Breathing may seem simple, but breathing right can take some practice.
As we have seen, poor breathing habits can cause panic, anxiety, depression, insomnia, etc.
It is easy to fall into poor breathing patterns without realizing it.
By adopting conscious breathing techniques and practising breathing exercises, we can calm the body, slow the heart, help control pain and increase vital energy. Learning to breathe well can help re-establish a healthy balance between our carbon dioxide and oxygen levels, improve our sleep, and alleviate mental health symptoms.
The three golden rules of better breathing
These techniques, when practised correctly, should improve the uptake of oxygen by our cells, improving our mood, reducing our anxiety levels, and increasing our wellbeing.
They will also require us to breathe more consciously, becoming aware of our breath several times a day.
- Try to always breathe in through your nose, and out through your nose
- If this is difficult, for instance during exercise, inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth
- Nasal breathing helps regulate the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide you inhale and exhale so that they are balanced
- Always breathe out more than you breathe in, making your exhale longer than your inhale.
- This will prevent hyperventilation, keeping an optimal balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide which will oxygenate your cells
- In turn, this physiological balance will help to calm you and balance your mood
- Furthermore, your breathing is linked to your heart rate: when you inhale, your heart rate increases slightly
- When you exhale, it lowers, in order to increase energy efficiency
- Focusing on your exhale will help lower your heart rate, which will in turn calm your mind
- Try to practice abdominal breathing, also called belly breathing or diaphragmatic breathing
- When you inhale expand your belly rather than your chest and let your breath flow as deep down into your belly as is comfortable, without forcing it
- Belly breathing can help strengthen your diaphragm muscles and result in you breathing more efficiently overall
- Consciously practising belly breathing as often as you can is recommended to improve your breathing and help with anxiety and panic attacks
Daily breathing practices
Before starting any breathing exercises, focus on becoming aware of your breath and how it affects your body:
- Sit quietly, and notice your breath
- Notice how your breath feels as it enters and exits your nose, whether it’s warm or cool
- Notice how it feels as it glides down your throat, chest and into your belly
- Notice whether it expands your belly as it comes in and contracts your belly as it goes out
Train yourself to breathe correctly with these simple, free exercises, so that you can breathe properly even when you are in a state of anxiety or panic.
You will get the most benefit of these breathing exercises if you do them regularly, as part of your daily routine. Ideally, practise these breathing exercises three times a day.
You can do these exercises standing up, sitting, or lying on a bed or yoga mat on the floor. During the exercise, make yourself as comfortable as you can. If you can, loosen any clothes that restrict your breathing.
All the exercises below are designed to improve your breathing and optimize the balance between oxygen and carbon dioxide for greater calm, better mood, improved sleep, sharper cognition, attention and memory.
Choose one or two that resonate with you the most, or try them all out and see which one you prefer and are most likely to practise.
- Correct breathing is diaphragmatic breathing, or belly breathing
- It involves using your lower abdomen to take deep belly breaths, as well as your solar plexus (a network of nerves situated at the upper part of the abdomen) and upper torso Kravitz, J. (1999). Breathe Deep, Laugh Loudly. West Hartford, CT: Free Press..
- Your diaphragm is located right at the base of your ribcage, and it’s the primary mover of breathing
- When you let your diaphragm do the work:
- You improve blood flow to the heart and this decreases stress on the heart, and shifts your entire metabolism
- You improve blood flow to the gut and this decreases inflammation
- You rebalance oxygen and carbon dioxide, having a calming effect
- Practise belly breathing daily, several times a day
- Inhale gently and regularly through your nose, letting your breath flow as deep down into your belly as is comfortable, without forcing it, but letting your belly balloon out
- Then breathe out through your nose or mouth slowly and completely, letting your belly button fall back towards your backbone
- Some people find it helpful to count steadily from one to five as they inhale and exhale
- Keep doing this for three to five minutes
- You can sit in any position that’s comfortable, but it’s most effective if you sit with your back straight
- If you find it difficult to hold your breath then you can speed the exercise up, but keep to the ratio of 4:7:8 for the full three phases
- With practice you can slow it all down and get used to inhaling and exhaling more and deeply
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. You will be exhaling through your mouth around your tongue; try pursing your lips slightly if this seems awkward. The tip of your tongue stays in position the whole time.
- Exhale completely through your mouth, making a ‘whoosh’ sound
- Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four
- Hold your breath for a count of seven
- Exhale through your mouth, making a ‘whoosh’ sound 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
Breath normally, then repeat until you feel calm.
