by Christine Peace, Behavior Coach
Earlier this week, I was teaching a yoga class for kids. As the class started and I encouraged a student to take a breath, he exclaimed, “I breathe every day!” Now, while this is certainly true for all of us (or we wouldn’t be here), this does not mean that we are all breathing the same way. Consider this: often do we think about breathing? How often do we intentionally direct our breathing? How often do we even just observe it? For me, the answer to all of these is: not as much as I’d like, but more than I use to.
There are potentially an infinite number of mindful breathing exercises. Most practices can be done whether seated in a chair, on the floor, lying down, or standing. Additionally, breathing practices can be done in stillness, or during movement. However, it is important to remember that not every practice works for everyone or every ‘body’, and in our role we want to acknowledge that.
Here are some examples of mindful breathing strategies you can utilize for yourself and/or your students:
Co-regulatory breathing involves both the adult and the student coordinating their breaths to achieve mindfulness. I begin this strategy by bringing my attention to my own breath and intentionally breathing in through my nose in a long slow inhale. Then, I slowly exhale out through my mouth, starting a mindful and rhythmic breathing pattern. From here, the students often pick up on my breath (sometimes seemingly subconsciously) and, in turn, begin to regulate their own breathing. Every time I have experienced this subconscious matching of breath I am in awe.
This is my favorite breathing practice to use in-the-moment, and a regularly utilized piece of my mindfulness tool-kit. Further, despite its simplicity, it can be exceptionally powerful. It is generally done without providing any direction and, instead, in a moment of need. For instance, if I am speaking with a student who is feeling upset and notice their breathing is unregulated (e.g., quick and shallow breaths).
If needed, some modifications to this strategy are available. If you think your student or child may be receptive, verbally choose to invite them to match your breathing. It is important that you know your student before choosing this method. For some, being told to “breath” when they are upset is equivalent to telling someone to “calm down” or “relax” when they are angry (not the most helpful intervention!).
To help a child regulate, you must be regulated - take a breath and they just may join you.
Square breathing can be led as a group exercise or done individually. It involves each part of your breath being counted, creating a visualization of an equal sided box/square. It can be easily remembered by 4-4-4. Inhale for 4, hold for 4, and exhale for 4. This type of breath can be adjusted in several ways.
Possible adjustments for square breathing involve creating numerous shapes, preferably with four sides, or at least large enough to achieve the count of four three times. The student will then slide their finger along a side/portion for each part of the breath. Alternatively, some facilitators have students trace their hand and use that shape, tracing up each finger in one part of the breath.
Other adjustments may be necessary to make this breathing accessible to all your students. For some, being cued to hold their breath for any period of time brings a lot of discomfort or can be triggering. Alternatives are to instead take a one count pause between inhale and exhale, or none at all, moving smoothly from inhale to exhale. However, removing a pause does not disqualify students from the above adjustments of creating shapes for their breath.
Fun fact – Navy Seals are trained on this type of breath for stress reduction!
Another favorite breathing exercise of mine is 1-2 Breath. This practice can feel slightly unusual to someone new to practicing it, but also can have demonstrable positive effects. Why 1-2? Your inhale is half the length of your exhale. Thus, if I breath in for a one second, I breath out for two. When I am ready to deepen this breath, halving may not exactly work but that’s okay! The main intention is for the exhale to be longer than the inhale, even if only for a count to one.
A longer exhale than inhale allows the brain to communicate to the body that “I am safe.” Even if your thoughts are trying to tell you otherwise, engaging in this exercise sends a new, contradictory message, and helps you and/or the student to become grounded.
“I am safe.”
Just the Beginning
There are so many more breathing exercises. Even if the methods described here turn out to be ineffective, that doesn’t mean mindful breathing isn’t for you. It is vital to remember that mindfulness is a practice, and not everyone feels the benefits on their first, second, or third try. That is okay. Explore and remain open-minded. Let us know what you discover!