Breathing Techniques: A Guide to the Science and Methods
Breathing is part of our body’s master blueprint for regulating the body’s rhythms. Yet how often do we take breathing for granted?
Short ragged breath rhythms will both reflect our emotional state and cause us to grow frantic, stressed, and unfocused. Slow, even breathing, on the other hand, will signal that we are calm and relaxed, therefore slowing our heart rate and allowing us to more easily focus our attention.
Due to the record levels of stress and anxiety throughout the developed world, many individuals aren’t living their healthiest lives, even when they work hard at dieting, exercising, and achieving a balance. This stress frequently causes improper breathing. However, it’s also something that we can mastered on an individual basis with slow, steady breathing through the nose.
Attentive breathing is one way someone can send signals to their body. With the speed and depth of our breath, we are telling our bodies what we are feeling, as well as what our priorities are at the time. This means that breathing affects all the aspects and levels of our mood, from stress level to blood pressure and immune functionality.
As we inhale, we draw in oxygen (O2). As we exhale, we push out carbon dioxide (CO2). Our bodies require a balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide. This means that we can also run into problems when our carbon dioxide levels are too low. Proper breathing techniques help us to maintain a proper balance.
There are two major factors that keep our body and circulation in peak condition. These are proper breathing patterns and movement or exercise that increases blood circulation. In this guide we will dive deep into the ins and outs of proper breathing and how to get started with a breathing technique that suits your lifestyle and goals.
Where Does Improper Breathing Come From?
Like bad posture, improper breathing techniques come from long days of sitting. Sitting forces our bodies and organs into unnatural postures, which allow our muscles to become stiff and restrict our breathing. Proper breathing is easier when the body is flexible and in a posture that allows the lungs to move.
This means that instead of breathing through our stomachs as we should be, we learn to breathe through our chest. Chest breathing doesn’t fully inflate our lungs and it strains the muscles around our neck and shoulders, making for inefficient and problematic breathing patterns.
This can be exacerbated by learned behaviors and garments. Some sports, such as weight-lifting, swimming, and forms of martial arts, prioritize long-term improper breathing. These techniques may increase short-term adrenaline by inciting and then utilizing stress responses. However, they aren’t sustainable for endurance sports or healthy breathing outside of the sports arena.
Constrictive straps, such as belts or waistbands that lay high and tight on the body, as well as bra straps, may constrict our ability to breathe to the full extension of our lungs. Finally, sucking in our guts and bracing our middles to look thinner or in response to anxiety will push our breath upward into our chest.
Other reasons for improper breathing may be chronic nasal congestion or a runny nose which causes mouth breathing.
Mouth Breathing Versus Nasal Breathing: What’s the Difference?
Breathing through your nose is one of our oldest pearls of wisdom. However, does it really make a difference?
Research finds that it does.
When you breathe through your mouth, you will experience less tissue oxygenation, which causes your heart rate and blood pressure to elevate in an attempt to make up for less efficient breathing. An elevated heart rate or high blood pressure can cause fatigue and dizziness. In other words, breathing through your nose allows you to absorb more oxygen with less physical exertion.
Breathing through your mouth will make it more likely that you hyperventilate or experience allergens. It also causes you to expel too much carbon dioxide from your body, which can cause fluctuations in your blood’s pH level and limit the hemoglobin from releasing oxygen into our cells. This is called the Bohr effect, which can ultimately lead to hypoxia or low blood oxygen levels that restrict blood flow to vital organs.
This means that even while exercising it is better to breathe through your nose than your mouth. While it can be tempting to exhale through our mouths to cope with heavy exertion, this does us fewer favors than maintaining a proper balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide.
One way to work through this tendency is to back off the intensity of your exercise routine until you are able to maintain the routine while breathing only through your nose. This is a different kind of training since it trains your body to become more comfortable and tolerant of holding in carbon dioxide.
Additionally, breathing through the nose allows us access to a small portion of nitric oxide that we carry into our lungs. Nitric oxide helps with maintaining the balance of our bodies. It also helps to dilate our lungs and blood vessels, while providing antibacterial properties to clear out germs and bacteria.
