What is breathwork and how does it work?

If you’ve ever tried yoga, you’ll know how big a part breathing has to play in every session. But did you know that breathing exercises can also be hugely beneficial in helping you to manage stress naturally, whether you’re in the yoga studio or not? 

Breathwork - a mindful sort of breathing, and a form of active meditation - is something anyone can do, as it needs no special skills. It’s a way to help you cope with the stress of everyday life, as well as coming in useful when you’re under more pressure than usual. And best of all, it’s free! So today, we’re going to delve into the art of breathwork and give you some simple, calming breathing techniques to help you stay present in the moment and get through a stressful day, the natural way. And breathe…

How does breathwork help manage stress?

Before we launch into telling you all about what happens during breathwork, and about the various different breathing exercises you can try, let’s start by having a brief look at the science behind how breathwork helps you to manage stress. In the Far East, Buddhists and yogis have long believed in breath as the body’s life force, but it’s only more recently that there’s been a more scientific understanding of why breathing is so helpful for managing stress naturally. So, why is breathwork so powerful?

When we’re stressed, we often subconsciously end up taking shallower breaths. This can exacerbate feelings of stress by not allowing our bodies to get enough air. Breathing exercises are typically about taking deep, controlled breaths to help you feel grounded. That’s not only great for mindfulness, visualisations and meditation, helping you to relax, but it’s working because it’s encouraging you to breathe deep from your diaphragm, as opposed to shallow chest breathing. According to Healthline:

“The slow holding of breath allows CO2 to build up in the blood. An increased blood CO2 enhances the cardio-inhibitory response of the vagus nerve when you exhale and stimulates your parasympathetic system. This produces a calm and relaxed feeling in the mind and body.”Studies have shown that breathwork helps people to cope with anxiety and that meditation and breathing exercises sharpen the mind thanks to their effects on levels of noradrenaline, a chemical messenger that’s released in response to different kinds of emotional arousal. In times of stress, we produce too much noradrenaline, but the study found that practising daily breathing exercises helped produce just the right amount for sharp focus.

Research into the calming effect of breathing, conducted with mice, found that in the brain, the group of nerves in charge of regulating breathing is directly connected to the brain’s arousal centre. Talking to Time magazine, the researcher, Mark Krasnow, said, “This liaison to the rest of the brain means that if we can slow breathing down, as we can do by deep breathing or slow controlled breaths, the idea would be that these neurons then don’t signal the arousal center, and don’t hyperactivate the brain. So you can calm your breathing and also calm your mind.”

So, it turns out that telling an anxious friend to “breathe” might not be as vague a piece of advice as it sounds. Let’s now take a look at how you can put that into practice for managing stress.

What is breathwork therapy? Back to breathing basics...

You can practise breathing techniques wherever you are - it’s one of the great things about this stress management method - but to get started with learning some basic exercises, make yourself comfortable in a seated, upright position. Put your feet flat on the floor, about a hip width apart, and rest your arms on the arms of the chair, if it has any. You can also lie down, if you find it more comfortable.

The important thing with breathing exercises is to be intentional, deciding on how much time you’re going to carve out for yourself and sticking to it. If it helps, you can set a timer so that you have a focused period of time without having to check the clock. Alternatively, you can instead aim to complete a certain number of breath cycles.

You don’t have to do anything complicated to feel the benefits of breathing - as Goop says, “No fancy techniques, no right way to do it, no mistakes to make. Even the simplest mindful breathing helps get the energy flowing through your body again” - but we’ll outline just a few of the many different techniques you could try below. 

Counting your breaths

The simplest way to harness the power of conscious breathing is simply to count your breaths. Taking deep breaths, focus your mind on your breathing and count as follows:

  • Inhale - 1
  • Exhale - 2
  • Inhale - 3
  • Exhale - 4
  • And so on (you may prefer to go as far as five and then start at one again)

Different breathing techniques come into play by varying the amount of time you inhale, exhale and hold a breath for. The NHS recommends a simple breathing exercise for stress reduction, recommending the following steps:

  • “Let your breath flow as deep down into your belly as is comfortable, without forcing it.
  • Try breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth.
  • Breathe in gently and regularly. Some people find it helpful to count steadily from 1 to 5. You may not be able to reach 5 at first.
  • Then, without pausing or holding your breath, let it flow out gently, counting from 1 to 5 again, if you find this helpful.
  • Keep doing this for 3 to 5 minutes.”

Another variation is box breathing, during which you slowly count to four on each inhale and exhale, also pausing to hold your breath while you count to four at the end of each inhale and exhale. Box breathing is even practised by Navy Seals to help them deal with stress during training and deployment, and you can learn the technique with this guided box breathing video.

