If breathing is something we unconsciously do, why is there an entire framework of physiological study on it? As it turns out, there are seemingly endless benefits when humans harness the power of simply breathing. In a brief definition, breathwork is the act of deeply focusing on each inhale and exhale for a specific amount of time. Based on what we learned, this only scratches the surface since there are many different types of methods and practices developed to achieve certain results.
Breathwork is fundamentally conscious breath control. It is a technique deeply rooted in Eastern practices such as yoga, Tai Chi, and Buddhism with the purpose of altering one's state of consciousness towards self-awareness and self-healing. Increasing in popularity amongst Western cultures, it is herald for its therapeutic effects as a de-stressing tool and an easily accessible method of relaxation. Many of our modern day breathwork programs have been built upon the consciousness-raising movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Further research by medical professionals, extensive data and case studies seem to validate these practices as a natural treatment for many common health conditions of today.
According to the studies, consciously filling lungs with air, followed by constricting the air flow works as an exercise to condition the lungs for greater airflow and efficiency. The elongated cycle of inhales and exhales has positive effects on blood pressure and heart rate.
Focusing just on breathing gives the mind a mental break from external stressors. It's like hitting the pause button on a conveyor belt of thoughts. With constant practice, it could be a way to clear your mental inbox in turn decreasing stress, lowering anxiety, and combating symptoms of depression. Internally suppressed thoughts and feelings can be processed and released leading to a greater sense of self awareness.
Foundational Breathwork Exercises
We found these commonly used breathing exercises could potentially serve as a jumping off point for more intensive breathwork regimens.
Box or Square
Known to heighten performance and concentration, this exercise is often helpful in high stress jobs and has been beneficial to nurses, police officers, athletes and Navy SEALs. It has also been known to relieve some symptoms of COPD.
Sit up right in a comfortable chair, hands on lap and facing up.
Slowly exhale through the mouth, feeling all of the oxygen discharge from the lungs.
Next genty inhale through the nose to the count of four (in your head) ensuring air fills the lungs then abdomen.
Hold it for a count of four then exhale for the same slow count of four.
Now hold it again for another count of four. Then repeat.
As a reference, the cycle should be repeated at least four times in one sitting and several times a day as needed.
Evidence shows that this type of exercise can help calm and regulate the autonomic nervous system which regulates temperature and blood pressure causing an immediate sense of calmness. It can help to reduce stress, improve mood and treat insomnia by calming the nervous system before sleep. Some studies show it can also help with pain management.
Also known as belly breathing, this exercise has numerous benefits and is a basis for most meditation and relaxation routines. It can bring down levels of blood pressure, stress hormones, heart rate and improves the body’s ability to cope with symptoms of PTSD and even intense exercise. Being under stress can wreak havoc on the immune system. These exercises can help alleviate chronic stress to ensure effective immunity response.
Sit upright in a comfortable position with relaxed shoulders.
Place one hand on your stomach and the other on your chest.
Breath in through the nose for approximately 2 seconds and feel your stomach expand outward while keeping your chest still.
Purse your lips, press your stomach gently and exhale slowly for the same count.
Repeat several times for best results.
Stand up and arch your back.
Breath all of your air out until you cannot any longer.
Inhale slowly, taking in as much air as possible.
Hold it for 10 seconds.
Breath out slowly through the mouth, either normally or with pursed lips.
Stand up and close your eyes.
Inhale until you cannot any longer.
Exhale until all of the air has been expelled.
Keeping the eyes closed, breath in again while envisioning the number 1.
Hold for a couple of seconds then let all the breath out.
Repeat, picturing the number 2 and continue the cycle until the number 8 or higher if comfortable.
Helpful for those with lung conditions or any other conditions that make it difficult to breathe because it is designed to improve lung functions. Continued practice strengthens the lung mechanics so individuals with these conditions may not have to work as hard to breathe. It can improve breath control by keeping airways open for longer periods of time. In addition, it helps to induce relaxation relieving stress and anxiety.
