The Breathing Cure

Feeling stressed? Sleepless? Scattered? These five simple breathing techniques can restore your sense of well-being

by Jennifer Matlack
Photograph: Illustration: Brian Stauffer

2. The Memory-Boosting Breath
If you can’t recall where you parked the car or left your cell phone, breathing through just your left nostril may help, say Indian researchers. Adults ages 20 to 45 who practiced this breathing technique had a 16 percent boost in spatial memory, which is key for navigating complex areas such as parking lots and remembering spatial relations between objects (psst: Your phone is in the kitchen between the coffee maker and knife block). “When you inhale through your left nostril, you activate nerve endings toward the back of the nose that stimulate the para-sympathetic system,” explains study author Shirley Telles, PhD, head of the Indian Council of Medical Research Center for Advanced Research in Yoga and Neurophysiology in Bangalore, India. Left-nostril breathing appears to put you in a state of mind that’s both restful and alert, Telles speculates.

Try it: Gently press the fleshy side of your thumb against your right nostril. Inhale and exhale through your left nostril 27 times. Repeat up to four times a day.

3. The Brain-Defogging Breath
There’s a faster way to sharpen your mind than going to Starbucks for a caffeine fix. In a 2012 study, Telles found that men who breathed through the right nostril entered a state conducive to being attentive. In a real-world setting, right-nostril breathing may improve alertness during long-distance driving or enhance concentration when you’re juggling multiple tasks. However, Telles warns that the technique slightly increases blood pressure by activating the sympathetic nervous system, which constricts blood vessels. “It should be used with care if you’re borderline hypertensive and avoided completely if you have hypertension,” she explains. The mechanism responsible for the brain boost: Nerve fibers at the back of the right nostril activate parts of the hypothalamus and other brain areas that control attention.

Try it: Press the fleshy part of your thumb against your left nostril. Inhale and exhale through your right nostril 27 times. Repeat up to four times a day.

4. The Energizing Breath
To fight bouts of fatigue—in the afternoon, say, when you need to feel revitalized at the office, or in the evening when you’d rather curl up on the couch than go out and socialize—ramp up the pace of your breathing. Short, fast rhythmic breaths increase energy and provide a quick pick-me-up, says Seppala. This technique is known as the bellows breath, or -bhastrika. Sit in a comfortable

position and place your hands on your abdomen. Inhale forcefully through your nose, expanding your belly (the reverse of what usually happens when you breathe). Then exhale forcefully, contracting your belly. Continue to alternate inhales and exhales of equal duration. Keep your shoulders, head and neck relatively still while you’re breathing. The result of this practice? You feel as if you’ve just participated in a rousing bout of exercise. Studies using electroencephalography to measure brain activity have found that bellows breathing stimulates the central nervous system, causing an increase in energy that’s followed by a feeling of calmness—much like the effects of a brisk walk.

Try it: Practice three rounds, 15 to 20 complete breaths per round. To watch a video of this technique, click here.

First published in the March 2014 issue

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