Practise this simple exercise twice a day to promote relaxation. Use it also to help you fall asleep and when having anxiety.
- Soft belly breathing is a simple relaxation technique that you can practise up to five times a day: when you wake up, before you go to bed, and before each meal. It only takes one minute
- Put your hand on your belly and feel it relax
- Close your eyes or soften your focus. Inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth
- Breathe deeply into your abdomen and feel it expand to the count of five
- Pause for a count of one
- Exhale slowly to a count of five, allowing your body to relax and release tension
- Repeat for five breaths, or until you feel relaxed
- The Buteyko Breathing technique is a complementary physical therapy that proposes the use of breathing exercises which focus on breathing through your nose, holding your breath, and relaxing
- Buteyko breathing exercises will help you deal with poor sleep, panic attacks, anxiety, and fatigue
- The Buteyko method emphasizes the importance of nasal breathing, especially during physical exercise, which protects the airways by humidifying, warming, and cleaning the air entering the lungs
- The core Buteyko exercises involve breath control; consciously reducing either breathing rate or breathing volume
- Buteyko uses a measurement called the Control Pause (CP), the amount of time between breaths that an individual can comfortably hold breath
Many small breath holds
- Breathe in, breathe out and hold your breath
- Hold your breath for two to ﬁve seconds. Do not attempt to hold your breath for longer than this, as this will only increase your breathing and possibly aggravate your symptoms. Your maximum breath hold should be no greater than half your Control Pause at that time. For example, if your CP is four seconds, then do small breath hold for only two seconds
- After each breath hold, breathe normally for 10 to 15 seconds. Don’t interfere with your breathing
- Continue to do a small breath hold followed by normal breathing for 10 to 15 seconds until your symptoms have passed
Relax all your muscles in any comfortable position with a straight spine, which is favorable for complete relaxation. Such relaxation normally produces a quiet spontaneous exhalation. Now follow these steps:
- Pinch your nose with two fingers and hold your breath for about 1-2 seconds
- Since the feeling of air hunger at the end of this breath holding is not strong, inhale less air than you did before (“breathe less”) but using the tummy mainly or only
- For exhalation, relax, while keeping all breathing muscles completely relaxed
- Again, inhale small amount of air and relax all the body
- Continue to breathe in such a shallow relaxed manner, with constant air hunger for about 1 minute
- Pranayama is the formal practice of controlling the breath, which is the source of our prana, or vital life force
- This type of yogic breathing can be helpful if you’re experiencing anxiety
- Some breathing techniques that can be practised with ease and at any time of the day on an empty stomach:
Kapal Bhati pranayama (Skull Shining breathing technique)
Is considered the most important and effective for detoxifying the body and clearing the energy channels to feel calm and uplifted. When you do pranayama 80 percent of the toxins in our body are released through the outgoing breath.
- Sit comfortably with your spine erect. Place your hands on the knees, palms open to the sky
- Take a deep breath in
- As you exhale, pull your stomach. Pull your navel in back towards the spine. Do as much as you comfortably can. You may keep your right hand on the stomach to feel the abdominal muscles contract. Pull the navel in
- As you relax the navel and abdomen, the breath flows into your lungs automatically
- Take 20 such breaths to complete one round of Kapal Bhati pranayama
- After completing the round, relax with your eyes closed and observe the sensations in your body
- Do two more rounds of Kapal Bhati pranayama
- The exhalation in Kapal Bhati Pranayama is active and forceful. So just throw out your breath
- Don’t worry about the inhalation. The moment you relax your abdominal muscles, inhalation will happen naturally
- Just keep your awareness on breathing out
Avoid practising this breathing technique if you have an artificial pacemaker or stents, backache due to slip disc, recently went through an abdominal surgery, or are suffering with epilepsy or hernia. Women should not practise Kapalbati pranayama during and shortly after pregnancy, as well as during menstruation as it involves vigorous abdominal activity.
Nadi Shodhna pranayama (Alternate nostril breathing technique)
Calms and centers the mind by bringing into harmony the left and right hemispheres of the brain which correlates to the logical and emotional sides of our personality. A few minutes of Nadi Shodhan pranayama in a day is best to de-stress the mind and release accumulated tension and fatigue.
