Coping with COVID, One Breath at a Time

Deep yogic breathing can reduce feelings of anxiety and improve respiratory function to speed recovery.

By Lauri Bunting

Breath is life. It flows in at birth, sustains us throughout existence, and flees upon death. In Sanskrit, the ancient language of yoga, “prana” is the word for breath, and it also means life force, the vital energy in our bodies. According to the ancient yogis, the two are inseparable. 

How frightening it is, then, to be surrounded by a menacing pandemic that threatens to rob us of our very life essence. Many of us feel a great deal of stress as we navigate the complexities of work, school, family, relationships, finances, and health disrupted by the COVID pandemic. Stress weakens our immune system and contributes to systemic inflammation, two conditions that make us even more vulnerable to the pernicious virus.  

The simple act of tuning into the rhythm of your breath can reduce the stress volume from an anxious roar to a quiet purr. Deep breathing also can help improve diaphragm function and increase lung capacity. All it takes is about 5 to 10 minutes of deep breathing exercises daily to help your lungs function more efficiently and increase oxygen levels in your body, according to the American Lung Association and Johns Hopkins University

 

Deep Breathing: Developing a Daily Practice

Belly breaths help strengthen and restore proper function of the diaphragm, a dome-shaped muscle at the base of your lungs. This allows your lungs to expand fully and deliver oxygen to the vital organs and cells throughout your body. They also stimulate the parasympathetic or “rest and digest” nervous system that supports relaxation, sleep and healing. 

These deep, slow and rhythmic breaths invite a sense of spaciousness with each inhalation, and the release of physical, mental and emotional tension with each exhalation.  

  1. Get in a comfortable position (see below for a list of options).
  2. Bring awareness to your breath, following each inhalation and exhalation and the natural pause between the breaths (see below for a list of specific cues).
  3. Notice how the breaths naturally become slower and deeper.
  4. As you inhale through your nose, feel your belly gently expand.
  5. As you exhale through your mouth (lips pursed), feel your belly soften inward.
  6. Take 10 more cycles of breath, counting the exhalations backward from 10 to 1.

Bring Awareness to Your Breath

Breath awareness is the foundation for any breath-based practice. We are usually tuned in more to our thoughts than our bodies. Thoughts have the ability to travel in time through memories and imagination. Breath brings us into our bodies and tethers us to the here and now.

 

As you do your belly breaths, use these cues to bring your attention inward: 

  • Pay close attention to each inhalation and exhalation and the natural pause between the breaths.
  • Where do you first sense breath in your body?
  • Notice the tempo of the breath. Is the inhalation or exhalation longer?
  • Feel the texture of the breath. Does it feel smooth or rough?
  • Sense the temperature and humidity of the breath. Is the inhalation warm, cool, dry, or moist? Is the temperature and humidity of the exhalation different than that of the inhalation?
  • Feel the gentle expanse of the inhalation and the effortless release of the exhalation. Drop into the rhythm of breath flowing in and breath flowing out.  

 

Belly Up…Belly Down

Breathing exercises can be performed lying down, seated, standing, and even walking. 

Supine Belly Breaths: Lie supine (belly up) on the floor with knees propped under a pillow and hands on your belly. This position allows the psoas muscle to relax and the diaphragm to move more freely. Oxygen is able to reach the rich blood supply in the lower regions of the lungs and be distributed to vital organs and cells throughout the body. 

Prone Belly Breaths: Lie on the floor in a prone (belly down) position with your forehead resting on your hands. With each inhale, sense your belly expanding into the earth. With each exhale, feel your belly soften inward. This belly-down position is extra soothing to the nervous system, quieting the “fight or flight” stress response and activating the “rest and digest” calming response. You might opt for the prone position at the end of the day. Lying prone has the added advantage of strengthening the diaphragm by providing resistance with each expansive inhalation. 

Seated Belly Breaths: Take a comfortable seated position on the floor or in a chair. Rest your hands on your belly. A seated position is slightly more stimulating, which is advantageous at the beginning of the day when you want to feel awake and alert. Align your spine, stacking ears over shoulders and hips. Imagine a balloon beneath your naval gently inflating with each inhalation and deflating with each exhalation.

Breaths Anytime: Simply bring awareness to your breaths as you are talking, walking, working, or exercising. Feel tension melt away with each exhalation and life force strengthen with each inhalation.    

 

A Mindful Ride Through the Covid Waves

Bringing mindfulness to breathing enables us to stay calm and centered as we ride the waves of COVID. In our day-to-day existence, our breath assumes patterns and rhythms based on our psychological state. If we’re anxious or fearful, our breaths tend to be shallow and rapid. When we’re depressed, we tend to draw out the exhalation in a lengthy sigh. When we feel safe and calm, breaths tend to be slow, steady and deep. Unlike other involuntary functions such as blood pressure and heart rate that occur unconsciously, we have the option of shifting breathing from autopilot to conscious control. We can use breath to influence our state of mind as well as the health and efficiency of our lungs.  

 

About the Author 

Lauri Bunting is a life coach and yoga instructor living in the Wood River Valley.