Deep breathing provides many benefits. It supports recovery after exercise, aids with digestion, gives you energy, and relieves stress, to name a few. That said, taking deep breaths can be surprisingly tough for some people. Yoga instructor Alex Artymiak explains that one reason for this is that people who don't have regular breathwork or meditation practices and are not used to this type of conscious breathing.
Another reason it can be hard to take slow, deep breaths? Stress. "When we are stressed or anxious, we upregulate the nervous system, which triggers us to breathe shallow and short into the chest," Artymiak says. And given that life is chock-full of stressors, it can be challenging to break a shallow breathing habit. There is good news for shallow breathers, though. You can still reap the benefits of deep breathing with the help of an easy mindset shift: focus on “soft” breathing techniques instead.
What it means to breathe 'softly'
Soft breathing, Artymiak explains, means shifting your focus from trying to achieve the perfect fullness and cadence (as people often do when told to take slow, deep breaths) to focusing on how breathing feels in your body without trying to force or control it anyway.
"As the breath softens, the body softens, and the two work in tandem to down-regulate our nervous system so that we feel more calm and peaceful," he says. Breathing softly also allows you to notice and release any tension in your body, he adds, and once your mind and body are relaxed, that, in turn, leads to a slower, deeper breath.
Here's why this easy mindset shift works: "When we quantify the breath with volume and tempo, we may add a layer of stress because there is a desire to 'hit the mark,’ and we can feel discouraged when we come up short," Artymiak says. "I've had students tell me that they get anxious when I instruct a four to five count breath, and they feel like they're struggling or holding their breath." In other words, focusing on soft breathing takes the pressure off from trying to get it “right.”
Artymiak compares it to swimming for distance and speed. "If you are stressed, you may be wasting your energy with bad form," he explains. "When you slow down and feel your body moving through the water, you'll instinctively make changes to swim smoothly, which will ultimately cover more distance in a shorter amount of time."
How to practice 'soft' breathing
To practice soft breathing, Artymiak recommends getting in a comfortable seated position or lying down on your back and closing your eyes. "Imagine relaxation, like water, flowing down from the top of your head and scalp, softening your eyes, your jaw, your shoulders, and belly," he says. You can also place your hands on your stomach and envision softly inflating a balloon as you breathe in.
The key, Artymiak says, is to focus on breathing gently, meaning don’t try and force yourself to get the perfect slow tempo or fullness. Just observe the flow of your breath, feel the air as it flows into your nose and through your belly and chest, and notice how soft, yet full, your breath becomes as you practice.
It's also important to release any tension in your body as you do this. "A tense body will make it difficult to breathe softly," Artymiak says. "So by becoming aware and relaxing tension from your body, you make it possible to soften the breath."
Artymiak also notes that when you're breathing softly, you may notice moments when you feel so relaxed your breath pauses. "It may be for a second or for a few, but the experience will be different than when you are ‘holding your breath,'" he says. "It will feel effortless and peaceful."
Once you've practiced breathing softly and feel like you have the technique down pat, Artymiak recommends taking it a step further and timing how long it takes you to take three breaths as softly as you can. With practice, he says, you may be surprised with how long and deep your breath naturally becomes simply by focusing on softness.
The best part? You can use this soft breathing technique anytime, anywhere. Artymiak recommends practicing it whenever you feel anxious, reactive, or agitated and want to calm and center yourself. Particularly, he says practicing soft breathing when you're winding down for the day or feeling restless in bed is a great time.