How to Assess Your Body’s Carbon Dioxide Tolerance
Dr. Buteyko, creator of the Buteyko Breathing Technique, developed a simple test for assessing a body’s carbon dioxide tolerance. This is an easy test to try on your own. To use it with goal-setting, keep a record so you can see improvement as your practice your breathing techniques.
- To begin, sit straight (shoulders back, legs uncrossed) and breathe in a steady, comfortable rhythm.
- Breathe quietly in and then out of your nose. Then after an exhale, pinch your nose shut with your fingers.
- Start a stopwatch and keep track of how many seconds you can hold your breath before feeling a strong urge to breathe again.
- Note your time, which is known as your “control pause (CP).” Resume breathing in a calm and controlled way.
Your CP is a benchmark for your body’s tolerance of carbon dioxide. The shorter it is, the more quickly you’re likely to become breathless during exertion. Each addition of five seconds to your CP will make physical activity easier. This is something that you can work on strengthening and increasing over time.
Some health benchmarks include:
1-10 seconds – The Buteyko method considers this a serious breathing impairment. You might experience difficulties while exercising and have some chronic health problems. Tips: Begin strengthening your carbon dioxide and breathing tolerance by breathing only through your nose throughout the day.
10-20 seconds – This is a significant breathing impairment. You will likely experience moderate difficulties while exercising. Tips: Only breathe through your nose during exercise. Scale back on exercises that force you to cope by breathing through your mouth.
20-40 seconds – This is a mild breathing impairment and an average level for most adults. Tips: To increase your CP at this point, you need to engage in physical exercise and cardio, such as jogging, cycling, or swimming, which build up an air shortage.
40-60 seconds – This is a healthy breathing pattern that is in peak condition and is unlikely to experience difficulties or get winded quickly while exercising. Tips: Increase your quality of life and mental energies through meditation and mental training and development.
It’s easy to take breathing for granted. As part of homeostasis, our body does these simple, though important, functions for us. It allows us to focus on other things: life goals, work, social interactions, and more complex physical movements.
We often don’t pay attention to our breathing until we start exercising. We might find ourselves winded after running up a slope or we might be asked during a yoga session to pay attention to our breathing for the first time that day.
One of the biggest contradictions in our body is the question of why we do get winded. If our muscles are able to do the tasks we ask of them, why can’t our breath?
The answer is that our breathing cycles need specific training as well. Training our breath can enrich our lives in nearly everything we do, whether it’s exercising, socializing or something as seemingly simple as sleeping at night.
The 365 Breathing Method
Best for: Chronic stress, anxiety, phobias, pain management, nicotine withdrawal symptoms, and trauma therapy.
The 365 method utilizes the scientifically proven technique of cardiac coherence. Cardiac coherence uses biofeedback to coordinate your breathing with heart rate. Slow, steady diaphragmatic breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, which triggers the parasympathetic nervous system’s relaxation response.
By stimulating the vagus nerve, people can create calm throughout the body. This calm slows and stabilizes the heartbeat, decreases blood pressure, and relaxes muscles. The brain also relaxes and increases its sense of peacefulness, allowing for positive psychological effects.
This method should be practiced everyday at least three times per day. Each session requires five minutes. The idea is to breathe at a constant rhythm of six cycles per minute for five minutes.
The rhythm consists of five seconds inhaling and five seconds exhaling. Some versions ask breathers to spend more time on exhaling and inhaling, for instance inhaling for four seconds and exhaling for six, to exert a quieting effect on the heart rate. Keep in mind that long inhales with short exhales will speed up your heart rate; whereas, shorter inhales and longer exhales will slow the heart rate and relax the body.
The regularity of this breathing exercise not only causes immediate relief for those prone to stress or anxiety, but the consistent daily approach also makes these individuals less vulnerable to stress in the long run.
The 4-7-8 Breathing Exercise
Best for: Relaxation and improved sleep, managing cravings, and reducing anger responses.
The 4-7-8 breathing exercise involves you exhaling twice for each time that you inhale. This kind of deep breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system and allows the body to relax.
