As someone who’s struggled with anxiety for most of her life, breathwork exercises have been a true lifesaver. It’s the one magical tool in my wellness toolkit that I can always rely on whenever I’m feeling stressed, anxious, overwhelmed, or feel a full-blown panic attack coming on, especially during this pandemic. So what exactly is breathwork? Breathwork facilitator Ana Lilia defines it as “an active form of meditation where you manipulate your breath to quickly change the way you feel.”
If you’re new to meditating or just can’t seem to vibe with regular mindful meditation, breathwork is a great alternative technique to try, and the benefits have been reported to include decreased stress, increased mental clarity, and elevated mood. Often, especially when you're feeling anxious, Lilia says you likely aren’t breathing properly. She explains that when we feel anxious we may start taking shallow, rapid breaths from the chest, which increases heart rate, creates muscle tension, and activates the sympathetic nervous system triggering a surge of adrenaline and cortisol that signals to your body that you’re not safe. “This creates an imbalance in the oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange, which can contribute to anxiety, panic attacks, and fatigue,” Lilia says.
Enter breathwork. “When you shift your breathing to abdominal breathing (using your diaphragm), your body enters into a relaxed state,” Lilia says. “Your parasympathetic nervous system gets activated and slows your heart rate, which helps to reduce the feelings of anxiety.”
Gwen Dittmar, a life coach and breathwork teacher, adds that breathwork isn’t just good for calming you down in the moment. It’s also a powerful tool for releasing trauma, fear, grief, depression, and anger. “Breathwork can give you access to deeper states of consciousness, inspiration, and love,” she says. “It allows you to reconnect to your life force and use that to expand.” The key, Lilia says, is making breathwork part of your daily mental wellness practice to reap the breathwork benefits of reduced stress, increased energy, and a clearer mind.
All that said, like many wellness practices, breathwork may not be suitable for everyone. If you have a history of health issues or you’re currently pregnant, Lilia advises consulting with your doctor first before practicing breathwork to see if it is recommended for you. “Breathwork can be very activating and you might experience physical sensations while breathing,” Lilia explains. Dittmar adds that breathwork also isn’t recommended for people with cardiovascular diseases, severe mental illness, seizure disorders, or those taking antipsychotic medications.
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Breathwork Exercises: For Energy
Whenever you need an energy boost, instead of reaching for that second (or third) cup of coffee, Lilia recommends doing quick inhales through the nose and exhales through the mouth for 30 counts. Then hold your breath for 15 seconds and repeat the quick inhales and exhales for another 30 counts. “This surge of oxygen into your body is releasing more energy into your cells,” Lilia says. “It’s normal to feel tingly and more alert.”
Breathwork Exercises: For Relaxing Your Mind & Body
The 4-7-8 breathing technique is a good one for regulating the nervous system, says Lilia, who claims it can result in a feeling of calmness, more control over your emotions, and better sleep. Here’s how to do it: “Take a breath [through the nose] from your diaphragm to the count of four, hold your breath to a count of seven, and slowly exhale [through the mouth] to a count of eight,” Lilia says. “Repeat this breathing exercise three to eight times or until you feel calmer.”
Breathwork Exercises: When You’re Feeling Overwhelmed
Although learning specific breath patterns and having them in your stress toolkit is great, when you’re feeling overwhelmed it’s easy to forget them. If that’s the case, Lilia recommends keeping it simple by just taking slow, deep breaths from your diaphragm to lower your heart rate and blood pressure and help you feel grounded and calm. “Place a hand on your belly and take a deep breath feeling your belly expand, and slowly exhale out of your mouth,” she says. “As you continue to breathe, imagine your whole body softening and the tension leaving your body with each exhale that you take.”
Breathwork Exercises: For Deep Healing
Breathwork is great for soothing you in the moment, but Dittmar says it’s also a powerful tool for deep, inner transformation and healing. When you feel called to deepen your breathwork practice, Dittmar recommends practicing a three-part breath for at least three minutes which allows you to disconnect from your mind and connect with your body in order to move stagnant energy. “This type of breathwork will allow you to enter a different state of consciousness to access deep healing including but not limited to anxiety, depression, fear, grief, insecurity, and doubt,” Dittmar says.
To do the three-part breath, start by lying down somewhere comfortable. Then inhale twice through your mouth, the first into your stomach and the second into the chest, and then exhale through your mouth. Fair warning: This three-part breath pattern takes a bit of getting used to since you’re only breathing through the mouth. Start with three-minutes of practice. Once you get comfortable with it, you can practice it for a longer period.
Also, Dittmar notes, this type of experiential breathwork practice can bring about intense emotions and physical sensations as part of the healing process so it might be best to work with a breathwork practitioner who can guide you and perhaps pair the practice with psychotherapy and other forms of support.
All in all, the best things about breathwork lie in its simplicity. It’s totally free to practice, you can do it anytime and anywhere, and most importantly — speaking from personal experience here — it's incredibly soothing for the mind, body, and soul. Even just a few deep breaths can take you from anxious to chill in seconds. But don’t just take my word for it, try it for yourself and see.