A few years ago, while giving a talk about stress management techniques, a woman in the audience raised her hand and said the following: “Maybe this is obvious to everyone else… but you keep talking about taking a deep breath, and I’ve heard other people say how important it is to take deep breaths, and I even find myself thinking, ‘take a deep breath!’ … but then I really don’t know what to do. Is there a good way to do a deep breath?” And then I heard a voice in the back yell out, “Me too! I’m so glad you asked that!” and watched the majority of people nod in agreement. This was one of the best questions I’ve ever received during a talk and to this day, I’m so grateful to this woman for being so bold and confident to ask it.

Ok, so here we go: why is deep breathing important and how do you actually do it? Feel free to skip the why if you want to just go to the how!

WHY: Deep breathing, or the fancier term, diaphragmatic breathing, is the foundation for almost all meditation and relaxation techniques. It helps lower your stress levels, reduce your blood pressure, and regulate many important bodily processes. Here’s why: diaphragmatic breathing, especially with a long, slow exhale, stimulates your vagus nerve, which is one of the main components of your parasympathetic nervous system, i.e., your “rest and restore” system (the opposite of your sympathetic or “fight or flight” system).

Ok, that was a super scientific and jargony way of saying the following: deep belly breathing turns on the circuits in our bodies that start the calming-down process. When we are feeling upset, angry, frustrated, anxious, or out of control, the simple act of deep belly breathing will activate the part of our brain that sends the message “You’re safe… all will be ok… you’ll weather this storm.” And once our body starts to regulate, we improve our coping ability and make better decisions.

HOW: The way I teach deep breathing to adults and children in my practice is through “Hot Cocoa Breaths.” Here’s how to do it:

  • Find a comfortable position where your legs are uncrossed, your feet are on the ground, and your back is upright

  • Close your eyes or use a soft focus on a spot on the ground

  • Place one hand on your belly and the other on your chest (this position in and of itself is associated with compassion… it’s kind of like giving yourself a hug!)

  • Imagine you’re holding a cup of Hot Cocoa. When you breathe in, you’re smelling the scent; when you breathe out, you have to cool the hot chocolate without blowing off any of the marshmallows on the top!

  • Breathe in slowly to smell your hot chocolate.

  • Pause for a second or two. This shouldn’t feel laborious or difficult. If it does, don’t pause!

  • Then breathe out to cool down your cup, breathing so slowly so you don’t blow any of the marshmallows off. You can imagine that you are holding a straw between your upper and lower lip; this helps us slow down our out-breath. Long out-breaths are key to calming down.

  • Repeat for 5-10 cycles of “smell your hot cocoa in -reath” – pause – “cool down the hot cocoa out-breath” breaths.

  • Remember: It is normal for your thoughts to distract you. This happens all the time to me as well.  Label the thoughts as they come – you might say to yourself, “Hi thought!” or “Hi worry” or “Hi planning” – and then return to your next “in and fill the balloon” breath.

Try This at Home:

  • Practice! Don’t wait until you’re stressed and “need” to calm down. Instead, practice this technique at some random point in your day so your body starts to build its hot-cocoa-breath-muscle.

  • Try to practice 3 times per week.  This gives you plenty of leeway to miss a day or two. Practice once in the morning before you leave your bedroom, on the subway, at your desk, on your stoop or in your car. Give yourself credit for taking this pause in your busy day (I tell myself, “It’s so important to slow down and check in.  Good for me for prioritizing taking these hot-cocoa breaths.”).  Afterward, check in and see how you feel.  We’re not looking for magic or some “aha moment” or anything particularly life-changing.  Just notice how your body reacts to your intentional pause and mindful attention.