Since this relaxes the nervous system, it’s best use is right before bed. However, many advocate using the technique to relax throughout the day.
As you start out, begin with a four-breath cycle. You can increase to an eight-breath cycle as needed after about a month of frequent practice.
- Sit up straight and relax the tip of your tongue against the back of the front teeth.
- Using only the nose, breath in for four counts.
- Hold the breath for seven counts.
- Exhale through the mouth for eight counts, making a whooshing sound through the mouth as you let the breath go.
- Repeat this breathing cycle a total of four times.
Ayurvedic and Pranayama Breathing Techniques
Best for: Mindfulness meditation, focus, good health, and yogic exercises.
Pranayama or Yogic Breathing prioritizes awareness. Yoga seeks to create a combined sense of awareness that includes the breath, mind, and body. This is a good approach for those who intend to pair yoga or mindfulness with their breathing.
This breathing technique will help you pay attention to what your body is doing and how you can train it to be strong and healthy. Yogic breathing supports healing, personal development and mental or emotional transformations, and spiritual practices.
Yogic Breathing uses four primary skills:
- Nose breathing.
- Focus, in particular, the ability to focus exclusively on the breath.
- Breathing through the diaphragm.
- Strengthening the diaphragm to allow for more effective, connected, and efficient breathing.
The exercises below are Ayurvedic warm ups. They can be used independently or in conjunction to help you begin noticing, focusing on, and controlling your breath. After such a warm up, you can work your breath into more meditative even breathing. The end result of yogic breathing tends to be quiet without snoring sounds, physically smooth, and located deep in the belly or diaphragm.
Alternate Nostril Breathing (Nadi Shodhana/Nadi Shuddhi) – Use your right thumb to close your right nostril. Breath in through the left nostril. Then, close the left nostril and breathe out through the right nostril. Reverse the process, breathing in through your right nostril and out through your left. Continue this cycle until you feel that you feel focused and relaxed, or for 5 minutes, whichever comes first.
Uninostril Breathing (Surya Anuloma Viloma/Chandra Anuloma Viloma) – Close one of your nostrils. Then, inhale and exhale exclusively through the open nostril. Try to keep your breathing slow and evenly paced.
Right Nostril Initiated Breathing (Surya Bhedana) – Close the left nostril and inhale through the right nostril. Then close the right nostril and exhale through the left. Repeat this process as desired for mental focus.
Psychic Breath (Ujjayi) – Inhale and exhale through the nose at a steady, comfortable pace. As you do so, partially contract the glottis (the area at the back of your throat). Your breath may sound like light snoring. Remain aware of the breath as it passes through your throat.
Female Honey Bee Humming Breath (Bhramari) – Fully inhale. Then, use your index fingers to close your ears. Exhale while making a soft humming sound, like a honeybee.
Best for: Slowing the breath for focus and deliberation, physical training, and quitting smoking.
Box breathing is a technique used by retired Navy SEAL Commander Mark Divine, to aid slow, calm deliberation and respiratory strengthening. Box breathing is a great way to calm the nerves and work toward physical fitness. It can help individuals regulate involuntary bodily functions, such as body temperature. Additionally, holding the breath allows a healthy buildup of carbon dioxide.
Like most proper breathing techniques, box breathing requires the practitioner to breathe through the nose and expand the breath through the belly or diaphragm.
How to Box Breathe:
- Inhale for a five-second count.
- Hold the breath in for another five seconds.
- Exhale for five seconds.
- Hold the breath from another five-second count.
Box breathing should be repeated for one to three minutes several times a day or before a meeting or event, when the practicer is feeling nervous or anxious. Individuals can work up to five to ten minutes of box breathing a day.
Buteyko Breathing Methods
Best for: Physical health and exercise training, controlling anxiety and panic attacks, promoting good sleep, and decreasing the effects of asthma and sleep apnea.
Developed in Russia as a treatment for asthma, the Buteyko Breathing Method works to reverse the health problems that come with improper breathing, over-breathing, and mouth breathing.
