8 Breathwork Exercises That Will Calm You Down

person meditating on patio outside

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I don’t know about you, but I can get easily stressed out. Modern life isn’t exactly a walk in the park. But thankfully, you don’t need to spend loads of money or time ridding yourself of worry. Apparently, breathwork, which is known in yoga practice as Pranayama (prana meaning “life force” and ayama meaning “to extend or draw out”), may be the secret to having a more relaxed day.

What Is Breathwork?

Breathwork is the conscious practice of deliberately manipulating how you breathe—and bringing awareness and intention to it—with the goal of calming the body and mind.

Breathwork techniques can be a simple, quick, and free way to destress when life throws you a curveball. But the good news doesn’t end there. We spoke to two breathwork experts who both agree that implementing breathwork techniques, particularly as part of your morning routine, can be a potent preventative measure against the day’s impending stressors too.

So what are you waiting for? Read on to learn how to breathe your way into a better day.

Meet the Expert

The Benefits of Breathwork

closeup of breath work

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Certified yoga instructor Catherine Howe says that there are many benefits to breathing with awareness. It increases lung capacity, strengthens the diaphragm and intercostal muscles, and improves the mind-body connection. “It boosts your mood, and increases joy and happiness,” she adds. “When we feel good, we feel confident, and our self-image and self-esteem get a boost too.”

Because conscious breathwork calms the nervous system, it also helps relieve stress and anxiety. “Breathwork can really allow us to take stock of our thoughts—moving negative thoughts to positive, which can have a huge impact on how we feel," Howe explains.

How to Pick the Right Breathwork Technique for You

You might initially feel overwhelmed when trying to decide which breathwork technique is best for you. After all, there are quite a few to choose from. But fear not: Howe has good news on the selection front. “In general, when choosing a breathing technique, there’s not necessarily a right or wrong [choice]. As long as you’re breathing, bringing awareness to your breath, and feeling good doing it, then keep doing what you’re doing,” she says.

Howe clarifies that the only time your breathwork choice can be counterproductive is in cases of trauma, PTSD, depression, or severe anxiety. In these situations, she suggests working with a trained professional because choosing the wrong breathwork technique can be triggering, so there are specific ones that should be used.

Lastly, Howe says that if you aren’t having these clinical issues, and you do want to try and optimize your breathwork practice, the key is to examine your needs and goals. “Think about what it is you’re looking to get out of breathwork and why breathwork has come to mind for you,” she says. For example, progressive muscle relaxation is great if you’re feeling physical manifestations of stress in your body, and lion’s breath is a good choice if your self-esteem is flagging.

When Should You Use Breathwork?

Our experts note that breathwork techniques can be implemented anytime you want—either when a calming salve is needed in your life or whenever you have a few moments of uninterrupted quiet. However, wellness expert and author Danielle Copperman says that the morning is an ideal time to practice, before your mind has the chance to start worrying too much about the day ahead. When you wake up with morning anxiety, focused breathing is a simple technique to help stop any kind of irrational thoughts and negative feelings in their tracks, preventing them from developing into a full-blown bout of stress that’ll stay with you throughout the day. Meditating or practicing breathwork techniques in the morning instills a sense of calm and establishes a sense of awareness and consciousness. Copperman says this will help you experience life more deeply and feel more present in each moment.

Breath Retention (Kumbhaka Pranayama)

This technique involves deliberately inhaling, holding, and exhaling the breath for specific amounts of time. It is thought to improve lung capacity, oxygenate the blood, and enhance focus and attention. As you practice, notice any internal or external sensations, such as thoughts and feelings or outside noise and distractions. Then, without trying to change anything, focus on nothing but settling down. Allow a few weeks of practicing daily before extending the length of retention. Start with four seconds, and over time, gradually increase to eight seconds. The practice should feel natural, effortless, and entirely free from strain.

