Breath Exercise to Activate the "Rest and Digest" Part of Your Nervous System

Posted by Leah Zerbe on

By Leah Zerbe

Focusing on resetting your stressed-out nervous system may seem like a monumental task, but the starting point is very much in your reach.

It all starts with the breath.

I know, I know. You’ve likely heard this vague advice hundreds of times. “Focus on your breath.” “Just breathe.” “Be with your breath.”

There’s truth in those common recommendations, but they lack the practical instructions for how to effectively start working with breath in a meaningful way … a way that will help restore natural diaphragmatic breathing patterns and set off a cascade of all sorts of other benefits.

Below, I share a time-tested practice used over the ages to nudge your nervous system into a more relaxed state by uniting the mind and breath while resting in a gentle yoga posture known as Crocodile.

But first, here’s why we’re doing it …

Today, Most People Are Not Breathing Properly

We’re stuck in a shallow breathing pattern that forces these secondary breathing muscles into overdrive.

  • Upper trapezius
  • Scalenes
  • Sternocleidomastoid
  • Levator scapulae
  • And even the pectoralis minor muscles

These muscles become overworked, tight and can even trigger shoulder, neck and back pain. Equally as bad, when shallow breathing sets in, our body’s sympathetic nervous system revs into overdrive, too.

Increased stress hormones release, snowballing us into more shallow breathing. The cycle is not healthy. And, unbeknownst to many of us, we have been breathing like that for years.

The main muscle that should be doing the heavy lifting, as far as breathing is concerned, is the diaphragm.

The exercise below is used to start training the body back into healthy, natural diaphragmatic breathing. Once you’re breathing properly again, studies show improvements like:

  • Muscle tension relief
  • Improved mental function
  • Better body and mind connection
  • A sense of calmness and centeredness
  • An activates parasympathetic nervous system, your body’s rest and digest part of the nervous system
  • Aid in releasing natural wastes, such as carbon dioxide
  • An internal massage for some of your organs
  • Increased oxygen to all cells
  • Strengthened lungs
  • Lower heart rate and blood pressure
  • Increased blood flow to muscles
  • Improved concentration
  • Reduced anger and frustration
  • Better confidence

When I work with people interested in wellness, we always begin with improving diaphragmatic breath. And I often share this quote to highlight the absolute importance of doing breathwork, which for some folks, may seem boring or pointless at first.

"Shallow breathing doesn’t just make stress a response, it makes stress a habit our bodies, and therefore, our minds, are locked into.” — John Luckovich, an apprentice Integrative Breathwork facilitator in Brooklyn, New York

Breath Exercise: Crocodile (Makarasana)

Here’s a breath exercise to activate the “rest and digest” part of your nervous system and improve your stress levels and sleep. Try it for five minutes a day, every day if you can, and watch your world of wellness expand.

The gentle yoga pose below helps you turn the back on the world for a few minutes, allowing you to center your mind on the breath.

Because you’re technically in a very subtle, gentle backbend, your body will be naturally aligned for automatic diaphragmatic breathing, which triggers your body’s relaxation response.

Lie face down on a firm surface, like the floor.

Stack your forearms on top of one another, with each hand on the opposite elbow.

Draw the forearms in so that the chest is slightly off the floor, with the forehead resting on crossed arms.

If this creates tension in your shoulders, you can slide your elbows out a little wider.

Slightly separate the legs a comfortable distance with the toes turned in, out or back, whatever feels best in your body. We’re all different.

Close your eyes. Relax the legs, abdomen and shoulders. Soften the eyes and jaw. Turn your attention to the breath. Feel the cleansing qualities of each exhalation and the rejuvenating effects of each inhalation.

Notice the breath, without trying to control it in any way. Is it jerky? Are you holding it at the top or bottom of each breath?

Observe with curiosity, knowing with practice, the breath will start becoming smoother, quieter, with inhalations and exhalations about the same length.

Center here for 2 to 5 minutes before continuing with your yoga practice — or getting on with your day or evening.

This is a lovely practice to incorporate when you’re transitioning from work life to family life, or just before bedtime. Just be sure to avoid falling asleep, since we don’t want to train our bodies to sleep during our yoga practice.

Practice regularly and enjoy the benefits of a rejuvenated nervous system!

With a B.A. in journalism from Temple University and a M.S. in exercise science from California University of Pennsylvania, Leah Zerbe covers health news and functional fitness topics. She’s also a certified personal trainer and corrective exercise specialist through the National Academy of Sports Medicine and is a certified yoga teacher through Yoga Alliance. Leah resides on her family’s organic farm in Pennsylvania.