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Breathing Exercises for Optimum Performance

[Video transcript:] Welcome to the Human Performance Resource Center video for mind-body skills [with Audrey Schoomaker, a certified mind-body practitioner, nurse, and yoga therapist]. This video [at] will explore three breathing techniques: two that will relax you (Deep Breathing and Alternate Nostril Breathing) and one (Bellows Breath) that will get you pumped up and primed for action. Let’s get started.

Relaxation and Deep Breathing Exercises
When we are stressed in our minds, that stress finds its way into our bodies in many ways. Most notably, our breathing becomes shallow and in the chest, sort of high up, making it impossible to breathe deeper into the belly. It causes diminished endurance and often produces tension in the neck and shoulders. When we reverse this process through slow, deep breathing, we elicit a relaxation response in the body. Tension that was produced in the neck and other parts of the body gets released. We relax. We relieve anxiety from our mind as we clear tension from the body.

A downloadable and printable version of "Breathing Exercises for Optimum Performance" can be found here [PDF].

Strategy #1 Deep Breathing

Step 1: Find your way into a comfortable seated position: knees supported, spine elongated, back straight. You may want to roll your shoulders forward, up, back, and down, and hold your shoulders slightly back and slightly down. If you would rather, you can lie down and get comfortable, but keep your spine straight. If you choose to lie down you may want to put a pillow under the backs of your legs to support your lower back.

Step 2: Begin by placing your hands on your belly [abdomen].

Step 3: Inhale into your belly and feel it fill with air as your hands rise up [move outward].

Step 4: Hold your breath there [as you] move your hands to your ribs.

Step 5: Inhale into your ribs, feeling them flare out, feeling the back of your lungs in the middle part of your body fill with air.

Step 6: Slowly [continue to] inhale into the top part of your chest, all the way up, maybe feeling it in the back of your shoulders even—just noticing where the breath goes.

Step 7: Exhale slowly, feeling the breath leave the tops of your lungs, the middle part of your lungs, and the lower part of your lungs, fully exhaling by pressing your navel to your spine, squeezing stale air out of the body.

Step 8: Inhale again in the same way through the belly, inhale through the ribs, and inhale into the chest.

Step 9: Exhale again, slowing the breath down, feeling this throughout your body, just breathing, and continue in this manner for about two minutes.

Strategy #2 Alternate Nostril Breathing

The next breathing technique that I’m going to demonstrate is Anuloma Viloma, or Alternate Nostril Breathing. Throughout the day, your dominant nostril [normally] alternates every two to three hours. Studies have shown that when we regulate oxygen through one nostril, there is more brain function in the opposite side. And so when we breathe in this way, we balance both the left and right hemispheres of the brain, promoting increased function. When we bring our hands in a [traditional] position with our top [first and second] fingers pressed down [and with third and little fingers extended], we can make space for us to breathe with minimal body movement. [However, you can use whatever fingers work best for you.]

Step 1: Press on the right nostril [with fingers] and inhale through the left nostril for four seconds.

Step 2: Hold your breath in for 16 seconds or as long as you can.

Step 3: When comfortable, press on your left nostril [with your thumb] and exhale through the right nostril for 8 seconds or as long as feels comfortable for you.

Step 4: Keep your left nostril closed and breathe in through your right nostril for 4 seconds.

Step 5: Hold your breath for 16 seconds or as long as is comfortable for you.

Step 6: Close your right nostril with your thumb and exhale through your left nostril for 8 seconds (or as long as is comfortable).

Step 7: Repeat this technique for at least two minutes, letting your breath get slow and steady, noticing when your body gives you a clear signal to stop holding your breath each time.

Repeat this way for up to five minutes, and just notice at the end of the breathing how you feel in your body and in your mind.

Strategy #3 "Bellows Breath"

The third type of breathing exercise that I’ll demonstrate here is “Breath of Fire,” sometimes referred to as “Bellows Breath.” The purpose of this method is to energize you and get you pumped up and primed for action [by increasing the oxygen flow to the body and the brain].

Step 1: [Bend your elbows and] bring your arms [hands] to your shoulders, hands in fists.

Step 2: Inhale, slightly bending your knees and reaching up overhead with your arms [as you inhale].

Step 3: When you exhale, bring your arms down like a bellows [as you straighten your legs]. [The complete inhale-exhale movement takes only about a second.]

Step 4: Finish by inhaling with arms overhead, and exhale slowly as you bring your arms down.

Step 5: Place your hands onto your belly; take in the breathing; take in the feeling of the energy you have created for yourself by breathing in this way.

Repeat as long as feels comfortable, starting with one minute for beginners, but no longer than five minutes.