Buteyko traces the development back to his own realization one night that his heavy breathing was not a symptom but, instead, the actual cause of his breathing problems. He then worked to slow down his own breath and began to feel results. Reducing how much we breathe increases the oxygen that our tissue, organs, and especially our brain, are able to absorb.
Buteyko reminds us that we breathe more often than we really need to. The average adult takes fifteen breaths a minute. However, for focused, deliberate breathing that slows the heart rate and offers more efficient usage of oxygen, it’s common to slow down to six breaths a minute.
The Buteyko Breathing Method reminds us that breathing less is an indication of being healthier. Additionally, healthy breathing is lighter. Those who are breathing too heavily should take note of the breathing impairment.
The ideal breathing is slow, horizontal (i.e. belly breathing and not chest breathing), and of decreased volume. In this case, having a slight air hunger, indicating a carbon dioxide accumulation, is a healthy thing.
Positive physical effects include increased physical temperature, or less commonly, temperature stability in extreme environments, which is a signal of better blood circulation. Increased saliva is another sign of the parasympathetic nervous system activating and allowing for stress reduction.
Best for: Improving quality of life through increased motivation, health, and energy.
Developed from traditional Chinese philosophy and medicine with a modern approach, Qi is a meditative deep breathing technique. It helps to focus the mind on goals to channel motivation.
How to begin with Qi:
- State your intention for your breathing session. For example, you might want to find energy and motivation, or you might want focus and relaxation.
- Inhale and exhale deeply and quickly through the nose in one-second bursts. Imagine your breath moving in a circle through your body, as it flows up the back of the spine and then down the front.
- Incorporate a rocking movement with the breathing by rocking forward to your knees on the exhalation and the backward on the inhalation. Focus primarily on the inhalation and the ability to draw in energy.
- Maintain your focus in your breath and keep a quiet mind.
At the end of a Qi breathing practice, you might find deep peace or energetic bliss. Shorter Qi breathing sessions can last for three minutes, but longer meditative Qi breathing can last up to thirty minutes.
Breathing for Stress Management
How Does Stress Alter the Way We Breathe?
In many ways, learning to have control over our breathing techniques means learning to communicate with our own bodies. By mastering certain breathing practices, we are telling our bodies what we need from it. These signals alter its functions.
When we are frightened, tense, uncomfortable, or overwhelmed, we breathe rapidly and shallowly through our mouths, triggering the sympathetic nervous system. This communication tells the body to allocate resources intended for our basic survival functions.
To do this, we abandon the process of allocating resources to higher functions, such as deep focus. Instead, our resources work on self-protection. One of the ways that the body protects us from our own stress is to trigger our appetite and store fats, causing us to gain weight. We might also feel fatigued as our body attempts to save and store our energy.
Our body understands our stress as a survival response. It doesn’t understand that in our modern world we may feel frequent stress when our lives are not in jeopardy.
By learning proper breathing techniques, we can tell our bodies that we need that energy and those resources for mental exertion, not physical. When we breathe slowly and deeply, we feel calm. This uses the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps to relax us. Our breathing reacts to our bodies, but our bodies also react to our breathing in a feedback loop.
How Can Controlled Breathing Techniques Help Neutralize Stress?
Breath training is able to combat chronic stress, anxiety, trauma, and phobias. Severe stress symptoms, such as panic attacks, force individuals to hyperventilate and reduce blood flow and oxygen carriage to the brain. This is because it relaxes minor physical tensions around the body that are associated with stress.
When these breathing exercises are done, throughout the day, for example during breaks or transitions between activities, they can provide immediate relief. In the long term, this kind of breath training will make individuals less vulnerable to stress.
Relaxation may also enhance those genes associated with energy metabolism, mitochondrial function, insulin secretion, and telomere maintenance, while reducing the genes linked to inflammatory and stress-related pathways.
In other words, by practicing relaxed breathing, we are able to tell our body to go about doing and improving its most important daily functions. This is instead of constantly telling our body that it needs to protect us by triggering stress and inflammation. The body can, therefore, allocate its resources to keeping us healthy, as opposed to keeping us sheltered.
