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

5. The Sleep-Inducing Breath
It’s 2 a.m. and you’re wide awake, staring at the bedroom ceiling. To combat insomnia, do your best imitation of Darth Vader’s deep and slightly noisy breathing. Known as ujjayi, this technique mimics the way we breathe during sleep. “It’s the breath of rest,” says Seppala, who has used the practice (among others) to successfully treat returning combat veterans for sleep disorders associated with PTSD. Seppala speculates that ujjayi affects the parasympathetic nervous system, probably by activating the vagus nerve, which runs from the brain stem through the neck and into the abdomen. “The vagus nerve links breathing with heart rate and many different functions throughout the body,” she says.

Try it: Close your mouth and inhale through your nose. Exhaling via your nose, constrict the back of your throat to make a hushing or ocean sound. Take no more than 10 full breaths, as more may energize you and keep you awake. For a demonstration, click here.

Meditate While Moving
If you want to relax but hate to sit still, the solution may be breath-walking, a kind of walking meditation in which leg stride is synched with breathing.

“It’s an active form of relaxing that boosts calmness and clarity,” says Jim Nicolai, MD, author of Integrative Wellness Rules: A Simple Guide to Healthy Living and former medical director of the Integrative Wellness Program at Miraval Resort and Spa in Tucson, Arizona. When you sit and meditate, there’s nothing to distract you from your internal chatter, Nicolai says. But when you breathwalk, your focus is directed outward as you try to match your inhales and exhales to the pace of walking. “It’s a quick way to quiet the mind and access the meditative state,” says Nicolai, who suggests practicing the exercise daily for five to 10 minutes.

To start, walk at a comfortable pace, then take one slow, deep breath to the count of four. Each count of the inhale will match one of four leg strides. When you reach the end of the inhalation, i.e., the end of the fourth stride, begin to exhale, again counting to four. “Once you practice and get into a groove, each ‘step’ in your breath will link together and blend harmoniously, creating a wavelike pattern of rises and falls for each step you take,” says Nicolai.
When you’ve mastered this, you can stay engaged by counting differently. For example, inhale to four, but exhale to eight. Or combine the technique with running, hiking, cycling or swimming; as Nicolai points out, you can choose any activity that has a rhythmic nature.

Next: The Anti-Aging Benefits of Meditation

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First published in the March 2014 issue

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