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Mindful Breathing Exercises

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Overview

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Deep and thoughtful breathing exercises help to calm the nervous system and can act as a “reset” in times of unrest. While breathing is an automatic process – meaning our body does it for us without us even having to think about it – the breath has a direct relationship with our thought’s feelings and emotions. Mindful breathing exercises help us to bring awareness to mind-body connection and are shown to help with both relaxation and energy.

Breathing exercises work like building blocks.  

  • First, we simply create the space. We start to bring our awareness to the practice by taking a comfortable seat or notice our natural breath.  
  • We then start to focus on the breath itself and bring our awareness to the movement of the breath and what is happening within our bodies (self-awareness).  
  • As we practice, we reflect on how we feel – emotionally and physically. We start to draw upon our emotional vocabulary and begin to connect the dots between these exercises and how we may return to them to manage and prevent stress or strong emotions (self-management).  

Take Action

When practicing mindful breathing exercises, it’s important to keep in mind that we all process emotions differently, and the practices that we use to help us explore them should be just as flexible.

  • Use inclusive language. Avoid telling or requiring participation in an activity or following a certain way. Use language that promotes autonomy such as “I invite you to…” or “I encourage you to…” and give children the space to self-select how and when they participate.
  • For PreK-12 students, avoid holding or retaining the breath, especially with those who are or have experienced trauma. Holding the breath can be a natural response to fear or distress and can be retraumatizing or resurface past traumas. Instead, encourage children to focus on the natural flow of their breath and depth as they breathe into their bellies.
  • Create space for follow-up. With any exercise that opens up feelings or emotions, it’s important to provide space for follow-up. Journaling, group, or private discussion can be a great outlet along with sensory spaces to allow children to process and reflect.

Try out some of these exercises and find a printable toolkit version here.

Deep Belly Breathing: The fullest inhales come from the depth of our bellies – but more often than not, we may find ourselves unconsciously holding our bellies in (especially when sitting). This actually prevents us from breathing fully as it restricts our diaphragm. Diaphragmatic breathing is a simple technique to promote relaxation and mindfulness that focuses on the expansion of the abdomen and diaphragm instead of the chest. This allows us to focus on longer, deeper breathes, rather than short and shallow breaths. Bringing awareness to the rise and fall of our bellies can bring awareness to the quality of our breath and work towards improving.

Sit comfortably and allow the belly to fully relax.

Place one hand on your belly and one hand on your heart.

On the inhale breath from the very bottom of your belly and feel how your belly expands.

On the exhale, bring attention to the feeling of release as your belly falls.

Repeat several times, breathing deeper as you go.

 

Imaginative Exercises: For little ones (or simply to add a playful spin for any age), imaginative mindful breathing exercises pair breathwork with visualization. This can help slow down the breath and bring our awareness in further. Here are some fun examples!

Breathe Upon a Star

Spread your palm out like a star.

Trace the outline of your hand with the index finger (pointer finger) on your other hand.

Inhale, trace up from the tip of your wrist to the tip of your thumb.

Exhale, trace down the other side of your thumb.

Repeat – tracing up as you inhale, tracing down as you exhale.

Then repeat on the other hand.

 

Follow the Bead

Imagine a bead on a string. What color is it? What is it made of? What shape is it?

Now imagine the string. What color is it? What is it made of? The string now begins to make a shape – any shape. What shape is it?

As you inhale, watch the bead move along the string and as you exhale, follow the bead back to where it began.

Repeat.

 

Blow Out the Birthday Candles

Spread your palm out in front of you. Pretend each finger is a birthday candle.

Inhale a deep breath and with a slow exhale, blow out the birthday candles one by one – slowly lowering one finger down at a time while you exhale.

Repeat on the other hand.

 

Bumble Bee Breath

Imagine you are a buzzing bumblebee.

Inhale a deep breath in through the nose.

With a slow exhale, hum or buzz like a bee. Cup your palms around your ears to amplify the comforting sound and vibration.

Repeat.

 

Hot Air Balloon (or Bubbles)

Begin by cupping your hands around your mouth.

Take a deep breath in through your nose and slowly start to blow out through your mouth, growing your hands outwards in time with your exhale as if you are blowing up an enormous hot air balloon or bubble.

Repeat.

Tips

Focus on the quality of the breath versus getting the exercise exactly right. Take a few breaths normally and note how you feel. Then, take a few deep breaths and note the difference. When practicing specific exercises, do the same thing.

Pay attention to posture. Be sure to be either be sitting in a comfortable, upright seated position or laying down. Avoiding crunching our abdomens or being hunched over helps to ensure our diaphragm and lungs are not restricted. To help when seated, place a pillow or rolled-up blanket or towel underneath the sitting bones and roll forward so just those bones are on the cushion (you should feel slightly slanted).

Essential oils or aromatherapy tools may be helpful for some, but be mindful of who’s in the room. Individual traumas of others that we may not be aware of may cause certain smells to be activating and/or retraumatizing. Always ask permission before using or invite everyone to create a smell profile. Use strips of cardstock to let them test each of the oils you plan to use and note what they like or dislike.

Use props! Bubbles, pinwheels, and feathers are great materials to help children explore the depth of their breath (e.g., how light or strong, how fast or slow, etc.). Stuffed animals can also be a great “practice buddy” or tool for belly breathing as they watch them rise and fall. You can also use tracing mats (or have children draw lines and shapes to trace) to help regulate the pace and slow the breath.

Be mindful of how you feel. If at any point you start to feel dizzy, return to your normal breath.

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