Learn how to use your breath to boost your health.
Taking a few minutes a day to stop and pay attention to your breath is one of the simplest ways to reduce stress.
You probably don’t think too much about breathing, but it can be a powerful tool—and one of the easiest—to help you live a healthier life. Breathing is a unique function in the body because it is both involuntary—it happens automatically, like your heart beating and your stomach digesting food—and voluntary. You can also control it, like holding your breath underwater.
“Our bodies breathe for us to take care of us, but we have the power to tap into how we breathe to take care of ourselves,” says Anne Sussman, a certified meditation and mindfulness instructor and creator of The Mindfulness Meeting Place. “When we are aware and pay attention to our breath, we have access to controlling it, and it can be a powerful antidote to stress.”
What Your Breath Reveals
You’re probably most aware of your breath after sprinting up several flights of stairs or chasing after a toddler. But observing your breathing throughout the day can provide valuable insight. “Our breath gives us information about how we are feeling,” says yoga therapist Laura Malloy, LICSW, C-IAYT, director of yoga at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Mass General Hospital in Boston. “For example, when we are stressed, we may hold the breath, or take shallow or rapid breaths.”
Unfortunately, shallow, rapid breathing is common in our crazy-busy lives and only exacerbates stress and anxiety. This breathing pattern activates the fight-or-flight stress response, increasing your heart rate and releasing stress hormones like cortisol. But you can counteract this response—even in the heat of the moment—by taking some deep breaths. When you do, your heart rate slows, your blood pressure goes down, and stress hormone levels decrease.
“Deep breathing releases tension in the body, deepens relaxation, increases concentration and emotional control, brings oxygen to the cells and promotes better sleep and overall good health,” says Malloy. “It helps counter the wear and tear stress has on our bodies.”
Breathing Techniques for Better Health
Here are five breathing techniques to help you relax and boost your health. You can alternate using them or stick to the best one for you. If you feel dizzy or lightheaded while performing any breathing technique, take a break. To help you make deep breathing a regular part of your life, see Small Habits to Change Your Life.
Belly breathing, also called diaphragmatic or abdominal breathing, is a basic deep breathing technique. It emphasizes slow, deep breaths through your nose to enable more fresh air to enter your lungs. Research has shown that this breathing technique improves attention and mood and lowers cortisol levels.
To practice belly breathing, sit or lie comfortably and place one or both hands on your belly. Inhale deeply through your nose so you feel your abdomen expanding and your hand moving out if you’re sitting or up if you’re lying. As you exhale through your nose, feel your belly contract and your hand move in if you’re sitting or down if you’re lying. If you’d like, you can close your eyes as you focus on your breath for a minute or two to start.
Pursed lip breathing can help when you’re short of breath due to asthma, COPD (chronic obstructive lung disease), other lung conditions or overexertion. It slows your breathing pattern, enables you to take in more fresh air and moves more old air out of your lungs. You can also use the technique when physically exerting yourself like picking up something heavy, exercising or climbing stairs.
To practice pursed lip breathing, sit comfortably, relaxing your neck and shoulders. Inhale slowly through your nose for a slow count of two to four, feeling your belly expand like in belly breathing above. Pucker your lips like you’re going to whistle or blow out a candle. Gently exhale through your pursed lips four to eight counts, twice as long as your inhalation. Breathe easily as you do this. You don’t have to take deep breaths or force the air out. Practice for a minute or two to start and use the technique anytime you feel short of breath.
Box breathing, also called square breathing or sweet 16, is so powerful that it’s a technique utilized by Navy Seals to reduce anxiety and help them remain calm.
To practice box breathing, sit comfortably and imagine drawing a box as you breathe. Inhale for a count of four as you go up the left side. Hold your breath for a count of 4 as you go across the top. Exhale for four as you go down the opposite side, then hold for four across the bottom to the starting point. Repeat for three to four rounds. You can adjust the number of counts to what’s comfortable for you, and it’s okay if they’re not all the same.
Alternate nostril breathing involves breathing through one nostril at a time. In one study, this breathing technique helped people with hypertension to lower their blood pressure.
To practice alternate nostril breathing, sit comfortably and use whichever hand is more comfortable for you. Bring your thumb and index finger on either side of your nose. Depending on which hand you’re using, close your left nostril with your thumb or finger while leaving your right nostril open. Inhale slowly through your right nostril. Use your thumb or finger to close your right nostril and release your left nostril. Exhale slowly through your left nostril. Then inhale through your left nostril. Close your left nostril. Release your right nostril and exhale through it. Repeat for a minute or two to start.
Humming bee breathing is an audible breathing technique. During this type of breathing, the exhalation is longer than the inhalation, which can reduce anxiety. Research shows it may slow your heart rate, lower blood pressure, improve cognition and reduce stress. The acoustic vibration created by this breathing technique may contribute to its relaxation effects.
To practice humming bee breathing, sit comfortably and cover or close your ears. Inhale slowly through your nose. As you exhale through your nose, make a hmmm sound for as long as comfortable until you need to inhale again. Don’t force it. Continue for a minute or two to start.
For simple ways to get healthier, see Do Just One Thing a Day Challenge.