The Best Breathing Exercises To Help You Relax - Men's Health

Everything you need to know about breathwork

And the best breathing exercises to help you calm down

REPEAT AFTER ME: breathe in, breathe out. Easier said than done, right? But learning to control your breathing is invaluable at times of stress and anxiety or during a panic attack. Research published in the Journal Frontiers in Psychology, “illustrates the potential for diaphragmatic breathing practice to improve cognitive performance and reduce negative subjective and physiological consequences of stress in healthy adults.”

But the benefits of breathwork aren’t only limited to stress: mastering your breathing can make a big difference in your quest for better performance or faster fat burn. During exercise, your muscles require oxygen. It is their fuel: the more they receive, the further and faster you run and the more you lift. So, the way in which air is drawn into your body that determines how well your muscles are oxygenated.

Here, everything you need to know about breathwork, and some of the best breathing exercises to help you relax.

What is breathwork?

Most of us take breathing for granted. We breathe about 14 times every minute, more than 20,000 times a day, and no fewer than 526 million times during the course of an average lifetime. Nearly all of those breaths are automatic; respiration generally requires about as much thought as pumping blood or digesting food. Yet despite all that practice, most of us suck at it.

Breathwork revolves around deep, diaphragmatic breathing or belly breathing, which research suggests may trigger relaxation responses in the body, according to the Frontiers in Psychology study. It encompasses a range of breathing exercises designed to enhance physical, spiritual, and mental health.


Different breathwork techniques

While some types of breath work are designed to alleviate stress and induce relaxation, others can be used to boost energy and focus the mind. If you’re unsure which is best for you, ask yourself why you’re considering incorporating breathwork. Is it to tackle a specific problem? Has breathwork been advised to help with mental health problems, such as anxiety or stress? Or are you just seeking to grab a moment out of the madness, relax and unwind?

Once you have an idea of you needs, you can choose a type of breathwork from these categories:

1. Controlled breathing

Controlled Breathing (or Pursed Lip Breathing) involves disrupting the body’s natural breathing pattern. An example is box breathing where you hold your breath, exhale, empty your lungs and inhale for a count of four.

2. Diaphragmatic breathing

This type of breathing is best against stress and anxiety. With Diaphragmatic breathing (or Deep relaxation breathing) you focus on breathing using the entire diaphragm rather than just the belly.

3. Circular breathing

Used in meditation, circular breathing involves visualising each long, slow exhalation and inhalation to let go of negative energy and focus on your thoughts. When a person engages in a continuous flow of circular breathing this is called ‘Conscious Connected’ breathing.

4. Holotropic® breathwork

Developed by psychologists Stanislov and Cristina Grof in the 60s, Holotropic® breathwork is said to have a similar effect to a psychedelic substance. Involving deep breathing through the nose and mouth at an accelerated rate it reduces oxygen to the brain and unlocks a state of higher consciousness.

5. Pranayama breathing

With origins in yoga, pranayama breathing is used to control the breath in varying patterns to yield different results. Types of breathwork that fall under this umbrella include Lion’s Breath, in which a person produces an audible pant sound and alternate nostril breathing, which involves closing off one nostril at a time and inhaling deeply.


How to learn breathwork

If you’re wanting to try breathwork for the first time, you might be confused trying to figure out how to learn. A good first step is to attend a local breathwork workshop to test the practice out under the guidance of a trained facilitator. Other trained facilitators like counsellors and coaches offer private breathwork sessions, too.

If in person classes aren’t really your thing, virtual breathwork class are great option as you can practice in the comfort of your own home. The virtual setting also offers more flexibility, so you can participate from anywhere in the world at a time that works best for you.

Another great option is a breathwork app. Many of these apps include resources and guided sessions that will allow you to learn breathwork online for free. Several of them also allow you to access premium features for a fee.

Are there any risks associated with breathwork?

Although incredibly rare, if you’re new to breathwork, more challenging techniques may lead to hyperventilating. If you start to experience dizziness, tingling in your hands, arms, feet, or legs, an irregular heartbeat, muscle spasms or a change in vision stop what you are doing and seek medical help.

Who should not practise breathwork?

One group of individuals who should be cautious when practising breathwork are those with respiratory conditions such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). These conditions can be exacerbated by certain breathing techniques, such as those that involve holding the breath or breathing rapidly – so it’s important to consult with your doctor before starting a breathwork practice.