Breathing Techniques for Asthmatics
Buteyko Breathing has been known to help asthmatics control their tightness of breath and wheezing, and to substantially decrease the frequency of severe symptoms.
However, there are currently few full studies of the Buteyko Breathing Technique to clinically evaluate its effect of asthma patients. The studies that have been done do not show a change in the participants’ pulmonary function. Instead, these studies demonstrate that the Buteyko technique can help to change a patient’s own perception of their symptoms, thus decreasing overmedication and increasing personal motivation.
The method can help to reduce medication intake and improve quality of life. However, it can be difficult for asthmatics to get started with Buteyko breathing techniques, and it requires dedication and discipline.
How to Incorporate Breathing Exercises into Daily Life
Make It a Coping Technique
Frustration often comes from feeling the limits of our unstructured or chaotic environment. Sometimes all it takes is a little structure and methodic activity to make the stress dissipate. It won’t solve all the problems that caused all the stress in the first place. However, it will give you a fresh frame of mind from which to solve these problems as well as greater control over your own faculties.
One of the best ways to use this to your advantage is to make a firm and structured coping technique or routine. This adds structure and something rote and memorized that you can fall back on for comfort, as well as mental and physical renewal.
Combine Breathing Regulation with Good Posture
Poor breathing and poor posture go hand in hand. Individuals who breathe through their mouths develop a posture with a more forward leaning head, which could cause strain and difficulty all the way down through the body. With good posture, we find the kind of shoulder position and spinal extension that allows us to breathe more clearly and efficiently.
It can be easy to correct these together in our daily lives, since you may be more likely to notice your posture than your breathing. Not only will correcting your posture and breathing technique strengthen your abdominal muscles and back muscles, but it will also heighten awareness about your physical presence.
Over time, these responses and patterns can lead to improved long-term posture and breathing habits that will require less thought and consideration.
Try Out Yoga and Meditation
The practice of yoga ties the mind and meditative techniques to physical movements. This is primarily done through an emphasis on breathing (prana) and the practice of pranayama or “yogic breathing”. While yoga and meditation are a traditional Hindu practice, developed before modern science, these practices have been validated in clinical studies. By strengthening the feedback connection between the mind and body, yoga can increase the mind’s influence over the body’s automatic function. It positively influences the mind and body, allowing for more efficient functioning throughout the respiratory, biochemical and metabolic functions.
Mindfulness meditation is a practice that is beneficial in the long term for its ability to help regulate emotions, through stimulating the amygdala, or pleasure center of the brain. Additionally, mindfulness has shown long term positive benefits, including the ability to alter the development of our brains, to decrease the level of pain that we may feel, and increase focus and mental acuity.
Practice Breathing Before Bed
Twenty minutes of slow breathing exercises before bed can significantly improve sleep. Studies have shown that breathing before bed helps those with insomnia get to sleep more quickly and wake up less frequently during the night.
Don’t have time for a 20 minute wind down? You can still benefit greatly from short breathing sessions right before bed. When it comes to relaxing for sleep every little bit helps.
Three minutes of the 4-7-8 breathing pattern can work wonders for slowing the heart rate and relaxing the mind and body before bed. Similarly, bedtime is a great opportunity for a session of the 365 breathing technique using the variation that prioritizes a long exhale.
Breathing Techniques Myths and Truths
Myth 1: “Deep Breathing” Is Healthy
Deep breathing commonly refers to take big, large-volume breathing. We’ve been told time and time again that deep breathing is good for us, but it’s not the depth of the breath that actually helps us. In fact, deep breathing usually causes us to increase our breath size far above normal so that we lose our carbon dioxide balance.
Truth: Slow, Shallow, Breathing from the Diaphragm Is Healthy
The deep breathing myth comes from a misunderstanding of what’s good about the practice. Deep breaths are usually slow and located in the diaphragm, both of which are good things. In other words, it’s not the depth of the breath that’s good for us. It’s taking slow breaths and using our belly to breath.
Myth 2: We Need As Much Oxygen As We Can Get
It’s commonly believed that we need all the oxygen we can get. If this were true, it would put people who live at higher altitudes at a significant disadvantage to those at lower altitudes. This fails to line up with the fact that elite athletes seek higher altitudes for training.
