Feel like you haven’t taken a deep breath in eons? That’s because you probably haven’t, says Belisa Vranich, clinical psychologist and author of Breathe: 14 Days to Oxygenating, Recharging, and Fueling Your Body & Brain, who’s taught everyone from Fortune 500 employees to SWAT teams how to breathe for stress relief and endurance.
“We tend to breathe from our chest, which gives us access to only the very top of our lungs,” Vranich says. “We should be breathing from our belly. That’s what animals and babies do in a calm state.” Shallow breaths tell the body we’re in fight-or-flight mode, ready to run from a predator; belly breaths tell us all is well, so we’re free to rest and digest. That’s why deep breathing is essential for real relaxation, says Vranich. “You can take as many supplements and do as much aromatherapy as you want, but if you’re not breathing well, you’re not getting to the solution.”
Use this recovery breath — so called because it helps you recover your equilibrium — as a form of meditation in itself or as a way to calm the body before any other meditative practice.
1. Lying on your back with nothing under your head, put one hand on your belly and the other on your chest.
2. Inhale deeply through your mouth (which gets you more oxygen), watching your belly rise. Your bottom hand should be the only one that moves. Keep inhaling until your belly is extended and you feel you can’t take in any more air —then take in just a little bit more to “top off” the breath. You’ll sense the air coming from the upper part of your lungs. (It’s okay if you feel a little light-headed.)
3. Exhale through your mouth, pushing out all the air in one breath and feeling your belly contract. The exhale should take about the same amount of time as the two inhales; find your own rhythm and stick to it. Do as many as you can (you may max out at 20, or find you can go much longer). The more you do it, the easier it gets.
4. When you’re ready, let yourself return to a more natural rhythm of deep inhales and exhales, through your nose if you want. With each inhale, feel yourself floating a little higher, and with each exhale, sink a little deeper, letting your whole body relax.
5. Keep up that rhythm for five minutes or longer. This technique can serve as portable stress relief throughout the day — take a breath or two while sitting at a traffic light or during a tense phone call. “The breath is available at any time,” Vranich says. “You own it. It’s yours.”
For more guidance on how to meditate read this: If You Follow These 4 Steps, You’re Meditating.