In Western cultures, many people take for granted the healing power of breathing exercises. We rely too much on pharmaceuticals as remedies and ignore the preventative ‘medicine’ of simple breathing exercises.
In the last few decades, Western cultures have adopted eastern philosophies such as yoga and meditation for stress relief. And the results speak for themselves.
This article will look at how breathing exercises help with a wide range of conditions and the importance of taking time out for yourself.
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What are Breathing Exercises?
Breathing exercises take many forms, but most people relate breathing exercises with mindfulness and meditation. No matter what breathing modality you practice, the activity always involves taking time to focus on the breath.
Three common breathing exercises focus on through:
- The nose and mouth.
- Only through the nose.
- Only through the mouth.
Why Breathing Exercises are Important
In a 2015 study, researchers found that:
“Detrimental effects of stress, negative emotions, and sympathetic dominance of the autonomic nervous system have been shown to be counteracted by different forms of meditation, relaxation, and breathing techniques. We propose that these breathing techniques could be used as first-line and supplemental treatments for stress, anxiety, depression, and some emotional disorders.“
This 2015 study is just one example of many studies about the healing power of breathing exercises.
We should compare the importance of breathing exercises to caring for our teeth.
We brush and floss to preserve our teeth and gums and to avoid regular visits to the dentist. But we don’t do the same with breathing. And it’s FREE!
If a daily breathing exercise is proven to reduce all sorts of physical and mental ailments, why do we not place more importance on practising daily?
Breathing Exercises for Stress and Anxiety
Breathing is an effective self-regulation treatment to calm the mind during moments of stress. You can even practise breathing exercises at your desk or before heading into a meeting to improve focus and cognition.
Here are three breathing exercises for stress and anxiety.
Simple Breathing Exercise for Stress
You can do this simple breathing exercise sitting down or standing up. Whichever you prefer, make sure your feet are flat on the floor in line with your shoulders with an upright posture.
- Close your eyes or hold a steady downward gaze.
- Breathe in deeply through the nose and out through the mouth.
- Be mindful of each inhalation and exhalation by focusing on how the air enters and leaves your body. A good area of focus could be the stomach or chest, noticing how either rises and falls as you breathe.
- Count to ten in your mind before restarting at one.
- You can either set a timer or stop when you feel calm and relaxed enough to continue your day.
Breath Retention Exercise
Often when you’re stressed, anxious or on the verge of a panic attack, your heart rate and breathing increases. You take short inhalations, which reduce the amount of oxygen your body retains with each breath, further compounding your feeling of anxiety.
Retention breathing is an excellent way to calm yourself in moments of extreme stress and anxiety.
- For this breathing exercise, it’s best to sit upright with your eyes closed.
- Inhale through the nose for five seconds. You can do this by counting to five in your head as you breathe in.
- Retain or hold your breath for five seconds.
- Breathe out through the mouth for five seconds.
- You should notice the calming effect after the third or fourth cycle but try to continue this breathing exercise for 5-10 minutes.
If you find that you can easily manage five seconds, try to increase the intervals to eight or ten seconds.
Single Nostril Breathing
Single nostril breathing forms part of pranayama, which is a healing yoga and breathing modality. Studies of pranayama breathing have shown to reduce stress, improve cognition and even help with asthma.
- Single nostril breathing is best practised sitting upright with the eyes closed. You can sit in a chair, but some people also sit cross-legged on the floor.
- Close your eyes and take a deep breath in and out.
- With your right hand, use your thumb to close your right nostril and breath in through your left nostril for five seconds.
- Let go of your right nostril and use the index finger to block your left nostril and breath out until you empty your lungs.
- Repeat by breathing in through the left nostril and out through the right nostril.
- Repeat steps three to five for 5-10 minutes.
Breathing Exercises for Sleep
Breathing is an excellent way to prepare the mind for sleep. To be effective, don’t look at any screens or devices after you complete a breathing exercise for sleep. The point is to switch off the brain; any activity after a breathing exercise will wake the mind again!
Bhramari Pranayama Breathing for Sleep
Bhramari pranayama breathing (also referred to as the humming bee breath) has proven to reduce breathing and heart rate, placing you in a calm state for sleep but can also be used to reduce stress and anxiety.
This Bhramari pranayama breathing exercise does require making some sounds, so it’s probably not recommended if you are close enough to disturb other people. We’ll look at two variations of the Bhramari pranayama breathing.
The first Bhramari pranayama breathing exercise is simple and easy.
