These days, whenever you're feeling stressed, frustrated, angry, sad, or really any emotion outside of happiness, the first piece of advice most people are apt to give is, "Have you tried meditating?" But... meditation is difficult, and not for everyone! That's why its calming cousin—breathwork—is so clutch.
Breathwork is an ancient healing technique, with science to back its effectiveness as a calming agent due to its activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. Verses meditation, it can be easier for people to add to their mental health toolbox because it doesn't require you to battle the voices in your head; instead, it lets your body do the work of bringing you out of past sadness or future fear and into the present moment.
One of the best things about breathwork is that it can be done pretty much anywhere under just about any circumstance, and you don't need a wide window of time for it, either. In fact, most breath-centric calming exercises show effectiveness in five minutes or less. Below, find 15 such practices to incorporate into your daily zen routine, or to lean on in moments of mental health crisis.
One of the simplest ways to ground yourself, especially if you're new to breathwork, is to simply become aware of your breath. “Bringing attention to our breathing patterns, whether on or off the mat, is incredibly soothing for the nervous system," says Reiki master and certified yoga and meditation teacher Nina Endrst. There is no secret sauce to this technique—you just need to focus your attention on your inhales and exhales, noting their rhythm, depth, and/or feeling, etc.
If you'd like more of an anchor to hold your focus, you can try counting each breath as you notice it. "Visualize the air going into the nose, and then watch it come out, and one can count that normal breathing process,” says gastroenterologist Avanish Aggarwal, MD. “If you lose track, go back to one and start counting the breathing again." Dr. Aggarwal recommends breathwork specifically to help calm finicky stomachs because it activates the vagus nerve, which helps to regulate the gastrointestinal system.
“I like to start all mediations I teach with a series of deep, low-belly inhales, followed by a longer exhale,” says meditation and breathwork expert Kristina Headrick. “The longer exhales are how you ‘hack’ the vagus nerve.”
For a more intensive experience, try this fiery and cathartic technique. First, close your eyes and take a full, deep inhale through the nose. On the exhale, open the mouth wide and stick out your tongue, emptying your breath completely while making a "ha" sound. Repeat for as many rounds as you'd like.
For this one, start by inhaling for four to five counts. Then, hold the breath in for four counts before exhaling fully through the mouth while making whatever noise feels natural. “Let the sound come through, no matter how weird or uncomfortable it is,” Endrst says. “Sound is a healthy and healing vibrational tool.”
To practice Sitali breath, you'll want to form an O shape with your lips and stick your tongue out, curling the sides up. If this position isn't achievable for you, clench your teeth together instead and then inhale and exhale deeply through the mouth, like you're sipping through a straw. Then, close your mouth and exhale through your nose. “Sitali breath is an excellent breath work technique for cooling down the body and calming yourself down if you’re feeling anxious, angry, or emotionally charged,” says Susy Markoe Schieffelin, a sound healer, Reiki master, and yoga and meditation teacher. Repeat as desired.
Sit in a cross-legged position, with your palms facing upward and the tips of your thumbs and pointer fingers connected. Breathe deeply, from the belly, a few times. Then push your breath in and out through your nose, forcefully—your stomach should pump in and out as you do so. Continue for your desired duration.
Box breathing is an ancient technique that's been adopted by Navy SEALs. It serves to slow the sympathetic stress response, says Erika Polsinelli, a Kundalini yoga teacher and founder of Evolve by Erika, a virtual wellness center. To do it, set a timer for five minutes and then sit with a straight spine, either on the floor or in a chair. Next, close your eyes and inhale for a count of four, then hold for a count of four, then exhale for a count of four, and finish by holding for another count of four. Repeat as desired.
For this one, you're going to alternate breathing through one nostril at a time. Start with the palm of your right hand facing you. Fold down just the middle and pointer fingers, keeping the rest extended. Press your right thumb against your right nostril, closing it. Inhale slowly through the left nostril. Then, lightly press your left nostril with your ring and little fingers, so that both nostrils are briefly closed at the same time. Release pressure on your right nostril while continuing to hold the left, and inhale through the right nostril. Repeat as desired.
10. Sama vritti
This technique simply requires even breathing—so for example, you'll breathe in for three counts, and then breathe out for three counts. As you practice, try holding your inhales and exhales for longer and longer periods of time, up to ten counts.
11. 4-7-8 breathing
For this exercise, all you need to do is breathe in through the nose for four counts, hold your breath for seven counts, and then exhale for eight counts.
12. Link to a count
To practice this method, says Ayurvedic wellness expert Avanti Kumar-Singh, MD, first count the length of your natural exhale. Then, try to extend that count by one or two breaths. So if your natural exhale is two counts, try to extend it to three or more.
You can also link the breath to movement, suggests Dr. Kumar-Singh. For example, you can hold your hands up over your head, and then slowly move them down as you exhale. To further elongate the exhale, break that movement into two parts by, for example, pausing your arms halfway down.
This works with affirmations in place of movement, too. For example, you might exhale to the affirmation, "I am calm," and then work to elongate the exhale by adding to that affirmation. Try saying, "I am calm and strong."
This exercise, recommended specifically for sleep by yoga nidra practitioner Tracee Stanley on an episode of Glowing Live With Latham on Well+Good’s IGTV, is simple. Inhale for three counts, then exhale for six counts. Try to transition seamlessly between the two, so that the breath is continuous. Repeat for five minutes.
15. 3-6-5 breathing
This method is meant to be practiced three times per day, says Stephanie Gailing, an astrologer and wellness consultant who shares information about the 3-6-5 method in her book The Complete Book of Dreams. To practice it, first find a comfortable seated position. Breathe slowly and deeply into your diaphragm for five seconds, and then breathe slowly out for five seconds. The goal is to achieve six full breaths in one minute. Continue for five minutes.
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