- Sit comfortably with your spine erect and shoulders relaxed. Keep a gentle smile on your face
- Place your left hand on the left knee, palms open to the sky or in Chin Mudra (thumb and index finger gently touching at the tips)
- Place the tip of the index finger and middle finger of the right hand in between the eyebrows, the ring finger and little finger on the left nostril, and the thumb on the right nostril. We will use the ring finger and little finger to open or close the left nostril and thumb for the right nostril
- Press your thumb down on the right nostril and breathe out gently through the left nostril
- Now breathe in from the left nostril and then press the left nostril gently with the ring finger and little finger. Removing the right thumb from the right nostril, breathe out from the right
- Breathe in from the right nostril and exhale from the left. You have now completed one round of Nadi Shodhan pranayama. Continue inhaling and exhaling from alternate nostrils
- Complete 9 such rounds by alternately breathing through both the nostrils. After every exhalation, remember to breathe in from the same nostril from which you exhaled. Keep your eyes closed throughout and continue taking long, deep, smooth breaths without any force or effort
Nadi Shodhan pranayama helps relax the mind and prepares it to enter a meditative state. So it is a good idea to do a short meditation after doing Nadi Shodhan.
- Do not force the breathing, keep the flow gentle and natural. Do not breathe from the mouth or make any sound while breathing. Also, do not use the Ujjayi breath
- Place the fingers very lightly on the forehead and nose. There is no need to apply any pressure
- In case you feel dull and are yawning after practising Nadi Shodhan pranayama, check the time you take to inhale and exhale. Your exhalation should be longer than inhalation
- You can practise this pranayama on an empty stomach, 2-3 times a day
Ujjayi (or victorious) breathing
Releases feelings of frustration and stress, and helps calm the mind and body.
The sound of Ujjayi is created by gently constricting the opening of the throat to create some resistance to the passage of air. Gently pulling the breath in on inhalation and gently pushing the breath out on exhalation against this resistance creates a well-modulated and soothing sound—something like the sound of ocean waves rolling in and out.
- Sit in a comfortable position, relax your body and gently close your eyes. Let your mouth drop open slightly. Relax your jaw and your tongue
- Rest one hand on your lap, palm facing up or down and the other hand at the same height and in front of your mouth, palm facing towards you
- With your mouth open exhale slightly contracting the back of your throat, as you do when you whisper. Softly whisper “ahhh”, as you exhale into your palm. On your next inhale keep the hand where it is, breathe in making that same sound. Practise this for up to 10 times (4 count in, 4 count out)
- When you feel comfortable here move on to closing your mouth on the inhale but opening mouth on the exhale. See if you can maintain the sound even with the lips are sealed. Next inhale with mouth open and exhale with mouth closed, keeping sensation in your throat and the sound of breath the same. Do each 5-10 times
- When you feel you want to move on from here, relax your hand and begin Ujjayi Pranayama
- Seal your lips and start to breath in and out through your nose
- Take an inhalation through your nose that is slightly deeper than normal. Exhale slowly through your nose while constricting the muscles in the back of your throat. Inhale for four counts with the ujjayi sound and exhale for four counts with the ujjayi sound. Repeat ten rounds
Sudarshan kriya yoga (SKY)
Is a form of yogic breathing which can be beneficial to the treatment of stress, anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and substance abuse Zope, S. and Zope, R. (2013). Sudarshan kriya yoga: Breathing for health. [online] International Journal of Yoga, 6 (1), pp. 4-10. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3573542/ [accessed 17 Aug. 2017]., Brown, R. and Gerbarg, P. (2005). Sudarshan Kriya yogic breathing in the treatment of stress, anxiety, and depression: Part II–clinical applications and guidelines. [online] Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 11 (4), pp. 711-7. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16131297 [accessed 17 Aug. 2017].
Among other benefits, it has been shown to increase levels of dopamine and serotonin in the brain Brown, R. and Gerbarg, P. (2005). Sudarshan Kriya yogic breathing in the treatment of stress, anxiety, and depression: Part II–clinical applications and guidelines. [online] Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 11 (4), pp. 711-7. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16131297 [accessed 17 Aug. 2017]..
Sudarshan Kriya is Sanskrit for “proper vision by purifying action”. It is an advanced form of rhythmic, cyclical breathing with slow, medium, and fast cycles.
