Updated: Oct 3, 2020
What is breathwork, why do it and six breathwork practices to try today!
We’re beginning to understand that more than ever we need to make time for relaxation and to make our physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing a priority. One of the most powerful ways to meet all of those needs is through conscious breathing - or ‘breathwork.’
Breathing it in: So what is breathwork?
Breathwork refers to numerous breathing exercises and techniques, used to improve mental, physical, and spiritual well-being, involving intentionally changing your breathing pattern in a conscious and systematic way to achieve the desired results - which in most cases will be to achieve either a state of deep relaxation or feeling energized.
There are numerous types of breathwork techniques: ranging from the likes of Clarity Breathwork, equipping you with the skill set to help you disengage from core ‘beliefs’ about yourself which have built up over the years and tend to be damaging, unhelpful, and often untrue; through to deeply spiritual practices such as Shamanic Breathwork, allowing your to connect with your inner shamanic or ancestral healer.
The benefits of breathing seem never-ending:
On a physical level, a breathwork practice can boost your immune system, and increase oxygen levels in your body
Emotionally, breathing can release and help you process trauma, overcome addictions, depression, and anxiety
Socially, attention to breath can help you develop self-awareness and life skills, as well as increasing confidence levels, improving relationships, boosting self-esteem, and enriching creativity
Spiritually, specific breathwork tactics can alter your state of being and allow you to access deeper, and alternative levels of consciousness
Whether applying a breathwork practice to your life to ‘simply calm yourself down,’ in times of stress, work with anxiety, or to gain spiritual clarity; my personal belief is that the seemingly simple actions of inhaling and exhaling are not only inexplicably powerful to our health and growth but accessible to everyone.
Let it breathe: Conscious breathwork and the physical benefits:
Conscious breathing - or breathing with purposefully relaxed awareness - is practiced to ground you and bring you immediately to the present moment.
So many of us live between the two polarities of the past and future in our minds: re-living or worrying over the past, and similarly, trying to plan for or worrying about the future. But the past is been and done - and as such no longer exists, and we cannot begin to predict the future, life changes all the time; so in spending this time, and no much nervous energy, in our heads, disconnected to the reality of HERE and NOW - we are not in the present.
In order to notice, you need to be aware; in order to be aware, you need to be present; and in order to be present, one of the best tools is conscious breathing!
Our brains naturally control our breathing without us having to consciously regulate it. However, it is also possible to control our breathing, like when we choose to hold our breath or take a really big inhale or just generally think about ourselves breathing.
When I say conscious breathing, I mean purposefully breathing in a relaxed way, with full awareness of each inhales and exhale. Your conscious mind is controlling the rate of your breath, but it is not forceful breathing nor should it feel strained; rather, it is breathing with awareness.
Conscious breathwork also offers enormous physical benefits including improving our ability to focus the mind, supporting our lungs and respiratory functions, rejuvenating the nervous system, removing toxins from - or purifying - the body, and reducing physical stress symptoms.
We know that stress is not just in the mind, but that it also manifests in the physical body, either from mental stress or in circumstances like excess cortisol from overtraining in the gym. Deep breathing techniques have been shown to significantly reduce the production of these hormones associated with stress within the body.
Essentially you are putting yourself in a state of relaxation - or the digestive state - the opposite to fight or flight mode, which sees our heart rates increase, breath increase, and survival-instinct stress modalities arise on both physical and mental levels.
When the mind and body are stressed, and in a more ‘fight or flight’ state of survival, excess sugar is processed in the body, which is why stress is associated with weight gain. Not only this, living in a state of stress for too long, has adverse consequences on health.
Six relaxing breathwork techniques I recommend you try today
If you are new to breathwork or mediation you may find sitting with your back supported in a comfortable chair and your feet on the floor a good starting position. Over time, and if you support your breathwork practice with a physical yoga practice, you can work your way up to a cross-legged position on the floor.
Try to find a quiet space, to begin with breathing. it is easier if there are few distractions.
With all deep breathing techniques, placing one hand on the chest and another on the lower stomach can help. When breathing in, try to feel the air and see where it is entering.
Focus on feeling an expansion in the stomach, but without forcing the muscles to push out.
Try to relax the muscles instead of engaging them.
1. Breath awareness or Breath focus technique
This deep breathing technique uses imagery or focuses words and phrases. You can choose a focus word that makes you smile, feel relaxed, or that is simply neutral to think about. Examples include:
peace, let go or relax, but it can be any word that suits you to focus on and repeat through your practice.
As you build up your breath focus practice you can start with a 10-minute session. Gradually increase the duration until your sessions are at least 20 minutes.
