Calming Breathwork to Relax Your Body
One of the more common reasons people find it difficult to experience pleasure, build connection and intimacy, or enjoy sex is that they don’t know how to slow down. In this ever-faster, multi-tasking, get-it-done-now, over-scheduled world, it’s easy to get spun up and hard to calm down. When you’re chronically wound up, sex often disappears because you can’t relax into it.
If your body has difficulty relaxing because of ongoing stress, there are a few things that can happen. Sex might become less exciting. Or you might have difficulty getting turned on. You might find that your erection or vaginal lubrication becomes less consistent. You might get distracted during sex and start thinking about your to-do list or the chores you left undone. It’s hard to enjoy the moment when you’re stressed out.
Think about the difference between enjoying a relaxed and relaxing meal with people you have fun with, and eating as quickly as possible because you’re in a rush and have to dash off to the next thing. The contrast between relaxed sex and stressed sex can be just as profound, if not more so.
Fortunately, there’s an easy way to shift things and help your body relax. You probably already do it, at least some of the time. When a project gets dropped on your desk at 3:30 on a Friday, or when you get some unfortunate news, or when you spill something all over the floor, have you ever taken a breath and then released it on a long sigh?
When you extend your exhalation like that, you activate your body’s relaxation response. The long sigh stimulates the ventral vagal complex, which slows your breathing and your heart rate. So if you want to deliberately relax, a long sigh can make it happen. Lots of people do it because they intuitively know that it helps.
There are two steps you can take to maximize the effects. First, rather than doing just one long sigh, you can do it repeatedly. For a few breaths or for a couple of minutes, make your exhalations longer than your inhalations. I like to start on a 2 count in-4 count out. As my body slows down, I can extend it to a 3-5, then a 3-6 or 3-7. I might take it further, to a 4-8 or even slower. The exact count doesn’t really matter, as long as you don’t have to use effort and the exhalation is longer than the inhalation.
The second step is to circularize your breath. Most of us have a habit of breathing in a three-step cycle: inhale-exhale-pause. The pause might be shorter than the other two steps, but it’s still a three step pattern. Instead, try getting rid of the pause so that the inhalation starts at the bottom of the exhalation, and the exhalation starts at the end of the inhalation. If that sounds too complex, make your breath a smooth circle with no flat spots.
Set a timer for 2 minutes. Checking the time will pull you out of your breathing, so it’s easier if you can focus on what you’re doing instead of the clock. It’s totally fine to do this for longer, if you want. I find that 2 minutes is about the minimum time needed to get the full effect when you’re new to this. When you do it regularly, your body will probably respond faster.
Don’t try to pull in more air. Allow your inhalations to expand without effort and allow your exhalations to slow down. If you lose the cycle, don’t worry. You can always start again on the next round.
Pay attention to your body. What do you feel? Can you tune into your nervous system slowing down? Can you feel your belly or chest relax? The sensations in your body might have a color, or a shape, or a texture, or a temperature. Can you describe them? You can do this standing up, sitting down, or lying down. You might get different sensations in different positions.
You might start to feel a little light headed, or your fingers or toes might feel a little tingly. That’s fine, but if you feel any discomfort, if you start to feel dizzy, or if you begin to get pins and needles in your hands or feet, stop the breathwork and go back to your regular breathing. Lie down for a few minutes, if you like.
When you’re done, take a half a minute and let your breathing follow its own rhythm, without trying to direct it. Notice how you feel. What has changed since you started?
I teach this practice to almost all of my clients. It’s great for people who want to slow down and drop into their bodies. Doing this right before sex makes it much easier to feel the pleasure, especially if you do it with your partner(s). It can also help you tune into your desires and identify what kinds of touch and what kinds of sex would feel good.
I also find that calming breathwork is useful when people get triggered. When triggers happen, we usually go into fight-flight-freeze mode, which is a high-activation state. The calming breathwork can help us soothe our nervous systems and come back to ourselves. The more you practice it, the faster it works. That makes it a very effective tool for managing triggers. And even when big feelings aren’t because of a trigger, calming breathwork is still a useful tool for emotional and energetic self-regulation. You can use it anytime you experience intense emotions and want to stay grounded.
This is also a valuable skill for folks who want to receive anal penetration. The anus is directly linked to your stress level. Anxiety, fear, anger, and worry make your anus tighten up. It doesn’t matter whether the stress is because of a work project, a fight with your roommate, or worrying about whether anal play will hurt. Any kind of stress can make the anus squeeze, which leads to less pleasurable anal play. Using the calming breathwork is one way to help make anal sex fun by making it easier to actively receive. It works best when the giving partner is also doing it because that calms their nervous system. The receiving partner will resonate with that, which will encourage their relaxation. Rather than telling the receiver to breathe, it’s more effective to when the giver does it, too. It also works for vaginal penetration, especially for folks who have anxiety about or during sex.
Lastly, calming breathwork enhances pleasure because the relaxation creates the container that holds the excitement. The more you use this technique, the more pleasure and arousal you can experience. It’s particularly effective if you use it while backing off on the stimulation for 15-30 seconds. When you return to the more intense stimulation, you’ll probably find that you can feel more or go longer. That’s a great way to build more pleasure and ride higher waves of sensation, both before and during orgasm. It’s also an effective approach for some kinds of erection difficulties, since anxiety can lead to erection challenges or premature ejaculation.
If you’re skeptical (and I was when I first heard about this), I suggest you give it a try. Do it for two minutes a day for one week. Try it when you get into bed, especially if you have difficulty falling asleep. (Bonus: In the winter, do it with your head under the covers to warm up the bed.) Do it when you go on your lunch break. See if it helps if you do it before sex, or before a big work meeting, or when you have an interview.
If you decide to make this a regular practice, you’ll probably find that it starts to work more quickly. Your relaxation will be faster and deeper because your body is more familiar with the process. You might also find that the people around you pick up on it and become calmer, especially children. It’s a great way to help them wind down at bedtime or after bad dreams. Actually, that works with grown-ups, too. And it’s a really good way to stay grounded when the people around you are stressed out because it keeps you centered in your own body, rather than getting pulled into their reactions.
I’d love to hear from folks about their experiences with the calming breathwork. Please comment below or get in touch with me here. And if you’d like some personalized coaching in this technique, I can do that in my office or over Skype. I’d be happy to help you discover how powerful this tool can be.