What's something you always hear when you're in a state of panic? “Just take a deep breath.” Well, there are about a million reasons why this is great advice to follow, so let's get into WHY this is, and HOW to take advantage of the many benefits of breathing.
Why is breathwork so powerful?
Intentional breathing also relaxes your nervous system, and has some pretty profound benefits including:
Increased sleep quality
Detoxifying the body
Improved cardiovascular health
The Vagus Nerve
One reason breathwork is beneficial is because it has a stimulating effect on your vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is a nerve that signals your body that it’s in a calm state and that it can now rest.
The term vagus in Latin means “wandering”, which perfectly describes its role. The vagus nerve is the longest and most complicated of our 12 cranial nerves, and runs from the brainstem to the colon. Along the way, it connects to the middle ear, lungs, heart, vocal chords, and intestines. See image above.
The vagus nerve possesses many roles, including regulating:
One of the most important roles for us to take a look at here is the vagus nerve’s interactions with the Parasympathetic Nervous System, which stimulates the “rest and digest” state of our bodies. This nerve carries signals via chemical messengers (neurotransmitters) from the brain to many essential organs signaling important responses such as “fight or flight” and “safe and social”.
This said, it is quite clear why breathwork is an important activity not only for our overall health, but for relaxing our nervous system which in turn affects our entire well-being.
The incredible thing about breathing exercises is that it's 100% accessible to every living person... literally. Let's explore some breathing exercises you can try right now.
6 Breathing Exercises & Techniques
Breathing exercises don’t need to take a lot of time out of your day - even just 2-5 minutes a day can make a huge difference. Below are a few examples of breathing exercises you can try yourself right at home!
Pursed Lip Breathing helps with slowing the pace of breathing by applying intentional effort to each breath you take. This exercise can be specifically helpful when lifting, bending, and stair climbing. To practice:
Relax your shoulders and neck.
Inhale slowly for 2 seconds through your nose with your mouth closed.
Pucker your lips, in the same manner you would to whistle.
Exhale slowly for 4 seconds through your puckered lips.
Diaphragmatic Breathing or belly breathing helps us to properly use our diaphragms. A good time to use this type of breathing is when you’re in a relaxed or rested state. It’s good to practice this type of breathing 3-4 times a day, for 5-10 minutes each time. To practice:
Lay on your back with a pillow under your head, and your knees slightly bent.
Place a pillow below your knees if needed for support.
Put one of your hands on your upper chest and one below your rib cage in order to feel your diaphragm move.
Inhale slowly through your nose and feel your stomach press against your hand.
Keep the hand on your chest as still as possible.
Exhale with puckered or pursed lips while tightening your stomach muscles.
Breath Focus Technique uses imagery and phrases as well as focus words to think about during the exercise. The choice words should be neutral or words that make you feel relaxed or happy such as “let go” or “relax”. The word will be one you focus on continually as you breathe. You can start this practice once for 10 minutes, and work your way up to 20. To practice:
Sit or lie down in a comfortable space.
Focus on your breaths without trying to change anything about how you’re breathing.
Alternate between taking both deep and normal breaths, and take note of any differences you feel as well as in the way your abdomen expands.
Practice deep breathing for a few minutes.
Placing one hand below your belly button and keeping your stomach relaxed, notice the way it rises and falls with each breath you take.
Begin to let out a loud sigh with your exhales.
Begin combining your deep breaths with imagery or your focus words to enhance relaxation.
Imagine that the air you’re inhaling is bringing peace into your body, and verbally reiterate this to yourself.
Imagine that the air you’re exhaling is releasing anxiety and tension, and verbally reiterate this to yourself.
Lion’s Breath is a yoga practice that is meant to be energizing and relieve tension in both the chest and face. To practice:
Seat yourself comfortably, you can cross your legs or sit back on your heels.
Push the palms of your hands against your knees with your fingers spread.
Deeply inhale through your nose while widening your eyes.
Simultaneously widen your mouth while sticking out your tongue, reaching the tip of your tongue towards your chin.
Contract your throat muscles while exhaling and making a verbal “ha” sound.
Focus your vision on the space between the tip of your nose and your eyebrows.
Practice this sequence 2 to 3 times.
Equal Breathing or sama vritti in Sanskrit focuses on making your inhales and exhales the same duration. This develops a sense of balance in the body. Choose a breath length that is moderate to you, not too hard and not too easy, as you will need to maintain it consistently throughout the exercise. Typically this should be between 3 and 5 seconds. This exercise can be done in a seated position, but after practice can be done in other positions such as yoga poses or during other daily activities. To practice:
Seat yourself comfortably.
Inhale and exhale through your nose.
Count during each inhale and exhale, or say a word during your breaths to make sure they are the same length.
Continue this exercise for about 5 minutes.
Box breathing or square breathing is used for heightened concentration and stress relief. Slow deep breaths are used in this practice and there are a variety of benefits. To practice:
Choose a quiet and stress-free environment. Sit comfortably and upright in a chair with your feet flat on the floor.
Place your hands palms up on your lap and focus on keeping a straight posture.
Slowly exhale through your mouth and focus on your breath.
Slowly inhale through your nose for 4 seconds and feel the air fill every part of your lungs.
Hold your breath for 4 seconds.
Exhale again for 4 seconds and focus on your breath.
Hold your breath for 4 more seconds before repeating the sequence.
Adding to your Toolshed
There are so many simple ways to practice your breathing in your day to day. And as I mentioned earlier, these types of exercises are such a beneficial tool for maintaining a mindful state and overall increasing your well being.
Breathing exercises are most beneficial to us if practiced on a daily basis. While it may take some time to build a routine, many of these exercises only require a few minutes per day and some can even be done during our day to day activities.
If you’re feeling ready to take this step, start with just a few minutes a day and build your way up to longer durations and repeated exercises. Take time to figure out which breathing exercises you enjoy or which one’s help you the most.
I always love hearing your feedback! Leave a comment below, or send me a note and tell me which of these exercises you loved the most: firstname.lastname@example.org. And, if you got here because you've been having trouble sleeping, you're going to want to stay tuned for the next blog :).