While certain breathing techniques can increase the oxygen supply to the fetus, another group of people who should also be careful when practicing breathwork is pregnant women, as more intense techniques like holotropic breathwork may not be safe. If you’re pregnant, it’s best to consult with your obstetrician before trying any new breathing exercises.

Why is breathwork so powerful?

From holotropic hyperventilation to Wim Hof’s ‘power breathing’, manipulating your respiration has lately been sold as a way to enhance your exercise performance, quicken your mind, or even enter altered states of consciousness – but if you’re asking ‘why?’, that’s a fair question.

Research shows that different emotions are associated with different forms of breathing, and so changing how we breathe can change how we feel. For example, when you feel joy, your breathing will be regular, deep and slow. If you feel anxious or angry, your breathing will be irregular, short, fast, and shallow. When you follow breathing patterns associated with different emotions, you’ll actually begin to feel those corresponding emotions.

How does this work? Changing the rhythm of your breath can signal relaxation, slowing your heart rate and stimulating the vagus nerve, which runs from the brain stem to the abdomen, and is part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the body’s “rest and digest” activities (in contrast to the sympathetic nervous system, which regulates many of our “fight or flight” responses). Triggering your parasympathetic nervous system helps you start to calm down. You feel better. And your ability to think rationally returns.

There’s another part to this story, too: When you breathe, air is drawn mainly into the upper part of your lungs, but the greatest concentration of blood is lower down. Proper breathing carries air deeper into the lungs to allow more oxygen transfer to the blood, improving oxygenation by up to 15 per cent. It sounds nerdy, but it’s impossible to think of a simpler tweak with a greater impact.

How to do breathwork by yourself

Here are a handful of meditative breathing techniques and how they may help benefit your body, no matter what’s going on around you:

Dealing With Anxiety-Related Hyperventilation

Anxiety Treatment Australia has set out great guidelines to help cope with hyperventilation as a result of anxiety. Their instructions are as follows:

If you’re a beginner, it might be easier to lie flat on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor about eight inches apart – one hand on your chest, one hand on your abs.

  1. Counting to 10, hold your breath.
  2. Exhale out.
  3. Inhale slowly through your nose for three seconds. You’ll notice your abdomen rise while your chest stays still.
  4. Exhale through your mouth for three seconds. Again, the hand on your abdomen should fall as you exhale.
  5. Continue this process for a minute before holding your breath for ten seconds again.
  6. Repeat the process for five minutes.

Breathing During Exercise

If you’re doing high intensity exercise, you’ll want to breathe through your nose. “The body is exquisitely designed to breathe through the nose,” says life and relaxation coach, Kate Hanley, speaking to AARP. “The hairs in your nose help purify the air and remove potential irritants and toxins, and the nasal passages and sinuses help with regulating the temperature of the air you inhale.”

And previous research tends to agree: According to Yoga Health Benefits, using your nose allows for more efficient flow of oxygen. Because the entrance and exit for the nose is far smaller, your lungs are able to use more oxygen as not as much escapes your respiratory system.

Deep Breathing As A Preventative Measure 

According to Harvard University, “Deep abdominal breathing encourages full oxygen exchange — that is, the beneficial trade of incoming oxygen for outgoing carbon dioxide. Not surprisingly, it can slow the heartbeat and lower or stabilise blood pressure.” Focusing on your breathing patterns can help you concentrate and avoid “distracting thoughts and sensations.”

Guidelines set out by Harvard recommend the following:

  1. Begin by taking a normal breath
  2. Move onto a deeper breath – breathe in through your nose slowly – you’ll notice your chest and belly rise as your lungs fill up.
  3. After your abdomen expands fully, exhale slowly through either your mouth or nose.
  4. Then, sit with your eyes clothed, practising deep breathing in tandem with positive and relaxing thoughts.

If depression is affecting your life or you need someone to talk to, please do not suffer in silence. Support is available here.

Lifeline: 13 11 14

Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467

Beyondblue: 1300 224 636



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By Nikolina Ilic

Nikolina is the former Digital Editor at Men's Health Australia, responsible for all things social media and .com. A lover of boxing, she has written for Women's Health, esquire, GQ and Vogue magazine.

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