What’s your relaxation number?
Controlling your breathing gives you mindful power, more control of your mind and body – and more control over your life!
Breathing patterns that stimulate
When you inhale rapidly and deeply, you stimulate your sympathetic nervous system, which excites and energizes your mind and body in a healthy way. Anxious people usually breathe rapidly but shallowly into their chest. Rapidly breathing deeply into your abdomen, using strong, quick inhalations deep into your lungs, can help you feel stronger or more energized. It’s a natural stimulant that works faster than caffeine, has no bad side effects and can be extremely useful in the morning when you haven’t had enough sleep or midafternoon when you have an energy low. It’s also what people do right before lifting heavy weights.
Breathing patterns that relax
When you breathe with long, slow exhalations, you stimulate the parasympathetic part of the autonomic nervous system, which slows down your physiology, attenuates your stress-response and relaxes your mind and body. It’s what the late great free diver Natalia Molchanova did to reduce her need for oxygen so she could hold her breath long enough to free dive to over 100 meters.
For years, I’ve taught mindful leaders who want to be more confident, present and relaxed to practice breathing using exhalations that are twice as long as inhalations and to identify their relaxation number using this 1:2 ratio.
Find your relaxation number
Your relaxation number is a set of the two numbers associated for the length of your inhalation and exhalation to create an optimal relaxation response. Here’s how to identify your relaxation number. Notice how you feel in your mind and body after each set of exhalations as you identify your relaxation number:
- Sit or stand up straight.
- Keeping your abdomen relaxed and allowing it to expand as your breath enters your lower lungs, inhale for one count and exhale for two counts counting at your own rate.
- Inhale for two counts and exhale for four counts.
- Inhale for three counts and exhale for six counts.
- Inhale for four counts and exhale for eight counts.
- Continue experimenting with your breath using the 1:2 ratio of inhalation to exhalation until you find yourself straining on either your inhalation or exhalation. Your relaxation number is the ratio of the two numbers in the breaths before your breathing became strained. It could be a 2/4, 3/6 or a 4/8; these are fairly common in the folks I’ve coached.
Your relaxation number will depend on how quickly you count and your general health. The healthier you are, the less often and deeper you tend to breathe, thus the higher your relaxation number.
Two ways to use your relaxation number to de-stress.
Mindful breath meditation. You can use your relaxation number for mindful breath meditation.
- Sit up straight and focus all of your awareness on your breath.
- Using your relaxation number, count your inhalations and exhalations.
- As you relax, try increasing the length of both your inhalations and exhalations.
- Continue this practice for at least three minutes initially, and keep lengthening to 5, 10, and 20 minutes as you progress in your ability. Please be aware that your mind will wander, that’s normal. When it does, just gently bring it back to your breath.
At a recent Mindful Power retreat, a guest who used this mindful breath meditation right before bedtime said, “The relaxation number breath meditation allowed me to sleep through the whole night for the first time in months!”
- Centering breath. Another effective way to use your relaxation number breathing is to do one to three relaxation number breaths to center yourself just prior to important moments of engagement. Examples include meeting a new person who could be important to your life, or preparing to be your best in a meeting or phone call. Use your relaxation number breathing anytime you want to relax into the moment and be more present and effective.
You now know how to manually control your breathing to energize or relax your whole being. When are the best times in your life to put your breathing on manual control?