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The Benefits of Breathing Exercises

You spend all day breathing without a second thought. But what if you did think about training your lungs—which control the most basic of human functions—the same way you train your muscles? That’s where breathing exercises come in.

“A breathing practice would be one in which you’re consciously changing the unconscious pattern of your breath for a period of time to elicit a certain nervous system response,” says Sarah Girard, a yoga and breathwork instructor based in Santa Monica, California.

As for why you might want to alter your breathing, take these health benefits into consideration: Slow breathing techniques were linked to better emotional control and psychological well being in a 2018 systematic review published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, and research has long shown that different breathing patterns are associated with different emotional states. That’s a pretty big deal when you consider that the percentage of adults with recent symptoms of an anxiety or depressive disorder increased to 41.5 percent from 36.4 percent between August 2020 to February 2021, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Although we’re definitely not saying that breathing exercises are a cure-all for mental health concerns.)

But “in order to create a conscious shift [in how we breathe], we have to become aware of the patterns that need shifting,” says Girard.

The first step before doing any kind of mindful breathing exercise is to notice your breath in a detached way—kind of like a warm-up before a workout. “If we can do one to two minutes of that and let our body stay relaxed, then we can teach ourselves to notice throughout the rest of the day when we are holding our breath and unconsciously creating moments of tension,” says Girard. Then, aim to practice breathwork for five minutes in the morning or at night, she suggests.

Not sure where to start? Learn more about the benefits of breathing exercises and try these breathing techniques below (but don’t forget to talk to your doctor to see if they’re a good fit for you, first).

1. Belly Breathing

“Belly breathing is commonly used as an intro for people to experience breath movement in their body,” says Girard, who notes that it basically entails minimizing movement around your ribs to maximize movement in your abdomen (belly). According to Cleveland Clinic, belly breathing can help with relaxation, lower your blood pressure, and assist in treating stress.

 When to do it: three to four times per day 

How to do it: Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor, or sit up tall in a chair. Place one hand on your upper chest and the other just below your rib cage. Breathe in slowly through your nose so that your stomach moves out, causing your hand to rise. Exhale through pursed lips, allowing your stomach to move in and hand to lower. (The hand on your chest should remain as still as possible throughout.) Repeat for five 10 minutes. 

Note: You might have seen belly breathing referred to as “diaphragmatic breathing.” That’s a bit of a misnomer, according to Girard, because the diaphragm is actually used for all kinds of breathing. 

2. Elongated Exhale

This is a straightforward exercise in which you consciously lengthen the amount of time you spend breathing out. “Doing that just a couple of times can help downregulate your nervous system response, helping you to feel more relaxed,” says Girard. According to Psychology Today, a 2019 study published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology found that two minutes of deep breathing with longer exhalations engages the vagus nerve (the main component of your parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for your body’s “rest and digest” response), increases heart rate variability (the amount of time between your heartbeats), and improves decision-making.

When to do it: any time you’re stressed or need to calm down

How to do it: This is as simple as breathing in and out slowly, gradually extending your exhale until it’s longer than your inhale. Once you’re comfortable with that, try the 4-7-8 technique: Inhale through your nose for a count of four. Hold your breath and count to seven. Exhale through your mouth for a count of eight. Do a total of four cycles, repeating the previous steps.

3. Short, Quick Inhalations

“When you want to activate your nervous system, short, quick inhalations can help you feel a little bit more energized and focused,” says Girard.

When to do it: whenever you need a boost of energy

How to do it: Sit up tall, and relax your shoulders. Keep your mouth closed and inhale rapidly through your nose three times with quick, short breaths, exhaling easily each time. Take a 15- to 30-second break and breathe normally. Repeat five to 10 times total.

4. Lion’s Breath

You may be familiar with Lion’s Breath if you’ve ever taken a yoga class. This face stretch, which is said to relieve tension and stress, is a type of pranayama, or ancient yogic breathing technique. “I like to do this around that 3 p.m. slump, when I’ve been staring at my computer all day and I need to get unstuck,” says Girard. “It breaks up the moment and allows you to move on to something else.” Practicing pranayama regularly was shown to relieve some of the symptoms of depression and anxiety in an older review published in the International Journal of Preventive Medicine.

When to do it: any time you need to shake off a slump or wake yourself up

How to do it: Inhale through your nose, then exhale strongly through the mouth, making a “ha” sound. Open your mouth wide and stick your tongue as far out as possible towards your chin and look up while exhaling for as long as possible. Do once, or repeat a couple of times.

5. Box or Square Breathing

This is a more advanced variation of the extended exhale, and Girard recommends people try it after they’ve practiced an extended exhale since retaining your breath can be intense or stressful to some (and the goal of this breathing exercise is to calm you down!). “But once you’ve had some familiarity with breathing practices, then box breathing is a good practice for regulation,” she says. Just like the extended exhales, this type of deeper breathing activates your parasympathetic nervous system.

When to do it: when you’re really stressed outHow to do it: Inhale for four seconds, hold your breath for four seconds, exhale for four seconds, then hold your breath for four seconds. Repeat five to ten times.