Follow these steps:
- Ujjayi or “Victorious Breath” involves experiencing the conscious sensation of the breath touching the throat
This slow breath technique (2–4 breaths per minute) increases airway resistance during inspiration and expiration and controls airflow so that each phase of the breath cycle can be prolonged to an exact count. In this first cycle, you need to breathe in and out in a relaxed manner with the breaths being of equal duration
- Bhastrika or “Bellows breath” in which air is rapidly inhaled and forcefully exhaled at a rate of 30 breaths per minute. Your exhalations should be twice the duration of the inhalation
- “Om” is chanted three times with very prolonged expiration. Your inhalations should be twice the duration of the exhalation
A typical session of a short Sudarshan Kriya should last around 45 minutes. Also, you can practise this at any time of the day, except soon after having your meals.
Zope, S. and Zope, R. (2013). Sudarshan kriya yoga: Breathing for health. [online] International Journal of Yoga, 6 (1), pp. 4-10. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3573542/ [accessed 17 Aug. 2017]., http://www.yogawiz.com/pranayama/sudarshan-kriya.html
Dantian breathing, which forms the basis of qi gong practice, is highly restorative and deeply calming.
Dantian breathing refers to abdominal breathing, and focusses on the lower dantien, which is a major energy center found slightly under and behind the belly button.
For this type of breathing, the mind focuses on the Dantian (lower abdomen, and also lower back) and the chest stays relaxed, while the abdomen and lower back expand on the exhale, and contract on the exhale.
On the inhale, there is a slight expansion of (push against) the pelvic floor muscles which accompanies the expansion of the abdomen. On the exhale, there is a gentle contraction and pulling up of the pelvic floor muscles along with the contraction of the abdomen.
Dantian breathing stimulates the “gate of life” acupuncture point on the lower spine, and also stimulates the kidneys. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), when the kidneys are stimulated, your entire body’s vitality and energy level will improve.
Try to practise this for 10-20 minutes a day, sitting, lying down or standing up. It will help build your vital energy (qi), while calming your nervous system. It is especially helpful for stress hormone imbalances and HPA axis dysregulation.
- Breathe in through your nose to a slow count of 4, then breathe out slowly, through pursed lips to a count of 8 or until you have no breath left
- Do this 4 or 5 times, then breathe normally for a few minutes
- Repeat 3 or 4 times
- Do this several times a day while you are calm so that you have the right reflexes in case of an emergency
- Do this as soon as you feel the onset of a panic attack, and it should stop it in its tracks
- A technique which has been around for years, and is effective in helping with panic attacks as it helps rebalance oxygen and carbon dioxide levels quickly and without need for practice
- Hold a small or medium size paper (never plastic!) bag securely over your mouth and nose
- Breathe in and out of the paper bag, which should contract and expand with each inhale and exhale, for 5 minutes, or until you feel calmer
This can be practised in the middle of a panic attack:
- Take your pulse
- Control pause (breathe out completely, and then hold your breath until you feel slight discomfort)
- Shallow breathe for 15-20 seconds always breathe through your nose, keeping your mouth shut
- Control pause
- Shallow breathe 15-20 seconds
- Control pause
- Shallow breathe for as long as you can until you calm down
- Take pulse
This exercise can take from five to sixty minutes. If you are unable to complete this exercise then you should keep your mouth shut and try to shallow breathe through your nose.
- The broccoli pose creates chemical changes in the body and in the heart that will make you feel uplifted
- It decreases stress hormones and inflammation, and it increases ‘healthy hormones’ like endorphins and oxytocin
- Lie down on a bolster, or a towel
- Open up your chest, pull your shoulders back, lift your sternum – breast bone – up to the sky, take a big, deep breath
- Then let your arms stretch back
- Try breathing this way daily for five minutes
D’Eramo, K. (2015). Broccoli for Your Soul – Dr. Kim D’Eramo. [online] Youtube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2NfZ6UT_gMk [accessed 17 Aug. 2017].
- Lengthen the exhalation and, when you’re finished, let the inhalation come naturally
- Take several complete breaths in this way Lewis, D. (2004). Free Your Breath, Free Your Life. Boston, Mass.: Shambhala, pp. 17-20.
- Sense or visualise a part of your body
- Then, for at least a few minutes, allow your inhalations and exhalations to proceed as if you were breathing into and out of that area Lewis, D. (2004). Free Your Breath, Free Your Life. Boston, Mass.: Shambhala, pp. 17-20.
- Through constant repetition, our outer movements have become a mostly unconscious part both of our behavior and of the way we see and feel
- Movement-supported breathing is the awareness of the change in our breath after stretching (yoga, dance, etc.) Lewis, D. (2004). Free Your Breath, Free Your Life. Boston, Mass.: Shambhala, pp. 17-20.