To do it:
Sit or lie down in a comfortable place
Bring your awareness to your breaths without trying to change how you’re breathing
Alternate between normal and deep breaths a few times. Notice any differences between normal breathing and deep breathing. Notice how your abdomen expands with deep inhalations
Note how shallow breathing feels compared to deep breathing
Practice your deep breathing for a few minutes
Place one hand below your belly button, keeping your belly relaxed, and notice how it rises with each inhales and falls with each exhale
Let out a loud sigh with each exhale
Begin the practice of breath focus by combining this deep breathing with imagery and a focus word or phrase that will support relaxation
You can imagine that the air you inhale brings waves of peace and calm throughout your body. Mentally say, “Inhaling peace and calm”
imagine that the air you exhale washes away tension and anxiety. You can say to yourself, “Exhaling tension and anxiety”
2. Diaphragmatic or belly breathing
Belly breathing can help you use your diaphragm properly. Do belly breathing exercises when you’re feeling relaxed and rested Practice diaphragmatic breathing for 5 to 10 minutes 3 to 4 times per day.
When you begin you may feel tired, but over time the technique should become easier and should feel more natural.
To do it:
Lie on your back with your knees slightly bent and your head on a pillow
You may place a pillow under your knees for support
Place one hand on your upper chest and one hand below your rib cage, allowing you to feel the movement of your diaphragm
Slowly inhale through your nose, feeling your stomach pressing into your hand
Keep your other hand as still as possible
Exhale using pursed lips as you tighten your stomach muscles, keeping your upper hand completely still
You can place a book on your abdomen to make the exercise more difficult. Once you learn how to do belly breathing lying down you can increase the difficulty by trying it while sitting in a chair. You can then practice the technique while performing your daily activities.
3. Humming Bee Breath (Bhramari in Sanskrit).
The benefits of this breathing technique are fantastic. Bhramari will help you relax, prepare you for meditation, help you sleep better, release anxiety, and help you feel more present, grounded « in » your body- at this moment.
Humming bee breath (bhramari)
The unique sensation of this yoga breathing practice helps to create an instant calm and is especially soothing around your forehead. Some people use humming bee breath to relieve frustration, anxiety, and anger. Of course, you’ll want to practice it in a place where you are free to make a humming sound.
To do this:
Choose a comfortable seated position
Close your eyes and relax your face
Place your first fingers on the tragus cartilage that partially covers your ear canal
Inhale, and as you exhale gently press your fingers into the cartilage
Keeping your mouth closed, make a loud humming sound
Continue for as long as is comfortable
4. Alternate nostril breathing or Nadi Shodhana
Alternate nostril breathing” is a simple yet powerful technique that settles the mind, body, and emotions. If you're feeling stressed, follow these steps to help you find your center.
Alternate nostril breathing is a yogic breath control practice. In Sanskrit, it's known as Nadi shodhana pranayama. This translates as “subtle energy clearing breathing technique.” This type of breathwork can be done as part of a yoga or meditation practice
Alternate nostril breathing has been shown to enhance cardiovascular function and to lower heart rate.
Nadi shodhana is best practiced on an empty stomach, so it’s great to do first thing in the morning, as I did when living in an Ashram. Avoid the practice if you’re feeling sick or congested. Keep your breath smooth and even throughout the practice.
To do this:
Choose a comfortable seated position
Lift up your right hand toward your nose, pressing your first and middle fingers down toward your palm and leaving your other fingers extended
After an exhale, use your right thumb to gently close your right nostril
Inhale through your left nostril and then close your left nostril with your right pinky and ring fingers
Release your thumb and exhale out through your right nostril
Inhale through your right nostril and then close this nostril
Release your fingers to open your left nostril and exhale through this side
This is one cycle
Continue this breathing pattern for up to 5 minutes
Finish your session with an exhale on the left side.
5. Equal breathing or sama vritti in Sanskrit
This breathing technique focuses on making your inhales and exhales the same length. Making your breath smooth and steady can help bring about balance and equanimity.
You should find a breath length that is not too easy and not too difficult. You also want it to be too fast so that you’re able to maintain it throughout the practice. Usually, this is between 3 and 5 counts.
Once you get used to equal breathing while seated you can do it during your yoga practice or other daily activities.
To do it:
Choose a comfortable seated position
Breathe in and out through your nose
Count during each inhale and exhale to make sure they are even in duration. Alternatively, choose a word or short phrase to repeat during each inhale and exhale
You can add a slight pause or breath retention after each inhales and exhales if you feel comfortable. (Normal breathing involves a natural pause.)
Continue practicing this breath for at least 5 minutes
6. Box breathing
Also known as square breathing, box breathing in a natural biohack technique used when taking slow, deep breaths. It can heighten performance and concentration while also being a powerful stress reliever
Box breathing is a simple technique that a person can do at a work desk or in a cafe.
Close your eyes. Breathe in through your nose while counting to four slowly. Feel the air enter your lungs
Hold your breath inside while counting slowly to four. Try not to clamp your mouth or nose shut. Simply avoid inhaling or exhaling for 4 seconds
Begin to slowly exhale for 4 seconds
Repeat steps 1 to 3 at least three times. Ideally, repeat the three steps for 4 minutes, or until calm returns
If you find the technique challenging, to begin with, you can try counting to three instead of four. Once someone is used to the technique, they may choose to count to five or six.