Diaphragmatic breathing

The Mayo Clinic outlines another simple breathing exercise that you can do alone or with a partner:

  • Paying attention to your body and breath, they advise, start by sitting comfortably and inhaling deeply through your nose. 
  • As you inhale, feel your belly gently expanding as it fills with air. As you exhale, feel the air releasing through your nose.
  • Now put one hand on your belly and the other on your upper chest. Breathe deeply in and out of your nose, feeling how cool it is as you inhale and how warm it is as you exhale.
  • Now try to concentrate on shifting your breath, feeling your belly rise and fall more than your chest with each inhale and exhale. You should feel the hand on your belly move more than the hand on your chest.
  • As you breathe deeply through your nose, feel your breath travel back down your throat to inflate your belly as you breathe in, and feel your belly empty of air as you breathe out.
  • Repeat this process several times, feeling yourself relax more with each breath in and out.

Nadi Shodhana - alternative nostril breathing

The word “Nadi” refers to the body’s energy channels, while “Shodhana” means “to purify”, and this exercise uses alternate nostril breathing to restore balance to the two hemispheres of your brain, lowering heart rate and reducing stress levels in the process. It involves breathing in through one nostril and breathing out of the other, using your thumb and ring finger to alternately open and close each nostril. You can find the steps in full here courtesy of Yoga Journal.

Ashley Neese’s 90-Second Extended Exhale Breathwork Tool

Here at The Chillery, we’re big fans of holistic healer Ashley Neese’s 90-second ‘Extended Exhale’ breathwork tool, which can be easily fitted in wherever you are to help you navigate a stressful day, or just any time you need to “press the reset button”. Talking to Goop, Ashley suggests trying this exercise for five minutes a day for seven days, outlining the steps as follows:

  • “Take a comfortable seat or lie down.
  • Breathe in and out through the nose for a few cycles to settle in.
  • Next, bring your attention to your exhale for three rounds of breath.
  • Begin to extend your exhale by 2-3 counts.
  • Repeat for five minutes.
  • Lastly, bring your awareness to your body and notice how you feel after your practice.”

You can listen to the 90-second clip here to help you work through this exercise without needing to read anything. There’s also another simple breathwork exercise from Ashley over on The Chalkboard Mag.

The Wim Hof Breathing Method

The Wim Hof breathing method puts an intriguing spin on the idea of breathwork. The brainchild of “Iceman” Wim Hof, this method has temperature at its heart, with ‘cold therapy’ one of its three pillars (the other two being breathing and commitment). 

Why cold therapy? Well, as the Wim Hof website explains, “Proper exposure to the cold starts a cascade of health benefits, including the buildup of brown adipose tissue and resultant fat loss, reduced inflammation that facilitates a fortified immune system, balanced hormone levels, improved sleep quality, and the production of endorphins— the feel-good chemicals in the brain that naturally elevate your mood.” When combined with the specialised conscious breathing techniques advocated by the method, this unlocks even more health benefits.

To get started with the Wim Hof breathing method, try Wim’s guided breathing exercise on YouTube or follow the four simple steps outlined here to start learning:

  1. Sit or lie down somewhere comfortable
  2. Take 30-40 deep breaths “in short, powerful bursts”, fully inhaling from your belly and through your nose or mouth, and exhaling (unforced) through your mouth.
  3. On the last one, inhale deeply, and when you exhale, stop breathing. Only take a breath when you feel the urge to.
  4. Give in to that urge with a deep breath that expands your chest and belly, holding it for around 15 seconds before exhaling.

Wim advises that this routine can be completed three or four times back to back, leaving you in a deep state of calm that makes it a great thing to combine with meditation.

Working breathwork into your daily routine

If stress is something you suffer from routinely, you may find it helpful to make a conscious effort to incorporate breathing exercises into your day-to-day life. The obvious times of day to do so are first thing in the morning - to help you get the day off to a calm, grounded start - and last thing at night, helping you to unwind and get into the right frame of mind for a restful sleep before you go to bed. 

You can help the habit to stick by ‘anchoring’ some breathwork practice to another part of your morning and bedtime routines. For instance, if you usually sit down to perform your night-time skincare ritual before bed, that could be a good time to spend a few extra minutes concentrating on some intentional breathing.

Guided breathing exercises

To learn more about breathwork techniques, you might like to watch some YouTube videos and try some guided breathing exercises. Here are a few helpful videos to get you started:

Breathwork classes

Another way to help get yourself into the habit of taking the time to breathe is to attend a breathwork class. This takes the idea of breathwork to a whole new level, helping you feel its benefits even more intensely by turning it into a group therapy session. There are more and more breathwork classes cropping up as the benefits of intentional breathing become more widely recognised, and Whatever Your Dose has a great rundown of the best breathwork classes in London. Why not try searching for breathwork classes in your area?

Finally, if you’re serious about managing stress naturally, why not browse our site and discover how working CBD into your routine can help? Find out how to increase your overall wellbeing by using CBD to de-stress, get a better night’s sleep and more.

Have you ever tried breathwork? How did you find it, and which are your favourite exercises? Let us know in the comments below!

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