  • Stand, sit, or lie in a comfortable position, preferably in a quiet and undisturbed environment. Rest your hands on your knees if sitting on the floor, or by your side if standing, sitting on a chair, or lying down.
  • With your eyes either open or closed and breathing in and out through your nose, become aware of the rhythm of your breath. Relax your shoulders, neck, and head.
  • Begin to deepen your breath, taking a long inhale through your nose and exhaling fully to expel every last inch of the breath from your lungs. Observe how the breath feels entering and exiting the nose and the way your body moves with each inhalation and exhalation.
  • On an inhale, notice when your lungs reach full capacity, and pause for a moment before exhaling fully. As you take your next inhale, count the length of your breath in seconds.
  • Pause at the end of your inhale for the same number of seconds you inhaled for, and exhale for the same number of seconds as well.
  • Repeat this cycle a couple of times, and if the breath allows, gradually increase the length of each inhalation, breath retention, and exhalation, keeping the ratio 1:1:1. As you retain the breath, visualize that the oxygen is sinking in and distributing itself, filling the tissues of your body.
  • You can either repeat the same counts in one practice (for example, breathing to a count of three for your entire practice), or you can increase the number of counts within one practice (for example, inhaling, pausing, and exhaling to a count of three, and then increasing to a count of four, etc.).
  • Practice for up to five minutes, and then sit in stillness for a few moments to readjust before continuing your day.

Once you are familiar with this practice and feel comfortable to progress, work to a ratio of 1:2:3. For example, if you inhale for a count of two, hold the breath for four, and exhale for six.

Sitali

Sitali is a cooling breathing technique intended to help regulate your body temperature. It may also lower your blood pressure. It involves creating a straw-like shape with the tongue and inhaling through it; as the air passes through the tongue, it collects moisture.

  • Sit in a comfortable position, either on the floor with crossed legs or on a chair with your feet flat, ensuring your head, neck, and spine are aligned.
  • Close your eyes, and breathe naturally for a few moments. Relax your mouth, and then drop your jaw open as if you were about to make a low “ah” sound.
  • Curl the sides of your tongue inward to form a tube-like shape, and then poke it out of your mouth slightly.
  • Inhale deeply through the tongue, as if drinking the air in through a straw. Focus your attention on the cooling sensation of the breath and the rise of your abdomen, rib cage, and chest. Hold the breath for five to 10 counts.
  • Draw your tongue back inside your mouth, bring your lips together comfortably, and exhale slowly through the nostrils.
  • Repeat steps four and five 10 to 20 times or until you feel cooled and content.

Sitkari

Sitkari, like Sitali, is a cooling breathing technique used to help regulate your body temperature. The Sitkari method is a great choice if you can’t roll your tongue. It is also thought to reduce anxiety, regulate your appetite, and defuse anger.

  • Sit in a comfortable position, either on the floor with crossed legs or on a chair with your feet flat, ensuring your head, neck, and spine are aligned.
  • Close your eyes and breathe naturally for a few moments, then gently bring your lower and upper teeth together. Part your lips as much as you can to expose your teeth.
  • Inhale slowly through the teeth, letting the air flow through the gaps between each tooth. Focus on the feeling of the air entering your mouth, hissing through your teeth, and filling your lungs, rib cage, and abdomen.
  • Close your mouth, relax your jaw, and exhale slowly through your nose.
  • Repeat steps three and four 10 to 20 times or until you feel cooled and content.

Lion’s Breath (Simhasana)

Lion’s breath is rooted in the fifth Chakra energy around the throat, which involves communication, creativity, and self-expression. “This particular breath is beneficial for those who are feeling restricted when it comes to being heard, held back, or unworthy,” says Howe. “It helps release tension in the face and neck, bringing a sense of calm and empowerment.” 

  • Sit in a comfortable position, either on the floor with crossed legs or on a chair with your feet flat, ensuring your head, neck, and spine are aligned.
  • Lean forward slightly as you sit, bracing your hands on your knees or the floor with your fingers spread as wide as possible.
  • Inhale through your nose.
  • Open your mouth wide, and stick your tongue out and down toward your chin.
  • Exhale forcefully, making a “ha” sound that comes from deep within your abdomen.
  • Repeat up to seven times.
  • Finish by resuming your regular breathing pattern.

