Improved mental, physical and emotional wellbeing may only be a breath away.
Need to calm down, sleep better or get creative juices flowing? No worries, there’s breathwork practice for that. From Wim Hof’s groundbreaking method to James Nestor’s bestseller, Breath, the ancient practice is gaining devoted followers across the globe.
Curious to discover what it’s all about? Take a deep breath, and we’ll step you through a beginner’s guide to breathwork – plus three practices so that you can dive right in.
Breathwork involves intentionally changing your breathing pattern through exercises or techniques. Recommended by professionals from GPs and psychologists to teachers and yogis, the easy-to-access techniques are often performed by people yearning to improve their mental, physical and emotional wellbeing.
What the research says
The reasons people practice breathwork are as individual as the individuals themselves. A growing number of studies show that it’s effective against anxiety and insomnia, some use it to reduce stress and others to build focus, sleep better, process emotions or help creativity flow.
Research by the Barrow Neurological Institute shows that controlled breathing at a slowed rate can significantly reduce feelings of pain. A report from the University of Pennsylvania found that breathing-based meditation could ease severe depression, and a study from Trinity College Dublin found that regulated breathing can balance the amount of noradrenaline – a natural chemical messenger that affects attention and certain emotions – in the brain and enhance focus.
Create a home practice
Start by setting up a space to breathe in your home. It might be a quiet corner in your living room, a shady spot under a tree outside or on the rug at the foot of your bed. Be sure it’s big enough for you to sit or lie down comfortably and without distractions.
Begin by practising for at least five minutes a day, and slowly increase your time as you grow more comfortable. Using an app like Insight Timer is a handy way to set a timer and help you keep track of your practice. If you can, establish a habit by practising at the same time each day.
Three beginner practices to try:
Also known as square breathing, this technique is a powerful stress reliever and energy booster. By slowing down the heart rate, it helps to deepen concentration and heighten performance. Try it in the morning to wake up fresh, or to beat the 3 pm slump or before a big meeting.
- Exhale and release all the air from your lungs
- Hold your breath for four seconds
- Inhale through your nose for four seconds until your lungs are full
- Hold your breath for four second
- Exhale out of your nose for four seconds
- Repeat the cycle four times
We’re born knowing how to take deep, refreshing breaths where we fully engage the diaphragm. But as we get older – and life gets busier – we usually begin to take more shallow and less satisfying chest breaths. This technique, also called diaphragmatic breathing, helps us to relearn the basics of deep breathing and encourages full oxygen exchange. Use it as a stress-buster before a presentation or when conflict strikes.
- Place one hand on your upper chest and the other on your belly
- Take a deep, slow breath in through your nose, towards your lower abdomen. Observe as the hand on your belly rises
- Slowly exhale through pursed lips, observing the hand on your stomach returning to its starting position
- Repeat for five minutes
Referred to as the ‘relaxing breath’, this breathing pattern aims to reduce anxiety and help people fall asleep. Get ready by resting the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth behind your top front teeth. Your tongue needs to stay here throughout your practice (pursing your lips can make this easier).
- Part your lips and exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound
- Close your mouth and inhale through your nose while you count to four
- Hold your breath while you count to seven
- Do another whooshing exhale from your mouth for eight seconds. This completes one breath cycle
- Repeat the cycle four times for a total of four breaths
And finally, whatever technique you decide to try, if you can, establish a habit by practising at the same time each day to get the full benefits.
Keen to get started? While breathwork is safe for most people, it’s always best to chat to your doctor before you begin. Not every breathwork practice will resonate with you, and they have differing outcomes, so try out a few different techniques to see which ones engage and benefit you.