You breathe all day, often without consciously thinking about it. But using your breath intentionally through breathwork can have some powerful benefits.
“When we’re stressed, we tend to hold our breath or breathe shallowly and rapidly,” says Dennis Buttimer, M.Ed, CEAP, RYT, CHC, a life and wellness coach at Cancer Wellness at Piedmont. “Either response can cause our sympathetic nervous system—our fight-or-flight response—to kick in.”
This fight-or-flight response can cause the body to produce the stress hormone cortisol. If you have too much cortisol in the body for a long period of time, it can lead to inflammation and even disease.
Breathwork can help turn on the body’s parasympathetic nervous system—the “rest and digest” response.
“With breathwork, we use the breath in a more skillful way to restore and calm the body,” says Buttimer. “It’s incredibly simple to learn and very effective.”
The difference between breathwork and meditation
While you probably use breathwork during meditation, it can be a freestanding practice.
“Breathwork can be meditative,” he says. “In meditation, we focus on the breath or a mantra. A good way to learn meditation is to practice breathwork techniques.”
How to practice breathwork
Buttimer says it’s ideal to aim for five to 10 breathes (inhalations plus exhalations) per minute.
“The more you slow down your breath, the less work your heart and lungs have to do,” he says.
Ideally, you want to breathe in through your nose and out through your nose or mouth.
“When you breathe in through the nose, you trigger a chemical known as nitric oxide,” says Buttimer. “Nitric oxide triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms you, and acts as a vasodilator to help the lungs open more fully.”
Here are some of his favorite breathing techniques:
Diaphragmatic or belly breathing. Breathe in through your nose and fill up your belly like a balloon. On the exhale, let your breath go as your belly flattens. Take full, slow, deep breaths. Repeat as long as you’d like.
Extend your exhale. Breathe in for a count of three and out for a count of three. Then breathe in for a count of three and out for a count of four. Breathe in for a count of three and out for a count of five. Repeat as long as you’d like.
Box breathing. Slowly breathe in for a count of four. Hold for a count of four. Exhale for a count of four. Hold for a count of four. Repeat.
“Start slowly,” he says. “Breathwork shouldn’t feel uncomfortable. If it’s causing stress or anxiety, stop and try another method.”
When to practice breathwork
The beauty of breathwork is that it can be done anytime, anywhere. You can do breathwork in your car, in the middle of the night or at a family reunion—and no one will be the wiser.
“Use your emotions as a barometer,” says Buttimer. “If you feel anxious, angry or ‘off,’ that’s a cue to practice. It’ll help shift your emotions and get you into sync with yourself.”
Learn more ways to reduce stress and improve your well-being.