5+ Breathing Exercises for Beginners to Relieve Stress and Improve Concentration

Lauren-Ann

Medical reviewed by Lauren Ann Teeter, CNS, LCSW

Functional & Integrative Approach To Mental Health, Functional Nutrition, Functional & Integrative Medicine, Psychotherapy, Mental Health

You’ve often heard the advice of taking a deep breath or counting to ten when you find yourself in a stressful situation, but does it help? Breathwork and meditation have become popular buzzwords recently in the health and wellness industry.

It’s believed that breathwork and meditation have calming effects on the nervous system, resulting in stress relief, less anxiety and overall improved emotional well-being.

Today, you’ll learn how to acquire these benefits with five beginner breathing exercises teaching you how to practice deep breathing to help you destress at the end of your day.

What is breathing therapy?

Breathing therapy is a physical form of therapy that is used to bring the body and mind to a state of calm by harnessing the power of different breathing patterns.

When you feel stressed you might notice that your breathing feels shallow, comes faster, or is restricted. By being aware of changes in your breathing you can help your body come out of the fight-or-flight stress response and settle into a state of relaxation.

Benefits of mindful breathwork

Mindful breathwork refers to the practice of breathing with awareness, which is especially important when practicing deep breathing. You might have also heard deep breathing referred to as belly breathing or diaphragm breathing, as you can tell the focus is on breathing from deep within and seeing your stomach rise in the process.

One of the reasons why mindful breathwork is so focused on deep breathing is that shallow breathing could worsen or cause anxiety. When you take shallow breaths, the lowest part of your lungs doesn’t receive a full burst of oxygenated air, making you feel short of breath and tense or anxious (1). 

Because mindful breathwork impacts the vagus nerve, it can improve anxiety levels and boost your mood. Your vagus nerve forms a part of the section of your nervous system that is responsible for calming you after a period of stress (2).

Studies have shown that if you make mindful breathwork a part of your daily routine, you will reap the benefits of mental health.

Cyclic sighing is especially effective in providing mood-boosting effects and better stress management (3). It has also been shown to help improve interoception. This creates a stronger connection between your body and mind, allowing you to more effectively care for yourself because you can better understand your mental, emotional, and physical needs (4). 

But you should be careful if you’re considering adding breathwork to your daily routine. Depending on the style you choose, you could feel light-headed and dizzy, which can be harmful. 

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How to practice deep breathing

Now that you’re ready to receive the benefits of breathwork, it’s time to get set up. As mentioned earlier, practicing breathwork, especially in the beginning, should be done with care, so be sure to choose a safe space, like a quiet room in your home.

Make sure that you’re comfortable whether you need to lie down or sit up. Bring your favorite blanket or cushions with you.

The process:

First, take a normal breath. Then, try a deep, slow breath, allowing your chest to fill with air and your stomach to rise gently as your lungs fill up. Let your stomach fully expand then slowly let the air out through your nose or mouth. Whichever feels more natural (5).

Repeat those steps.

You can also place your hand on your stomach. This might give you an easier way to tell when the breath is coming from deep within your diaphragm. Now that you’ve got the basics under control you can blend the steps to create a soothing practice. 

You can do this by closing your eyes and playing soft, relaxing music. Remember to pay attention to your body when you’re doing this and to stop if you feel overwhelmed or breathless.

Breathing exercises for beginners: 5 different breathing techniques

It’s time to expand your breathwork vocabulary. You’ve mastered the basics, so here are some specific breathwork styles that you can use to improve your vagal tone, manage stress, and bring calm into your life. Remember to choose a space you feel comfortable and safe in.

Exercise 1: The 4-7-8 Technique

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Created by Andrew Weil, MD, the 4-7-8 breathing method has been shown to lower stress levels, decrease anxiety, and improve sleep quality (6, 7).

This breathing technique comes from an ancient yogic practice called pranayama.

Pranayama focuses on putting your body into a state of “rest and digest”, this happens when the parasympathetic part of your nervous system (responsible for relaxation) is activated (8).

The exercise involves inhaling deeply for four seconds, holding your breath for seven seconds, and exhaling through your mouth for eight seconds (9). The prolonged exhalation promotes PNS activation. 

Exercise 2: The 3-3-3 Technique

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A simpler technique, the 3-3-3, is sometimes called triangle breathing. You will find it easier to progress from deep belly breathing to this practice as it requires holding your breath for a shorter time.

Just like with the 4-7-8 breathing technique, it’s important to get comfortable and ensure you’re in an environment where you feel safe.

Then, inhale for 3 seconds, filling your lungs and belly with air. Hold for 3 seconds and slowly exhale for 3 seconds. You can perform this for multiple cycles, staying aware should you start to feel dizzy or light-headed (10).