- Sit normally and then exaggerate your posture slightly and see whether this restricts your breathing
- Then sit in a classic military position (upright, very straight) and see how that affects your breathing
- To finish: Rock on your sit bones backward and forward until you find a balanced sitting posture with your spine erect
- Observe your breath
Lewis, D. (2004). Free Your Breath, Free Your Life. Boston, Mass.: Shambhala, pp. 17-20.
- In touch-supported breathing you use various kinds of touch to awaken the sensory fibres in your skin
- Forms of touch-supported breathing include gentle touch, rubbing and massaging, skin pulling, tapping, pressure and sound-supported breathing
Lewis, D. (2004). Free Your Breath, Free Your Life. Boston, Mass.: Shambhala, pp. 17-20., Bongiorno, D. (2015). The Anxiety Summit – Serotonin and Anxiety, Happiness, Digestion and your Hormones. [online] Every Woman Over 29 Blog. Available at: https://www.everywomanover29.com/blog/anxiety-summit-serotonin-anxiety-digestion-hormones/ [accessed 17 Aug. 2017]., D’Eramo, K. (2015). The Anxiety Summit – How to use MindBody Medicine to Reverse Anxiety in 3 Minutes or Less. [online] Every Woman Over 29 Blog. Available at: https://www.everywomanover29.com/blog/anxiety-summit-mindbody-medicine-anxiety/ [accessed 17 Aug. 2017]., Maree, K. (2015). The Anxiety Summit – Pyroluria, Amino Acids and Anxiety: Real Cases, Real Solutions. [online] Every Woman Over 29 Blog. Available at: https://www.everywomanover29.com/blog/anxiety-summit-pyroluria-amino-acids/ [accessed 17 Aug. 2017].
Other ways to improve your breathing
The following lifestyle habits, when practised regularly, can also contribute to better breathing.
Being in nature relaxes the nervous system which improves breathing, and the fresh air prompts us to breathe better instinctively.
You can practise your daily breathing exercises while being in nature, which will make them feel easier and more effective.
- Eating whole foods, in the right amounts, and at the right times, can help to improve our breathing patterns
- This is because eating and absorbing the right nutrients can relax the nervous system, which is helpful to breathing
- Furthermore, because food intake can alter our breathing patterns (for instance over-eating, and/or eating too close to bedtime, or eating in a way that is disruptive to blood sugar balance) can negatively impact our breathing, it is important to be aware of how, what and when we eat
- It is also important to avoid problem foods and beverages, which can cause inflammation and certain mental health symptoms which can also indirectly impact on our ability to breathe well
- Maintaining a normal BMI (body mass index) is also important for better breathing
Read more about how to correct your nutrition and supplement by clicking on the links below.
Pollution in the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we consume can all affect our breathing negatively. Trying to detoxify our environment can be helpful in improving our breathing. Read more about how to detoxify to breathe better by clicking on the links below.
Exercise relaxes the nervous system, increases lung capacity and blood and lymph flow, all of which are important for better breathing.
When we use technology and social media, we often tense up our shoulders, our back, and forget to breathe. Managing the time spent using technology and social media can be helpful in improving our breathing.
Meditation helps us to focus on our breathing, and relaxes our nervous system. As such, it can help to improve our breathing. We can also combine meditation with some of the daily breathing exercises outlined here.
Mind body therapies can help to relax the nervous system, balance hormones and neurotransmitters, and put us more in touch with our bodies. As such, they can help to improve breathing. Some of them (such as yoga and qi gong) incorporate specific breathing techniques.
Read more about practising mind-body therapies to breathe better by clicking on the links below.
Some botanical compounds can help ensure brain oxygenation by supporting circulation into the brain, and blood flow around the brain.
These compounds also provide antioxidants which can protect blood vessels and neurons in the brain when oxygen levels are low.
- Feverfew extract
- Butchers broom extract
- Ginkgo biloba
- Huperzine and vinpocetine
Relaxing the body and mind through practising the relaxation response can help to improve breathing.
- Sleeping 7 or 8 hours can be beneficial to your breathing, as it helps calm the nervous system, and balance your hormones and your neurotransmitters, all of which help improve your breathing
- However the quality of your sleep is essential
- For instance, people who snore or have sleep apnea, are not breathing optimally during the night, which can create anxiety and exhaustion
- If you suspect snoring and/or sleep apnea, see your health practitioner and have an overnight check up done
- Generally, try to sleep on your left side with your mouth closed, as this helps the heart and lungs to open up