When was the last time you stopped and took a mindful breath? Breathing is something that we do daily. In fact, we breathe around 22,000 times a day, often without acknowledging it. But when we take a moment to really tune into our breath, the benefits can be transformative.
Here, we’ll explore how breathwork can benefit our physical and mental well-being, including some exercises that you can try.
What is breathwork?
Breathwork refers to any technique or exercise that focuses on breathing control. The origins of breathwork are rooted in yoga, but the practice has grown in popularity in recent years. The goal is to expel toxins and stress on the out-breath and draw in positivity to nurture the mind on the in-breath.
Breathwork is designed to help the body and mind relax, which can have a positive impact on our physical and mental health. Let’s take a look at some of these benefits.
The benefits of breathwork
Breathing is vital to fuel the body with oxygen that we need to survive, but if it’s so second nature, why is it something that we should be paying more attention to? There are many possible benefits to breath control including:
- Stress reduction. When we become stressed, our brains release cortisol, the ‘stress hormone’. Deep breathing slows down our heart rate, which encourages the brain to relax.
- Boosting mood. Taking deep breaths releases endorphins, or the ‘feel good’ hormone.
- Reducing pain. Endorphins are also important hormones for easing pain, so deep breathing can help with this.
- Detoxifying the body. Breathing in encourages oxygen to enter our bodies, whilst breathing out releases carbon dioxide. By doing so, we expel toxins from our bodies.
- Increasing energy levels. The more oxygen we have in our bloodstream, the better our body is able to function.
- Better immunity. The more oxygenated our blood is, the easier it is to absorb essential nutrients, meaning we are less likely to get ill and can recover more quickly.
- Improved sleep. Breathwork helps quieten the mind which can promote better quality sleep.
- Increased self-awareness. Being in tune with our breath allows us to be more present in the moment. This can help shift our perspectives and focus on the here and now, rather than past or future worries.
Breathwork is thought to be an incredibly powerful tool. It can help shift our energy from a state of heightened emotions, such as stress, to complete relaxation. Taking slow, deep, conscious breaths tells our brain that we are safe and everything is OK.
What techniques are used in breathwork?
There are a number of techniques used in breath control which are generally considered safe for most people. Due to the variety of exercises on offer, you may find that some work better for you than others. We recommend giving these techniques a go to explore what methods you connect with the most.
It’s important to note that some breathwork exercises may vary in their degree of difficulty. The improper execution of breathwork can actually limit the amount of oxygen that enters your body. This can result in feelings of dizziness and/or lightheadedness. If you are a beginner, working with a professional will ensure that you’re breathing correctly.
Healing will only happen in a safe and supportive therapeutic relationship.
Find out more about what to expect in a breathwork session.
Here are some common breathwork techniques to get started:
This is one of the most popular techniques and one you’ve likely heard of before. Also known as square breathing, this exercise involves breathing in and out and holding the breath in counts of four.
- Begin by taking a deep breath in for a count of four.
- Hold this breath for four counts.
- Breathe out for four.
- Hold for four.
As you breathe in, focus on the air filling your lungs. As you breathe out, feel the sensation of the air leaving your body. Repeat this exercise as often as needed to feel calmer and more relaxed.
Diaphragmatic, or belly breathing, uses the stomach, abdomen and diaphragm to control breathing. This technique uses your muscles to force the diaphragm to move, allowing more air to enter your lungs.
- Sit or lie down comfortably.
- Place one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach.
- Breathe in through your nose and focus on pulling the air towards your stomach, keeping your chest still.
- Tighten your abdominal muscles and allow your stomach to fall as you breathe out through your mouth.
- Repeat as needed.
Join Stuart Sandeman as he leads a relaxing breathwork session to help us reconnect with ourselves.
The 4-7-8 technique is very similar to box breathing.
- Breathe in for four counts.
- Hold for seven counts.
- Breathe out for eight counts.
Alternate nostril breathing
This is a breath control exercise that is often used in yoga.
- Sit down with your legs crossed.
- With your right hand, place your thumb over your right nostril to close it.
- Breathe in through your left nostril and at the end of the inhale, place your finger over the left nostril to close it.
- Release your thumb from your right nostril and breathe out from this side.
- Breathe in again through your right nostril and then use your thumb to close it.
- Release your finger from your left side and breathe out from the left nostril.
- This is a full cycle. Repeat as many times as you feel is needed.
Pursed lip breathing
This exercise involves slowly breathing out through pursed lips and is designed to give you more control over your breathing.
- Sit or lie down in a relaxed position.
- Breathe in through your nose for a count of two.
- Breathe out through your lips for a count of four (the trick is to breathe out for twice as long as you breathe in).
- Repeat as needed.
Mindful breathing is a more sensory approach to breath control. It uses elements of mindfulness and meditation to invoke feelings of happiness, positivity or relaxation, for example.
- Sit or lie down comfortably.
- Pay attention to the way you’re breathing. Try taking some shallow breaths. Notice how this differs from deep breathing.
- Breathe for a few minutes.
- Place your hand on your stomach. Notice how it rises and falls as you breathe in… and out…
- When you breathe out, let out a sigh and feel this release.
- Continue to breathe deeply and try to focus on an image, word or phrase that invokes feelings of happiness or positivity in you.
- As you breathe in, focus on allowing this positive energy to enter your body.
- As you breathe out, mentally expel anxiety, stress or any other feeling of unease that you’re experiencing.
Who should not do breathwork?
In breathwork sessions, things such as past trauma can be brought to the surface that the body is ready to release. This might create an intense physical and emotional reaction. It’s quite common for some people to feel a little teary afterwards.
Because of this, breathwork isn’t recommended for those who have heart problems such as heart disease or a previous heart attack. It’s also not recommended for people who have had a recent injury or experience seizures. If you are pregnant, seek approval from a doctor or midwife first.
Want to know more?
Stuart Sandeman joined Happiful on I am. I have to speak about how powerful breathwork can be and the potential that it has for managing pain, improving mood and supporting our well-being.
Finding a professional
Breath control is considered a safe and gentle way to ground yourself. The techniques mentioned above are especially useful if you’re on the go or need to find a moment of calm in the hustle and bustle of day-to-day life. However, if you’re just starting out, want to learn more or are considering an advanced approach, working with a professional can be very beneficial.
As breathwork isn’t a regulated practice, it’s important to work with someone who has experience and is qualified. At Therapy Directory, we ensure our members have sent us relevant qualifications and proof of insurance or registration with a professional body, so you can be sure you're connecting with someone who is appropriately skilled.