What is breathwork? Breathwork is simply the intentional use of the breath. Basically, you can learn to regulate the flow of breath to balance the body and mind.
Breathwork encompasses a broad range of whole-being therapeutic practices and exercises used to relieve mental, physical, and emotional tension.
In this article we will explore:
- What is breathwork?
- The benefits and challenges of breathwork
- The history of breathwork
- 3 breathwork exercises to try
What Is Breathwork?
Breathwork can also be considered a form of active meditation. The International Breathwork Foundation (IBF) defines the practice as,
“a dynamic body-mind practice using conscious connected breathing techniques for inner peace, enhanced health, wellbeing and personal transformation.”
4 benefits of breathwork
When your body is operating under “fight-or-flight” response, it releases a surge of hormones (such as cortisol and adrenaline) that causes a change in your physiology. Your breathing rate speeds up, your pulse and blood pressure increases, and your mental state is one of hypervigilance.
Breathwork can help reverse this physiological response and relax your body, allowing you to be able to respond to the inevitable challenges in life – rather than blindly reacting.
Below are 4 main benefits to having a consistent breathwork practice:
1. Its relieving benefits are almost immediate
Because altering your breath inhale, exhale and holds produces changes in your physiology almost immediately. So you have the power to move your own physiological reaction from a sympathetic (stress) response into a more restorative parasympathetic response.
2. The learning curve is very small
You are doing it right now, all you have to do is change the ratios in which you are doing it. There are techniques that are accessible to all.
3. It can be done anywhere
On the bus or at work and no one knows you’re doing it. Changing your breath through the day can help to self regulate during the undulations we all go through on a daily basis.
4. It has multiple benefits
By building a consistent breath practice into your life, you have the perfect and universal tool to help calm your anxiety, improve your immune function, sharpen focus and enhance athletic performance.
3 Initial challenges
I also feel it’s important to highlight a few of the initial challenges that may arise if you’re new to a breath work practice:
1. It can be uncomfortable — changing your physiology creates a variety of sensations due to the changes in chemistry within your blood and body. If this is new to you it can feel strange to begin with.
2. It requires practice to develop — like anything, to really feel the benefits of breath you have to commit to doing the work. Obvious and non-negotiable.
3. It could require confidence to know you are in control — if you suddenly find yourself out of breath, you’ll know that the body sharpens all of your awareness onto the perceived critical situation. The more you practice, the more this perceived threat becomes familiar. Hence why breathwork is great at building resilience.
The history of breathwork
The concept of prana, which translates to “life force” or “vital energy,” was first documented around 3,000 years ago in both India & China. It became the bedrock of eastern medicine with the unified belief that the more prana someone has, the more vital and alive they will be. If this flow of energy becomes blocked, the body will shut down and sickness will follow.
Over the millennia, these cultures developed thousands of methods to maintain a steady flow of prana such as acupuncture and yoga postures to open up, awaken and distribute the energy.
However, the most powerful technique was to inhale prana: to breathe. Breathing techniques were so fundamental to prana that ch’i and other ancient terms for energy are synonymous with respiration. When we breathe, we expand our life force.
Most notably, breathwork has been continually practiced in China, India, Japan, and Tibet for healing and maintaining good health. Evidence of breathwork dates back to 2700 B.C.E. in China and 3000 B.C.E. in India. The practices have since been refined for modern use and supported by evidence-based results.
3 breathwork exercises to try
I find that with most people I work with, it’s not a lack of willingness or knowledge that’s holding them back. Rather the critical missing piece is the structured way to apply all the information into their life in a consistent, fun and practical way. I hope you find these techniques easy to follow, and an inspiration to learn and become a part of your daily life.
Technique 1) 4:7:8
The 4–7–8 breathing exercise is simple, takes almost no time, requires no equipment and can be done anywhere.
Although you can do the exercise in any position, ideally sit with your back straight while learning the exercise. Place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue just behind your upper front teeth, and keep it there through the entire exercise.
When To Use It
Once you develop this breathing technique by practicing it every day, twice a day, it will be a very useful tool that you will always have with you.
Use it whenever anything upsetting happens — before you react. Use it whenever you are aware of internal tension. Use it to help you fall asleep. Use it to deal with food cravings. Great for mild to moderate anxiety, this exercise cannot be recommended too highly.
How to do it
1. Exhale completely through your nose.
2. Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
3. Hold your breath for a count of seven.
4. Exhale completely through your nose, to a count of eight.
This is one breath. Now inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breaths.
Technique 2) Box Breathing
Box breathing, also known as square breathing, is a technique used when taking slow, deep breaths. It can heighten performance and concentration while also being a powerful stress reliever.
When To Use It
This technique can be beneficial to anyone, especially those who want to meditate or reduce stress. It’s used by many different types of people, from U.S. Navy SEALs to police officers and nurses. It’s also used by the action sports athletes I coached before they drop into the big air or slopestyle courses, not to be calm, but to be clear and focussed.
It’s a great technique to do before a stressful situation. You can easily practice this before you have an interview, a big pitch at work, a difficult conversation, or if you’re stuck in traffic.
How to do it
Before you get started, make sure that you’re seated upright in a comfortable chair with your feet flat on the floor. Keeping your hands relaxed in your lap with your palms facing up, focus on your posture. You should be sitting up straight. This will help you take deep breaths.
1. Sitting upright, slowly exhale through your nose until empty. Focus on this intention and be conscious of what you’re doing.
2. Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose to the count of five. Feel the air fill your lungs, one section at a time, until your lungs are completely full and the air moves into your abdomen.
3. Hold your breath for a count of five seconds. Your body should be relaxed, with just a mild “lock” in your throat area.
4. Exhale evenly for a count of five seconds.
5. Hold all air out of your empty lungs for a count of five seconds. This may sound like it wouldn’t be nice, but most often of all people experience a great peaces in this phase.
Repeat until you feel content — give it at least a count of 5 rounds.
Technique 3) Resonance (My current favourite)
Resonant breathing gives you back your sense of you. It puts you back into the driver’s seat, when the increasing load of the world so often takes over. In resonant breathing, you spend a few minutes each day living and breathing in a perfect balance between sympathetic and parasympathetic, in a neutral zone of mental calm and equilibrium, of conscious peace.
The Breathing App (Apple or Android) was designed by Eddie Stern, a yoga teacher, author, and lecturer from New York. It’s inspired by resonance, the scientific name that describes what happens when our heart rate, heart rate variability, blood pressure, and brainwave function come into a coherent frequency.
It occurs spontaneously when we breathe at a rate of six breaths per minute (instead of our usual 15–18), and is the rate of breathing that Buddhist monks and Yogis naturally enter into while meditating.
How to do it
There are four different breath ratios you can choose from. Figure out which one to use by taking a nice, slow, slightly elongated inhale, and count how many seconds you inhale.
The inhale length will determine automatically how long the exhale should be. The only exception is a five-second inhale can have either a five or seven-second exhale. The longer exhale is more engaging for the relaxation response of the parasympathetic nervous system, so you can choose which you like best.
The ratios are:
- Inhale for four seconds, exhale for six seconds
- Inhale for five seconds, exhale for five seconds
- Inhale for six seconds, exhale for six seconds (true resonance)
- Inhale for five seconds, exhale for seven seconds
Here is a youtube video that will guide your resonant breathing:
What is breathwork? Answered!
I hope you find these techniques useful. Like anything, consistent practice is what delivers the best results. Start with one technique and see how you feel.
You are your own experiment!
Want more on breathwork?
Check out our Pranayama and Breathwork resources: