If you’re hoping to bring more calm and control into your life in 2024, breathwork is a great place to start. You’ve probably heard the term thrown around, but what exactly is breathwork? How does it benefit your body? And is it something you can do at home?
This article gives you everything you need to start your own healthy breathwork practice in 2024.
What is Breathwork?
In short, breathwork is an umbrella term for intentionally breathing in specific patterns in order to calm down, or create a specific effect in your body. While we’re always breathing, we’re not always breathing deeply. And our breath is rarely something we are aware of – most of the time, it just happens. But your breath is what brings oxygen into and through your body, lets stress out, and it’s connected to a range of other body functions that affect your health and wellbeing.
By taking control of your breath, you can affect both your state of mind, and various physical processes in your body, to feel better and start to heal.
What Are the Benefits of Breathwork?
Breathwork is an ancient practice, but research over the last few decades has shown us just how powerful it can be. Here are some of the benefits of regular breathwork:
Regulate Stress and Anxiety
One of the biggest benefits of breathwork is that it can help you to regulate stress and anxiety. We live in a stressful and often overwhelming world, and many of us struggle with anxiety in our daily lives – some of us to a debilitating degree. Living with anxiety can be difficult, and the long-term effects of high stress are well-known to us.
When we experience stress, our central nervous system is activated, triggering our fight-or-flight response. Our heart rate increases, adrenaline starts rushing, and our respiratory rate accelerates and becomes shallow, which limits the oxygen entering your bloodstream. This ancient mechanism is meant to warn and protect us from danger, but in our modern world we don’t need it like we used to – life-and-death dangers are quite rare. And yet, once it’s triggered, it can be hard to convince our brains that there is no real danger.
By intentionally deepening and regulating your breath, you can calm your nervous system, which sends signals to your brain that it’s safe to relax again. This way, you can regain control over your thoughts and start to calm down. The more you practice this, the easier and quicker it becomes, which can be a great tool to overcome anxiety or manage stressful situations.
Breathwork is often used in therapy as a tool to manage anxiety, but also to help heal trauma and PTSD, negative or addictive thought patterns, grief, and even chronic pain.
Boost Your Digestive & Immune Systems
By bringing oxygen into our bloodstream and organs, breathing also plays a key role in our immune system. Recent studies have actually shown that breathing routines can voluntarily affect the immune system – intentionally deepening and slowing your breath flushes more oxygen into your body, which has been found to have an anti-inflammatory effect. Breathwork may also alkalize your blood pH, and generally strengthen your immune system.
Likewise, the digestive system is a complex machine, and research has found that much of our physical well-being tracks back to our gut health. Oxygen plays a key role in breaking down food into nutrients and generating energy, as well as in strengthening the organs involved in digestion.
By reducing stress in your gut, you may improve your digestive system and relieve pain or issues. This can be especially useful for people who regularly experience gut issues.
Improved Focus, Awareness, and Mental Wellbeing
Apart from calming our nervous system in situations of high stress, breathwork can help us bring ourselves back to the present. This can improve focus, help us to stay present and aware, or improve the quality of our sleep. It’s also been found to increase creativity, joy, confidence, and the general mental well-being of people who practice it regularly.
Breathwork Techniques You Can Try at Home
Breathwork can easily be practiced at home, and doesn’t have to take up much of your time. Even just 5-10 minutes a few times a week can make a difference.
There are countless breathwork techniques for you to try, and the key is to find one that resonates and feels good for you. Depending on what you’re hoping to achieve, you can also use specific breathing exercises that have a certain effect on your body, or mix them to use when needed. Below are a few easy breathing techniques to get you started:
Box breathing is one of the easiest techniques to try, and can be done virtually anywhere, at any time. It helps you to regain control of your breath, deepen it, and bring you back to the present moment.
Just like a box has four sides, this breathing cycle has four phases. Breath in for four seconds, hold your breath for four seconds, breath out for four seconds, and pause for four more seconds before you start the cycle again. The repetitive counting as you breathe may also help you to calm your mind.
Diaphragmatic breathing, also known as abdominal breathing or belly breathing, is another technique that’s easy to get started with. It can be done both sitting up and lying down (which may be easier to start with), and the idea is to connect with the diaphragm, the large muscle deep in your abdomen that regulates your breath.
To do this, try to breathe with your belly, rather than your chest. Envision the air filling up your body – as you breathe in, both your belly and your chest should expand. When you breathe out, your chest relaxes, and your navel draws upwards and in toward your spine. Repeat, breathing deeply and slowly.
This technique can also be done sitting up or lying down, and is one of the best to help you relax, move your thoughts away from worries, and prepare you for sleep.
The name refers to the length of each phase in the breathing cycle. Breathe in for 4 counts, hold your breath for 7 counts, and then breathe out for 8 counts. This encourages you to fully empty your lungs, and helps your body relax.