Sit with your back straight or lie down and relax your shoulders.
Inhale for 2 seconds, filling the abdomen with air not just the lungs….
Purse lips together (like your blowing on hot soup) and breathe out slowly, twice as long as it took to inhale.
Repeat and over time try to increase the inhale and exhale counts.
This pattern is based on a yogic breath control technique called pranayama. It is possible when practiced on a regular basis to help individuals fall asleep faster by soothing a racing heart and forcing the mind to focus on regulating breath rather than ruminating on worries or nerves. Practicing breathing patterns that involve holding the breath allows the body to replenish oxygen.
Sit or lie comfortably.
Rest the tip of the tongue against the roof of the mouth and keep it in place throughout this practice.
Slightly part lips and make a whooshing sound, exhale completely.
Inhale through the nose quietly and count to four (in your head).
Hold breathe for 7 seconds.
Let out another whooshing exhale through the mouth for 8 seconds.
Often part of yoga or meditation practices, this type of breathing pattern can also be done on its own to help still the mind and manage daily stress. Research shows that the positive impact on mental health and well being also extends to blood pressure, heart rate and overall vitality.
Sit with legs crossed
Place left hand on left knee
Exhale completely and use the right thumb to close the right nostril
Inhale through the left nostril, then close the left nostril with your remaining fingers and open the right nostril
Exhale through your right nostril
Inhale again but this time through right nostril, then close the right nostril and exhale through the left nostril
This counts as one cycle
Repeat for approximately 5 minutes
Always finish on the left side
Often modeled after ancient techniques, these systematic breathwork programs are typically administered in groups by trained professionals. To gain a better understanding, we rounded up a few and summarized them below.
Objectives: Self-exploration; Personal growth; Coping skills
Assisted by music and occasional bodywork, this technique is mainly performed by certified practitioners who guide groups of individuals through a series of breath exercises aimed at achieving an altered state of consciousness as they are comfortably lying down. At the end of the exercise, participants create their own mandalas to honor their experience. Sessions usually conclude with a therapeutic group discussion to share and integrate what they have learned.
See also: Integrative,
Objective: Release blocked emotions and energy
Based on the idea that the trauma experienced during birth, or other unprocessed or repressed emotions are carried within our subconscious. Also be referred to as Conscious Energy Breathing, the aim is to release energy blockages stored as suppressed trauma in the body and mind. It is thought that this type of method can help individuals recognize and reverse destructive thought patterns or behaviors. As a result, some participants may feel overcome with an emotional release triggered by subconscious thoughts and feelings brought to the surface. The ultimate goal is to let go of these blockages to make space for inner peace.
See also: Shamanic, Vivation, Transformational, Biodynamic, Conscious Connected
Objective: Healing, transformation and creative focus
Similar to Rebirthing, this method is used to clear blocked emotions through circular or continuous breathing. This type of exercise involves deep breaths without any pause creating a “circle of breath”. Prior to each session, participants meet with the instructor to set their intentions. After they are guided through the exercises, the session ends with a time for sharing.
Discretions and Limitations
If you suffer from any medical conditions, it is recommended as a precaution that you consult with your doctor before beginning any new fitness or wellness routine.
Risk of induced hyperventilation causing dizziness, nausea, heart palpitations or muscle spasms. In prolonged cases, hyperventilation may cause decreased blood flow to the brain, clouded vision, ringing in the ears or cognitive distortions.
Not recommended for anyone with a history of aneurisms, cardiovascular problems, HBP, osteoporosis, vision problems, or anyone who experiences frequent seizures.
How to Start
Feeling confident? Try one of the basic patterns on your own. There is also a vast library of recorded audio guides available online. Many mindfulness apps also incorporate short guides with prompts and cues. Or maybe explore local yoga studios for referrals to certified practitioners in the area.
Have an enlightening breathwork story to share? Let it all out in the comment section below.