Exercise 3: Sudarshan Kriya yoga breathing technique

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Sudarshan kriya yoga (SKY) combines various breathing speeds to achieve its overall effects. Studies show that these techniques, known as Ujjayi or “victorious breath” and Bhastrika, will help you feel calm thanks to its vagal stimulation, putting you in the parasympathetic rest and digest mode (11). This is also shown to improve respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA), the natural variation in heart rate synchronized with respiration. 

Over time, using ujjayi breathing will make it easier for you to navigate stressful situations without having an exaggerated nervous system response. 

When practicing Ujjayi, take a slow breath in for 2 seconds and out for 2. You can do this in multiple cycles (12). 

Exercise 4: Bhastrika breathing technique 

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As mentioned earlier, Bhastrika is a faster-paced breathing exercise in the Sudarshan Kriya yoga practice. 

Like other breathing practices, Bhastrika helps with emotional regulation and anxiety management and generally contributes to lowering stress levels.

This is because studies show that using this breathing technique for even one month can lead to changes in the parts of the brain responsible for negative emotion processing (the amygdala) in combination with parasympathetic activation (13).

For Bhastrika breathing, you’ll want to inhale quickly at 30 breaths for one minute. You’ll then also exhale rapidly. This causes physical excitement that will then be followed by calm.

Exercise 5: Alternate nasal breathing technique

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This method of breathing works by alternately blocking your nostrils and only breathing through one at a time. It has been proven to contribute to parasympathetic system stimulation which helps with anxiety and stress management (14).

You might find this form of breathing technique tough as it involves holding your breath for the longest amount of time. 

With alternate nostril breathing, alternately block one nostril at a time for 8 seconds, hold your breath for 6 seconds, and exhale for 8 seconds (15).

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Who should avoid breathwork?

Although breathwork hasn’t been shown to have any negative effects when practiced safely, as mentioned earlier, there is still the risk of hyperventilation occurring, leading to dizziness, shortness of breath and increased anxiety.

Other meditation options, qi gong, Falun Dafa

If you’re looking for meditative exercises to reduce stress, breathwork is not your only option. For years, practices like qi gong and Falun Dafa have been practiced to bring a sense of ease into the lives of its practitioners.

Qi gong, pronounced “chi gong” is a Chinese exercise used to bring the mind, body and spirit into alignment. This exercise is especially popular with older communities as it allows them to keep active and healthy without the risk of injury from highly energetic exercises.

The exercise uses slow movements of the legs and arms combined with slow breathing to regulate your mind and body (16). Similar to qi gong, Falun Dafa is a practice that combines slow, gentle standing exercises with meditation. It aims to bring calm to the mind and build a connection between the body and mind.

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Can you do too much breathwork?

Yes, if breathwork is starting to cause dizziness or hyperventilation. It’s a good idea to stop or take a break. But there is no limit on the number of times per day that you can practice.

How to focus on breathing?

Find a quiet, calm space wherever you are. Sit or lie down and make yourself comfortable. As you breathe, focus inward, noticing how each breath leaves your nose or mouth. You can also place your hands on your chest or stomach to track the movement of the breath through your body.

Can breathwork cure anxiety?

Breathwork won’t cure anxiety, but it will help you manage it better. By helping to improve vagal tone, stimulate the parasympathetic “rest and digest” state, and impact the part of the brain responsible for negative emotions, breathwork can help you feel less anxious and stressed. The more you engage in breathwork, the more your physiology will respond.

Should you do breathing exercises before or after eating?

While you can do breathwork at any time of the day, doing a gentle breathing exercise before eating has been shown to improve digestion by helping your gut to relax. So, take a few deep breaths before your next meal.

Does breathwork make you hungry?

Breathwork hasn’t been shown to increase appetite but may actually help with appetite control, as indicated in a recent pilot study in which participants utilized heart rate variability biofeedback (HRV-BF) to engage in slow-paced breathing. This is suggested to be the result of the relaxation that breathwork brings (17). 

Summary

Bringing breathwork practice into your life is a great way to create space for ease and holistic well-being. Meditative breathwork exercises are a great way to help you connect to yourself and those around you, creating happier relationships. No matter the form of breathing you choose to implement in your daily life, you’ll no doubt experience less stress, anxiety, better sleep, and easier emotional management.

How Do You Feel About This Article?

Lauren-Ann

Medical reviewed by Lauren Ann Teeter, CNS, LCSW

Functional & Integrative Approach To Mental Health, Functional Nutrition, Functional & Integrative Medicine, Psychotherapy, Mental Health

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