Most of us know that when we’re rushed and feeling pressured, our breathing becomes shallow. But have you noticed that when your nervous system is jacked up, your inhalations are longer than your exhalations? If you can summon the presence of mind to check your breath next time you find yourself harried and feeling anxious, chances are you’ll find you are emphasizing inhalation at the expense of exhalation. This ratchets up your level of stress—short exhalations make us vulnerable to anxiety and depression, cause toxins to accumulate, and create an imbalance in the autonomic nervous system.
When we are under pressure, thinking stressful thoughts, we make ourselves tighter and more tense by inhaling longer than we’re exhaling.
It’s easy to see why. The two branches of the autonomic nervous system regulate the heart, lungs, circulatory system, and glands. In a sense, they work in opposition to each other: the sympathetic system helps the body gear up for physical activity by accelerating the heart rate, raising blood pressure, and increasing tension in the large skeletal muscles; the parasympathetic system does the opposite—decreasing heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and releasing muscular tension. Inhalation stimulates the sympathetic system, and exhalation stimulates the parasympathetic system. When we are under pressure, thinking stressful thoughts, we make ourselves tighter and more tense by inhaling longer than we’re exhaling.
The antidote is obvious: lengthen the exhalation—in fact make it twice as long as the inhalation. Sustain this breathing pattern for a minute or two and your heart rate slows, your blood pressure drops, and your muscles begin to relax. And there’s an added benefit: emphasizing the exhalation discharges volatile toxins and carbon dioxide from the lungs, leaving a vacuum that will be filled with fresh air when you inhale.
Unlike most other yogic breathing practices, learning 2-to-1 breathing doesn’t require sitting with a teacher. All you need is time, attention, and a bit of practice. When you’ve gained some proficiency, you can switch to this breathing pattern and soothe your nervous system any time you’re feeling stressed.
Sit comfortably with your head, neck, and trunk aligned. Relax your body and begin to focus on your breath as it passes through the nostrils. Tune in to the cool touch of the inhalation and the warm touch of the exhalation. After a few breaths, place one hand on your abdomen and one on your chest, and check to see if your chest is moving. If it is, relax the rib cage and focus on breathing solely with your abdomen for several minutes.
Once you are breathing calmly, begin to mentally count the duration of inhalation and exhalation, letting them be approximately equal in length. The average person is comfortable with a 6-count breath—the in-breath and the out-breath last for 3 counts each. Continue to let your breath flow quietly and smoothly through the nostrils. Enjoy the tranquility created by this practice of breath awareness, and allow your mind to settle into the counting experience.
When you are ready, begin to deepen your exhalation by contracting the abdominal muscles, pushing additional air out of the lungs. On your next inhalation, slowly and smoothly release the contracted muscles, letting the next inhalation be a little shorter than the last. Gradually adjust your breathing to achieve a 2-to-1 ratio, exhaling for 4 counts and inhaling for 2.
It is important to be mindful of your capacity in this exercise. If you extend your exhalation farther than your capacity allows, your body will go into survival mode and reflexively gasp on the next inhalation. You’ll need to shorten your next breath slightly in order to compensate. One way to prevent yourself from overdoing here is to focus on creating a smooth transition between your in-breath and your out-breath, and back off a bit if you feel any urge to gasp for air.
When practiced correctly, 2-to-1 breathing eliminates volatile wastes from the lungs while calming and nurturing the nervous system. It’s also an effective way to prepare the body, breath, and mind for meditation. Do this practice for as long as it is comfortable—beginning, perhaps, with five minutes a day.