Alternate Nostril Breathing
Alternate nostril breathing has its roots in yoga, and is sometimes referred to as channel-clearing breathing. In yoga, it’s believed that this breathing exercise clears out energy and brings about balance in the body, while research has found that it can help you relax and sharpen your focus.
To try it, use your finger to press one nostril closed at a time. Breathe in deeply through one nostril, and then breathe out through the other – rinse and repeat for a few minutes or until you feel the desired effect.
Pursed Lips Breathing
This is another technique focused on relaxation, and one you can do at any time of the day, though it may be especially helpful when your breathing is more strained, such as during climbing, lifting something, or walking up steep stairs. It’s also been shown to help people with respiratory conditions, such as asthma.
For this technique, breathe in deeply through your nose. As you exhale through your mouth, purse your lips by pinching them slightly inwards – this helps to prolong your exhale, and can be a good way to practice for other techniques such as the 4-7-8 technique.
Hyperventilation/Retention Breathing (Wim Hof Method)
As part of the Wim Hof method, the legendary health guru recommends a technique known as Hyperventilation/Retention breathing. Recommended to do right after light physical activity like walking, or before you eat, this exercise is designed to bring down your stress levels. It may also improve the quality of your sleep, enhance focus, and aid physical recovery after exercise.
To try it, sit or lie down comfortably, and start by breathing deeply through your nose, letting your stomach expand, and then letting the air release through your mouth without force. Repeat this for about 30 seconds, and on the final exhale, you enter the Retention phase by holding off on your next breath for as long as possible. When you do breathe in again, breathe in deeply, letting your stomach expand. Hold that breath for 15 seconds before you let it go.
This completes the first round – if comfortable, repeat the whole process 3-4 times. If you want to learn more about the Wim Hof method, check out his website here.
Note: The Wim Hof breathing method is ideal to combine with his cold water immersion method, which you can learn more about here.
Tips for an Effective Breathwork Practice:
Breathwork can be a powerful practice, but might feel fuzzy as you get started. Here are a few tips for how to develop an effectful breathwork practice of your own:
- Find someplace secluded or outside. Fresh air is ideal, but breathing techniques can be done anywhere, and once you learn them this becomes one of their greatest benefits – you always have access to them, no matter where you are. But as you’re starting out, you may need to focus to get them right, and engage your body properly. It may help to be somewhere you’re comfortable and away from disturbing crowds or noises.
- Don’t pressure yourself. The key to effective breathwork is ease – it’s meant to bring you back to your physical body and help you relax. Overthinking will complicate this, and when we’re new to breathwork, the expectation that we need to completely empty our minds can be overwhelming. It’s also not strictly necessary to feel the effects of breathwork. So try to take the pressure off yourself – if you drift away from the exercise, simply return to it when you realize. Over time, this will become easier.
Count your breaths. If you are struggling with an active mind, a great way to remain focused on the breathing exercise is to internally count your breaths. Some techniques, such as box breathing and 4-7-8, bring this about naturally, but you can do it for others too if it helps you to stay in the present moment. Or, if you prefer, you can pick a word or mantra to repeat internally while you breathe.
Start slowly and build up stamina. There is a risk of hyperventilation with certain breathing techniques, and more advanced exercises might require practice. Some will be easier to get right once you’ve built up awareness of your breath and the muscles involved. Start with a few minutes a day, and stop if you experience dizziness, headaches, or similar negative effects.
If you do feel overwhelmed or are struggling to get the techniques right, consider taking a class with an experienced breathwork teacher that can guide you through it. These can often be found in yoga studios or breathwork centers.
- Aim for 5-10 minutes per day. You can practice breathwork for more than 10 minutes per day, but as a general practice, aiming for between 5-10 minutes per day is great and will make a difference for your body.
Bottomline: Should You Try Breathwork?
Breathwork is a great way to reduce stress and anxiety, and can be an effective tool in calming down your flight-or-fight response. It may also improve digestion, strengthen the immune system, improve sleep and elevate your mood and general mental well-being.
Breathwork can be beneficial for everyone, but is especially powerful for those experiencing anxiety, digestive issues, respiratory issues, or people looking for tools to heal trauma, chronic pain, or similar conditions in therapy.
There are plenty of breathing exercises that you can do on your own throughout the day, including techniques such as Box breathing, the 4-7-8 technique, Pursed lips method, Alternate Nostril breathing, and Diaphragmatic breathing. More advanced techniques can also be beneficial, but may take time to build up to or someone experienced to guide you through it.
Overall, breathwork is an easy and quick way to soothe your nervous system and improve your life, and 5-10 minutes per day can be enough to feel the effects.
Psst! Curious to learn more about the benefits of ice baths and cold water therapy? Check out this article next!