How to breathe… to feel calm, alert and confident – Exercises for you and your children

Obviously, we breathe all the time, automatically to stay alive! But, how many of you consciously choose to think about how you are breathing, throughout your day? I mean, why would you, if it’s controlled by our autonomic nervous system? Because… you might not be breathing as well as you could be. And, only by becoming more aware of how we breathe, can we do anything to improve it. This is something that I teach early on to my students, both adults and children.

Learning to breath better is one of the foundations of yoga, as improving the way that we breathe can enhance our lives in so many ways.

Breathing more fully:

  • balances our nervous systems, helping us to feel the calmness of the para-sympathetic, yet that alert focus of the sympathetic
  • this, in turn, enables us to make clearer decisions, stay focussed and achieve more
  • improves our posture, as we stand and sit taller when breathing properly
  • this, in turn, helps us feel more confident

Breathing exercises for yourself, and to share with your children

Sit and watch

You: Each morning, first thing if you can, sit in silence with your eyes closed and observe yourself breathing. Just notice it without changing it. Notice how quick, slow, deep, shallow, long or short each breath is. Watch to see if it changes. Just a couple of minutes can be enough but stay longer if you can.

Child: This is something lovely to share with children, with you in the morning or at bedtime for parents; and for teachers at the start of a yoga class, or intermittently in the day.

Belly breath

You: This is easiest to practise lying down, so start by lying on your back, comfortably. Focus on breathing into your belly, so that you can feel it expanding and rising up as you breathe in, and falling and deflating as you breathe out.

Notice to see if you are reverse breathing, ie. drawing your belly in, as you breathe in; this means that the air can only enter your chest, the top part of your lungs. This can happen in times of stress or anxiety, in children and adults, and actually perpetuates the negative feelings, plus leads to tiredness, headaches and poor posture. To allow more oxygen to enter and to use the full capacity of the lungs that you have, start breathing into your belly, so that the air fills up from the lower parts of your lungs, and can follow up towards the tops. As teachers and parents, this keeps us calm and energised!

When you’ve got this lying down, practise it sitting. First focus on breathing into your belly (placing a hand there can help), then into your belly and up into your chest (place other hand on chest).

Child: This is the first breathing exercise I introduce to children and can be made playful and easier by lying down with a small bean bag on the tummy, or both hands – filling up their balloon belly!

Counting

You: Balanced breathing means a balanced nervous system – that optimal state of calm and alert. When comfortable belly breathing, start to count the length of your exhale and then match it with your next inhale. Continue finding the same count and length of each breath in and each breath out. If comfortable, lengthen it by a second for a few rounds, then another second for another few rounds. Great to do first thing in the morning.

If you feel particularly stressed, then focussing particularly on your exhalation, will help to access your para-sympathetic nervous system (PSNS). We are in the PSNS when we are completely relaxed, so this is best to do at the end of your day! Count the length of your breath as before, but then start to let your exhale become longer than the inhale, until is it twice as long, if comfortable (never force any breathing exercise). So, after a few minutes, you may be inhaling for four seconds and exhaling for eight.

Child: Never instruct how long a child should breathe in or out for, they should always remain relaxed with easy breathing. You can ask them to count in their head as they breathe in and see if it matches on the way out, with normal breathing, just so they become more aware of what balanced breathing is.

Further Resources

These are simple techniques to start with, suitable for almost everyone. If, however you have any concerns, do consult a healthcare practitioner.

These techniques and more can be followed on the 7 minute teacher’s class, as well as similar exercises in the kid’s classes, on classyoga.com. If you aren’t subscribed yet, then sign up for a free trial here.

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