconds per inhalation and exhalation and have not previously worked on deepening and slowing your breath, you may find that to begin with slowing down to a rate of 3 or 4 seconds per inhalation or exhalation is as much as you can do before it becomes uncomfortable to go slower.  This is fine, just keep practicing each day, or possibly even several times per day and it will get easier.  You will find that over the course of several days, or perhaps even several weeks it gets easier and easier for you to slow your breathing and you will find that it also becomes easier and easier for you to enter a relaxed physical and psychological state.

Balanced Breathing – The Rhythm of the Universe

There are an infinite variety of possible breathing rhythms which are useful in different contexts, several of which we will look at later on in this course.  For relaxation it is useful to start with one simple foundational breathing rhythm.  This rhythm is known as the rhythm of the universe and reflects the cycle from yin to yang, day to night, activity and rest.

When discussing extending the breath we looked at different benchmarks for breathing rates and the lowest recommended rate was an inhalation of 12 seconds and an exhalation of 12 seconds.  When we were just focusing on extending our breath, simply counting the length of the inhalation and exhalation was sufficient.  For our balanced breathing we will work with this same rate of breathing, but we will add a little more nuance to it to bring it more into harmony with the rhythm of the universe.

When we consider the 12:12 rhythm, we can think of it as yin and yang, twelve hours of day and twelve hours of night, twelve hours of activity and twelve hours of rest, each in balance with the other.  Another way to express this in a more nuanced way would be 8:4:8:4.  This represents 8 hours of day, four hours of dusk, 8 hours of night, four hours of dawn.  This also better represents a healthy activity and rest pattern.  8 hours of work, four hours of travel, eating, recreation and so on before 8 hours of sleep, then 4 hours of breakfast, exercise, other preparations and travel before 8 hours of work again.

Tuning in to this rhythm is very relaxing and balancing, there is sufficient time for everything we need.  A time for work and activity, a time for rest, and time for transitioning between the two.

To tune into this rhythm, we breathe in for a count of 8, pause for a count of 4, breathe out for a count of 8 and then pause for a count of 4.  The pauses create important periods of rest within the breath which allows for healthy update of oxygen and expelling of carbon dioxide from the blood.

It helps if we think of the pauses as smooth transitions.  Sometimes when using a rhythm such as this, people think of each phase as rigidly separate, in which case the rhythm would look something like this:

Square Wave Breathing

The more natural and gentle way for us to use this rhythm is more like this, where the transitions are smooth.  It may not seem like much is happening at the top or bottom of the curve, you can compare it a bit to the moment of weightless feeling at the top of a rollercoaster or of the motion of a swing, but there are important changes of internal pressure going on within the stillness, preparing for the next phase of motion.

Sine Wave Breathing

Exercise: Sit comfortably and gradually slow and deepen your breath.  You can use the breath extending method of counting the inhalation and exhalation to slow your breathing if you like.  Once your breathing has slowed and deepened sufficiently begin to harmonize its rhythm with the universe.  Breathe in for a count of eight, pause for a count of four, breathe out for a count of eight, pause for a count of four.  Try to make the patterns between phases smooth and gentle rather than sudden and sharp.

Continue this pattern for ten or more breaths.

Traditionally the count for this exercise would be heartbeats.  However, if you find it difficult to count your own heartbeat while concentrating on breathing, seconds is just fine as an approximation, or even just a nice regular counting speed of your own.

Having already practiced the wave breathing and the full body breathing, you will likely notice that your body slips into one of these patterns naturally as you slow and deepen your breath with this exercise.

This week’s practice sessions

This week our focus will be on slowing your breath and harmonizing it with the rhythm of the universe.  If you have already developed skill in these types of breathing you may move on to the next weeks exercises.  If not, then these are important skills to develop

  • Extending the Breath. Practice extending the breath as described above.  Start from whatever speed you are currently breathing at and then gradually lengthen each phase of your breath.  Once you are breathing slowly enough, start to regulate your breath to the 8:4:8:4 rhythm.  Practice for 20 minutes or more at a time to really embed this resting meditative pattern.
  • You may also like to try extending your breath in different situations such as when you are feeling stressed, or after (not during) strenuous physical activity. See how you feel after a few minutes of gently slowing your breathing down.  See if you notice other changes in the four breathing adaptations that coincide with the slowing of your breath.