Pair this breathwork technique with a positive affirmation, such as “I am enough,” to augment the sense of empowerment it brings.

Deep Breathing/Belly Breathing

Deep breathing (also known as belly breathing or diaphragmatic breathing) helps strengthen the diaphragm, an important breathing muscle, and activates the parasympathetic nervous system. This signals the body to relax and calm down. Howe explains that it also reduces levels of cortisol—a stress hormone in the body. “This helps lower stress and helps us cope and feel safe,” she says. “Deep breathing [also] encourages core stability and reduces the possibility of injury.”

  • Sit or lie down comfortably somewhere you can be uninterrupted, if possible.
  • Consciously relax your shoulders, and lower your tongue from the roof of your mouth to help release tension in your jaw.
  • Place one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach.
  • Breathe in through the nose for a count of four, allowing the air deep into your abdomen so your stomach expands. Try to keep your upper body, chest, and shoulders relatively still.
  • Exhale slowly through your nose or mouth for a count of eight.
  • Repeat as many times as you’d like, always directing the breath toward your abdomen. 

Alternate Nostril Breathing

“Using the hands to alternate the opening and closing of the nostrils gives the mind something to think about, helps us focus, and [prevents] the mind from wandering toward worries and to-dos,” notes Howe. In this way, she says, this breathwork technique helps lower stress and anxiety and can bring a feeling of calm.

  • Sit comfortably.
  • Exhale completely, and then use your right thumb to close your right nostril.
  • Inhale through your left nostril, and then close the left nostril with your ring finger and pinky.
  • Open the right nostril, and exhale through it.
  • Inhale through the right nostril, and then close this nostril.
  • Open the left nostril, and exhale through the left side.
  • Continue the same pattern for up to five minutes.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Progressive muscle relaxation brings the sensory connection of the mind and body together by consciously and deliberately tightening then relaxing each muscle group sequentially from head to toe. “I love this technique for those that have trouble with meditation and specific poses in yoga, whereby the body holds a lot of tension,” shares Howe. “I like to use the analogy of ‘see it, feel it, let go.’ There is something so energizing and empowering about this ‘giving your body permission to let go’ technique.”

Howe says one thing that makes this technique so powerful is that it helps you learn to unconsciously release physical stress and tension in the body. “As you move down the body from one muscle group to another, start to pay attention to how your body feels holding tension,” she advises. “Once we start to become aware of that feeling, we will start to recognize it sooner and therefore be able to release it sooner.”

  • Lie on your back.
  • Inhale and tighten the muscles near the top of your head and face for four to 10 seconds. 
  • Exhale quickly, fully and rapidly relaxing the tightened muscle groups.
  • Resume regular breathing for a few breaths. 
  • Inhale, tightening the next group of muscles down the body from the top of your head to your toes (forehead, then jaw, neck, shoulders, chest/back, etc., ending with toes).
  • Exhale quickly, releasing that muscle group.
  • Take a few regular breaths before tightening the next group.

Boxed Breathing (Sama Vritti)

Boxed breathing, through its steady and consistent pattern, helps calm and soothe the body and mind and alleviate stress. “It’s great for busy minds, and it brings focus to the present moment,” says Howe. “There is something about rhythm—the ebb and flow—that our bodies seem to enjoy with this technique.”

  • Find a comfortable position, and imagine a square.
  • Inhale for a count of four, drawing an imaginary line across the first side of the square. Focus on bringing in joy and gratitude.
  • Hold that breath for a count of four, drawing a line across the second side of the square. Imagine the breath of life filling your lungs.
  • Exhale for a count of four, drawing a line across the third side of the square, releasing whatever no longer serves you.
  • Hold that breath for a count of four as you complete and connect the square, embracing the fullness of your lungs and the life within.
  • Repeat the same pattern, starting by inhaling for a count of four as you imagine the first side of the square, up to three to four more times.
Article Sources
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