We can change our mind and body state by changing the way we breathe.

I started thinking about this after a family vacation, which tested my nerves.

Don’t get me wrong, it was a great trip. We spent time with friends and family, made it out to the beach, and really enjoyed a break from the daily grind. I’m grateful for the time off.

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And there was a wee bit of stress.

On our departing flight to New York, my daughter immediately started coughing. Like, a lot. She wasn’t sick. She had no cough before stepping foot on the plane, and no cough afterwards, but it persisted for the whole flight. Also, she threw up. Twice. The first round was on my husband and the legs of not one, but two other passengers. The second round was on me.

Insert deep breathing.

I had tears in my eyes as I tried to assure the mask-wearing, non-English speaking women with vomit on their legs that my daughter wasn’t actually sick. She’s just prone to throwing up (it’s been an issue since she was an infant), and apparently, she sometimes coughs through whole flights.

There were a bunch of times in our adventures I found myself needing to step back and take a few breaths to stay calm. It helped, and it was fun to see my 3-year old take note. As he frequently explained, “When you’re feeling upset, take a deep breath and count to four.” (I want to take credit, but it’s mostly due to Daniel Tiger.)

In coming home, I was eager to learn more about breath work and dive into developing the skill of intentional breathing even more. Because it works. So, I reached out to my friend and fellow yoga teacher, Mike Thacker.

Thacker has been practicing yoga since 2000 and teaching for the last 10 years. He’s also trained in Breatheology, a conscious breathing program created by freediving world champion, Stig Severinsen, who also holds a Guinness World Record for the longest breath hold: 22 minutes.

According to Severinsen and Thacker, most of us breathe inefficiently.

“Most people breathe too rapidly and too shallow,” Thacker explains.

He says that it’s common to use only the upper part of our lungs to breathe, especially when we’re stressed. But when we become more aware of our breath and learn how to build our capacity, the body absorbs more oxygen. This increases our energy and mental calmness, and has an array of positive health implications.  Thacker points to blood pressure, heart health, metabolism, immunity and stress levels all positively responding to higher quality breath.

Thacker can hold his breath for over five minutes. He says long holds like that have a counterintuitive effect. They cause an initial buildup of carbon dioxide, but when the hold is released, the body is flooded with oxygen. That burst is said to have healing and almost transcendent effects. Thacker says it’s deeply relaxing, and it and clears and calms his mind; he uses it as a precursor to meditation.

But he’s quick to add that long holds aren’t necessary to reap many of the rewards of improved breathing. To that end, he offers three techniques, which he advises playing with on a regular basis to train better quality breath.

His main guidance is that “all breathing should be horizontal — moving the diaphragm in and out" rather than vertical breathing, which lifts the chest and shoulders.

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I’ve been working these techniques into my own meditations and weekly classes with The Gentle Yoga Club. I want to keep building these skills. They’re clearly beneficial, not just for vacation.

Deep breathing and breath holding

Thacker says many people feel uncomfortable when they try to breathe slowly. He suggests building this skill by focusing on the pauses between breaths.  

To start, take 30 deep, full, slow breaths  — ideally through your nose if you can.

Then play around with breath holds.

After a slow inhale, hold your breath. Slowly exhale and hold again. Don’t worry about how long the holds are.    

Repeat this three to five times every day. Observe how it feels. What’s more comfortable? Holding after the inhale or exhale? Just notice.

Four-part breathing

This is the next technique to work into, after the above feels comfortable.

Breathe in for a four count. Hold the inhale for a four count. Exhale for a four count. Hold after the exhale for a four count.  

Thacker admits many people find this breath cycle very challenging, but he says practicing deep breathing and breath holding can help build the skill. This is now his default way of breathing.

“I feel much more relaxed through the day and sleep much more soundly through the night,” he says, “This type of breathing signals your autonomic nervous system that you’re safe. It moves you into a state of rest and healing, and out of the fight/flight state.”

Thacker suggests practicing four-part breathing for a few minutes, several times a day to start. 

“People could experience significant improvements in health if they’re able to make four-part breathing their default, even if they change nothing else at all,” he says.

Alternate nostril breathing

Place your right index and middle fingers in the center of your forehead and cover your left nostril with your right ring finger and breath in deeply for as long as you can through your right nostril.

Pause for a moment, ideally for a four to 10 count.

Place your right thumb over your right nostril, uncover your left nostril, and exhale for as long as possible through your left nostril.

Pause for a 4 to 10 count. Inhale through your left nostril, pause again, right ring finger over your left nostril, uncover your right nostril, exhale through your right. Pause, and repeat.

“Breathing deeply through a single nostril will result in feeling relaxed and calm, clearing nasal blockages and increasing blood oxygenation,” says Thacker. He suggests doing this technique for a few minutes, until there’s a noticeable “mental/physical/emotional shift.”

Thacker regularly teaches at Wild Spirit Yoga in Tomball. He has two workshops involving breathwork coming up this month. Information is on his Facebook page, Facebook.com/Mike.Thacker.14.

Marci Izard Sharif is an author, yoga teacher, meditation facilitator and mother. In Feeling Matters, she writes about self-love, sharing self-care tools, stories and resources to know and be kind to yourself.

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