The average person’s blood is already saturated with about 97-99 percent oxygen (12-14 kilopascals). Recent studies have also shown that the oxygen content of a healthy person’s blood can drop far below what we previously thought (2.55 kilopascals or 80 percent below the normal level), with continued function for some time. Blood oxygen levels are safe to drop like this when we are able to breathe properly and our body is well-trained in efficient oxygen usage.
Truth: Keeping Our Blood Pumping is More Important
It’s frequently more important to keep our blood pumping than it is to make sure that our blood stays oxygenated. In other words, if you’re feeling tired from a sedentary job, it’s more important that you get up and move around so that more blood carries oxygen to your organs than it is to keep breathing and taking in as much oxygen as you can.
Myth 3: Breathing is Automatic and I Don’t Need to Think About It
Our body breathes for us. In fact, if we had to think about it each time we breathed, we would likely lose track and pass out. This has led many people to think that breathing techniques overcomplicate the process and it’s best to leave our bodies to their own devices.
Truth: We Can Improve Our Breathing
While our body does breathe automatically, it can learn bad habits and culturally-developed problems from the way that we breathe when we are nervous or stressed. Working to improve our breathing means retraining better automatic reactions in the long run. Even short breathing practices can help to improve automatic breathing functions through the day and lifetime.
Myth 4: All Breathing Techniques Have the Same Effect
Proper breathing techniques have a lot in common. For instance, almost every technique will offer the positive effect of managing stress throughout the body. This is even true of rapid breathing techniques, as long as they prioritize exhaling. Furthermore, each technique helps us to remain aware of how we are breathing. However, not all breathing techniques affect the body in the same way.
Truth: Different Breathing Techniques Train the Body in Different Ways
Learning a breathing technique can be the equivalent of training your breath to communicate your needs to your body. Each technique may trigger a different response from the body. For example, taking long inhales will raise the heart rate. Long exhales, on the other hand, will lower the heart rate and allow the body to relax. Holding the breath or taking time in between breaths can be a powerful tool for physical training and exercise, but it may not be relaxing enough for bedtime.
The best way to choose a routine is to try out different methods and see what helps your manage your breath. Remember, it takes sixty days to make a habit, so don’t expect miracles on your first day. Some relief may be instantaneous, but other effects will take time and dedication.
Potential Risks for Breathing Techniques
When our bodies are able to use oxygen efficiently, we are able to reduce our breathing rate and even our blood oxygen level. However, we should be aware of developing headaches, fatigue, or shortness of breath, as well as other symptoms such as oxygen deficiency or altitude poisoning.
Blood oxygen levels that are too low can result in dizziness and confusion as well as feelings of euphoria and nausea. If taken too far, the body may, in rare cases normally associated with very high altitudes and mountain climbing, experience seizures or fall into a coma. The heart may be forced to overwork in order to circulate as much oxygen as it can to the body, causing a heart attack or even death. Remain mindful of how you feel and whether your body is trying to send you warning signs.
An intense focus on breathing may not be good for someone having a panic attack caused by anxiety regarding their current physical state (interoceptive anxiety). A focus on physiology and breathing may actually exacerbate these panic symptoms. Treatment should aim for psychological approaches instead.
Individuals who experience respiratory diseases, such as severe asthma or emphysema, as well as other major health problems should consult a doctor before beginning a restrictive breathing regimen. The doctor can help to determine what breathing techniques can safely be taken and how to progress in developing a breathing practice.
Different breathing techniques emphasize different cycle lengths and approaches to regulating the breath. However, two things remain constant when it comes to practicing healthy breathing. These are the benefits of breathing through your nose, and the need to draw breath into your diaphragm and belly, not your chest.
Incorporating these two breathing practices into your lifestyle, as well as a breathing routine in the morning or before bed, can offer a wide array of benefits ranging from stress and anxiety management to better focus and more efficient exercise. Also remember, it’s not just your breath that carries oxygen to your brain, it’s your circulation as well. Proper breathing is a healthy training all it’s own, but it’s not a replacement for physical movement.