- Close your eyes and take a deep breath in and out.
- Place one hand on your stomach and one hand over your heart.
- Take a deep breath in and exhale with a “mmmm” sound until you empty your lungs of air.
- You can continue breathing like this for 5-10 minutes.
- Alternatively, after 10-20 breaths, you can switch to placing your hands over your ears and repeating step three.
Here is a step-by-step guide to this simple Bhramari pranayama breathing exercise.
The second Bhramari pranayama breathing exercise is a little more complex but highly effective at immediately reducing your heart rate and breathing.
- Close your eyes and take a deep breath in and out.
- Gently place a thumb over each ear lobe, applying enough pressure that you close the ears. It’s important to emphasise this is a gentle amount of pressure.
- With your thumbs over your ear lobes, place the index fingers above your eyebrows and your other three fingers gently over your closed eyelids. Don’t apply any pressure with your fingers; simply allow them to rest on your face.
- Take a deep breath in (a five-second inhale) and exhale with a “mmmm” sound until you empty your lungs of air (try not to exceed 15-seconds).
- Continue breathing like this for a minimum of 5-10 breaths but try to go for 5-10 minutes.
Here are the step-by-step instructions for the second Bhramari pranayama breathing exercise.
Breathing Exercise in Bed
This breathing exercise for sleep is best when you’re already lying in bed.
- Lie on your back with your hands at your sides or resting on your torso.
- Close your eyes and begin breathing in and out only through the nose. If you can’t do this, you can breathe through the mouth instead, but it’s more effective if you only breathe through the nose.
- Allow yourself to breathe normally without forcing or influencing the breath in any way.
- As you breathe in, notice how the air passes in through the nostrils. As you breathe out, notice what the warm breath feels like over your upper lip.
- Once you feel calm and relaxed, take your mind through the day from the time you woke up until the moment you lay down in your bed. Don’t overthink the details or interactions, just the steps you took in about 20 – 30 seconds. For example: woke up, showered, ate breakfast, drove to work, had a meeting, ate lunch, etc., until you arrive in bed.
- When you arrive back in your bed, take another deep breath and as you breathe out, feel like the exhalation is pushing you down into the mattress.
- Continue breathing as instructed in step four until you feel yourself falling deeper and deeper into unconsciousness.
If your mind is busy, it may take some time for this breathing exercise to take effect, but it’s important to stick with it and not get frustrated. When the mind wanders, simply bring the attention back to the breath. If you find you’re too distracted, try the Bhramari pranayama breathing exercise first and then get back into bed.
Breathing Exercises for Kids
Kids Bee Breath
The kid’s bee breath is a simplified version of the Bhramari pranayama breathing exercise. This breathing exercise is excellent for calming kids and could be used before a nap or at bedtime.
- Kids need to sit upright on the floor with their eyes closed and their hands resting in their laps.
- Breathe deeply through the mouth. On the exhale, make a “mmmm” sound until all the air has exited their lungs.
- Encourage kids to focus on what the vibrations feel like within their bodies as they breathe out.
- Continue breathing like this for ten cycles.
Kids Deep Retention Breathing
This deep breathing exercise is excellent if you want to get kids into a calm state. You might need to guide children through this breathing exercise.
- Ask kids to sit cross-legged and upright on the floor with their eyes closed.
- Take a deep breath in through the nose. Hold for a count of two and exhale through the nose until all the air has left the body.
- Repeat the exercise for ten cycles.
Kids Woodchopper Breathing Exercise
The woodchopper breathing exercise is a little more active and fun. It’s a fantastic exercise for kids to start the day or if they have been sitting for an extended period.
- Ask your kids to stand upright with their feet in line with the outside of their shoulders. So, just slightly apart.
- Ask the kids to imagine they’re holding an axe with both hands like a woodchopper.
- As they breathe in, lift their axe over their head. On the exhalation, bend down and swing the axe through their legs like a woodchopper making a chopping action.
- Hold for two seconds before taking a deep breath to bring the axe back over their head.
- Repeat steps three and four for ten cycles.
Here is an example of how to do a woodchopper breathing exercise for kids.
We hope this has given you some insight into how breathing exercises benefit our mental and physical well-being.
Breathing exercises are not a quick fix but rather a continuous practice to incorporate into your everyday life. Breathing is a vital part of a daily self-love routine that will positively affect your mental health.
Our 30-Days of Mindfulness pack is an excellent way to get into a mindfulness routine with meditation and light yoga exercises.