When is the last time you paused to really think about your breath? Humans breathe an average of 20,000 times per day yet breathing is something that we usually don’t spend too much time focusing on in our everyday lives. It’s an automatic function built into our bodies that happens whether we think about it or not. But what most people don’t realize is that HOW we breathe is actually very important and can have a huge impact on our overall health.
Breathwork is an amazing tool with a wide variety of benefits including reducing stress, increasing concentration, lowering heart rate, and helping with anxiety & depression. It has also been proven to boost immunity, elevate your mood, and help with overall wellbeing! In yoga, we focus our attention on our breath, or Pranayama, to help in certain postures and to anchor us in the present moment. For me, breathwork is a way of taking the teachings of breath in yoga & meditation into our lives outside of the studio.
So how does this work exactly? Our breath is incredibly powerful, and it can affect our minds & bodies far more than we realize. By focusing on our breath for even a few minutes a day and intentionally changing our breathing patterns, we can activate our parasympathetic nervous system (the system opposite of where our fight-or-flight stress, adrenaline and cortisol are triggered) which slows down your heart rate and lowers your blood pressure—creating a calming effect in your body.
If you are interested in giving breathwork a try, here are 5 easy ways to practice controlled breathing next time you’re feeling stressed, anxious or just want to feel calmer:
1. Abdominal/Belly Breathing
This is a great place to start if you’ve new to practicing breathwork. Abdominal – or diaphragmatic breathing – strengthens your belly muscles, which in turn can help you breathe more efficiently. This is a basic technique which is easy to learn and can be used as a tool to help you calm down and feel more at ease. Here’s how to practice it:
Sit or lie down in a comfortable position. If you’re sitting in a chair or on the floor, try to sit up tall with an elongated spine
Place one hand on your belly just below your ribs, and one hand on your chest
Take a deep breath though your nose, allowing your belly to push your hand out. Focus on not moving your chest at all
Gently breathe out with your lips pursed, making a ‘whooshing’ noise. Your hand on your belly should go in and push all your air out
Repeat these steps 5 to 10 times or until you feel calm. Take your time with each breath
Once you finish, reflect on how you feel in comparison to how you felt before starting
2. Box Breathing or Sama Vritti Pranayama
This is another amazing breathing technique for when you’re feeling anxious or stressed. Box breathing (also known as square breathing) is very popular amongst athletes, doctors and meditators alike. Even the U.S. Navy SEALs use this technique regularly! It’s extremely easy to do and also has immediate calming effects on the mind and body. Here’s how to practice it:
Find a comfortable position. Close your eyes or lower your gaze and exhale out all your stale air
Inhale through your nose for a slow count of 1-2-3-4
Hold at the top for the same slow count of 1-2-3-4
Exhale & release the air through your nose for same count of 1-2-3-4. Slightly constricting the back of your throat to create an ocean wave type sound.
Hold at the bottom of the exhale for the same paced count of 1-2-3-4
Repeat until your heart rate has slowed. If you find you can’t hold your breath that long on either hold, you can shorten it a few counts. Know that you should never feel like your gasping for air at the end, and it may take time to build your way up.
3. Equal Breathing
This breathing technique can be implemented almost anywhere to quickly reduce stress and anxiety. It’s similar to the previous exercise, but you remove the pause at the top and bottom. The purpose of this exercise is work on making the lengths of your inhale and exhale equal. Eventually, you will also work to increase the length of the breath. Here’s how to practice it:
Find a comfortable position sitting cross-legged in a chair or on the floor. If that is not comfortable, you of course can sit up straight in a chair with your feet flat on the floor, legs uncrossed. Relax your shoulders, close your eyes or lower your gaze
Begin by just paying attention to the natural rhythm of your breath. Do this for at least 5 breaths
When you’re ready, slowly inhale for a slow count of 1-2-3-4
Pause at the top of the breath for a count of 1
Then slowly exhale for a count of 1-2-3-4
Pause at the bottom for a count of 1 and repeat the exercise
Do this for a few rounds. If you are comfortable, begin to increase the length of your inhales to a count of 6, 8, and maybe even 10
Practice this for several minutes or until you feel calm
4. Alternate Nostril Breathing or Nadi Shodhana Pranayama
This is my personal favorite breathing technique. Alternate Nostril Breathing is an amazing way to create instant relaxation in your mind and body. It’s known for improving focus, supporting the lungs and respiratory system, removing toxins, helping ease panic attacks and promoting balance within the body. This one is a bit trickier because it involves a hand mudra, but the results are incredible. Here’s how to practice it:
Find a comfortable seat, preferably with a tall spine
Rest your left palm in your lap and bring your right palm to your face. Using your right hand, press your pointer & middle fingers down toward your palm and leaving your thumb, ring and pinkie fingers extended
Close your eyes or lower your gaze and exhale out all your stale air
Use your right thumb to gently close your right nostril
Inhale through your left nostril for a slow count of 1-2-3-4
Pause at the top for a count of 1
Close your left nostril with your right pinky and ring fingers
Release your thumb and exhale out through your right nostril for the same count of 1-2-3-4
Inhale through your right nostril for 1-2-3-4
Pause at the top for a count of 1
Release your fingers to open your left nostril and exhale through this side
Try to match the length of your inhales to your exhales. As you get more comfortable with it, try to increase the length of your inhales and exhales by a beat or two. See how it feels in your body
Repeat for 5 to 10 cycles or until you notice your heart rate slows down and you feel more relaxed
5. 4-7-8 Breathing
This technique is VERY powerful for relaxation and is perfect to help if you’re feeling anxious, stressed, or ready to fall asleep. It’s NOT recommended to practice this exercise while driving, operating machinery or swimming, as you might experience feelings of light headedness and deep relaxation.
Its best to lie down for this technique, but you can also sit in a tall seat if you feel more comfortable that way
Rest your palms in your lap or by your sides. Place the tip of your tongue right behind the top of your front teeth. Close your eyes or lower your gaze and exhale out all your stale air through your mouth
Close your lips. Inhale through your nose for a slow count of 1-2-3-4
Hold your breath at the top for a count of 1-2-3-4-5-6-7
Open your lips and gently exhale through your mouth for a count of 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8
Practice this pattern for 4 full breath cycles when first learning this practice. Once you become more advanced, you can work your way up to 8 breath cycles.
Try these exercises a few times a week to really feel the impact of breathwork on your nervous system! Do you have a regular breathing practice? What’s your favorite type of breathwork?
Photos by Shanti Knight
*Disclaimer: The information provided in this blog is intended for your general knowledge only and is not a substitute for medical advice or treatment. You should seek prompt medical care for any specific health issues.