Breathing Exercises

neon lights spell 'and breathe' on a background of green leaves

One of the ways to approach the idea of mindfulness and one-mindfully is through learning to breathe mindfully, or conscious breathing. Our breathing goes on all the time, but mostly it’s not conscious. We are not thinking about it.

Conscious Breathing

Following is a meditation by the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh from his book, “Peace is Every Step.” Marsha Linehan greatly respects Thich Nhat Hanh’s work and quotes him in the DBT manual.

“There are a number of breathing techniques you can use to make life more enjoyable. The first exercise is very simple. As you breathe in, say to yourself, Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in. And as you breathe out, say Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out. Just that. You recognize your in-breath as an in-breath and your out-breath as an out-breath. You don’t even need to recite the whole sentence; you can use just two words,
In and Out. This technique can help you keep your mind on your breath. As you practice, your breath will become peaceful and gentle and your mind and body will also become peaceful and gentle. This is not a difficult exercise. In just a few minutes you can realize the fruit of meditation.

Breathing in and out is very important and it is enjoyable, as breathing is the link between our body and our mind. Sometimes our minding is thinking of one thing and our body is doing another, and mind and body are not unified. By concentrating on our breathing, In and Out, we bring body and mind back together, and become whole again. Conscious breathing is an important bridge.

Just breathing and smiling can make us very happy, because when we breathe consciously we recover ourselves completely and encounter life in the present moment.”


Try to become mindful or conscious of your breathing. Sit comfortably in a chair, with your feet on the floor and your hands on your lap or resting on the chair, or sit comfortably on the floor. Close your eyes if you are comfortable with it, otherwise fix them on something a few feet away from you. Relax. Begin to take some long, slow deep breaths, inhaling and exhaling through your nose (inhaling and exhaling through your nose helps to slow your breaths down).

Notice your breath going in out out. Notice it moving up and down your chest. Put one hand on your belly, and breathe deeply enough so that your belly rises when you breathe in and falls when you breathe out. (This is because your diaphragm, the muscle that controls the movement of your lungs, is pulling air all the way in and pushing it all the way out). Breathe several times in this way, feeling your belly rising and falling, the air passing in and out through your body. This is mindful or conscious breathing. Do it any time to bring yourself to a more mindful and a more relaxed place.


At least once a day, try conscious breathing for a few minutes. As you become more comfortable, increase your time by another minute, or try it a second time. Notice how you feel during and after.

Use of relaxation and stress reduction exercises is an excellent way to help ourselves feel better in the moment. Many of us are tense, and become more tense when we are in distress. Relaxing changes that response. The goal is to accept reality with the body, not to fight against it or try to push it away. The body and the mind are closely linked. Relaxing the body also relaxes the mind.

Some of the relaxation techniques that you might try are listening to a relaxation tape (can be found in book stores, health food stores, sometimes gift shops), exercising hard (think of how relaxed you feel after a good run or swim or a long walk), taking a hot bath, massaging your neck and scalp, legs and feet, breathing deeply, drinking some hot milk, cocoa or herbal tea, sitting in a hot or cold tub until the water becomes tepid, listening to music.

Can you think of some other relaxing things? Each of you probably has some special thing.


All of these exercises involve breathing, most of them deep breathing. Some people find that this causes panic. A couple of people have suggested to me that reversing the sequence, that is, breathing out first and then in, instead of in and then out, does not cause the same panic. So give that a try. If it does not help, then just go ahead with the rest of the exercise.

Try to learn and practice these exercises when you are feeling good. This way you will be better able to use them when you are in distress.

Breathing Awareness

Lie down on the floor with your legs flat or bent at the knees, your arms at your sides, palms up, and your eyes closed. Breathe through your nose if you can. Focus on your breathing. Place your hand on the place that seems to rise and fall the most as you breathe. If this place is on your chest, you need to practice breathing more deeply so that your abdomen rises and falls most noticeably. When you are nervous or anxious you tend to breathe short, shallow breaths in the upper chest. Now place both hands on your abdomen and notice how your abdomen rises and falls with each breath. Notice if your chest is moving in harmony with your abdomen. Continue to do this for several minutes. Get up slowly. This is something you can do during a break at work. If you can’t lie down you can do it sitting in a chair.

Deep Breathing

This exercise can be practiced in a variety of positions. However, it is most effective if you can do it lying down with your knees bent and your spine straight. After lying down, scan your body for tension. Place one hand on your abdomen and one hand on your chest. Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose into your abdomen to push up your hand as much as feels comfortable. Your chest should only move a little in response to the movement in your abdomen. When you feel at ease with your breathing, inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth, making a relaxing whooshing sound as you gently blow out. This will relax your mouth, tongue and jaw. Continue taking long, slow deep breaths which raise and lower your abdomen. As you become more and more relaxed, focus on the sound and feeling of your breathing. Continue this deep breathing for five or ten minutes at a time, once or twice a day. At the end of each session, scan your body for tension. As you become used to this exercise, you can practice it wherever you happen to be, in a standing, sitting or lying position. Use it whenever you feel tense.

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