Breathing is involuntary, which means most of the time you probably don’t give it much thought. Yet when things go awry, like when you’re stressed, anxious, or afraid, you’ll probably notice changes in your breathing. But you can also harness your breath to inspire calm and focus, especially in moments you need a soothing boost.
Breath work is a form of mind-body training that uses deep, diaphragmatic breathing or belly breathing, which per research, may trigger relaxation responses in the body and lead to a number of health benefits. A research review published in January 2023 in Scientific Reports, for example, concluded that breath work may be effective for improving stress and mental health conditions like depression and anxiety.
“We’re all often running at top speed through our days and under constant stress and strain,” says Kate Ingram, registered dietitian-nutritionist and certified yoga teacher in Stamford, Connecticut, who uses breath work as part of her coaching and teaching. “Chronic stress is linked to everything from headaches and poor sleep to anxiety, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Simple deep breathing techniques can really help alter our stress patterns and change these health trajectories.”
What’s more, breath work is highly accessible and you don’t need any special training to get started. “The great thing about breath work is that anyone can do it,” says Ann Russo, LCSW, a professional therapist in Long Beach, California. “You don’t need to be a consistent practitioner of meditation or yoga to start reaping the benefits. All you need is a few minutes of quiet and a willingness to experiment with different breathing techniques.”
Here are five 30-second breath work exercises paired with various common life experiences, including expert tips on how to get started.
1. If You Need to Focus, Try Box Breathing
Box breathing, sometimes known as four square, is a simple technique and great for beginners, Ingram says. If your mind is wandering at work or you need some help concentrating on a research project, you may want to give it a try.
To practice box breathing, Ingram recommends the following:
- Find a comfortable seat with your back straight and feet flat on the ground.
- Close your eyes and take a deep breath in through your nose to the count of four. Fill your lungs completely.
- Hold your breath for a count of four. Try not to clench your jaw or hold tension anywhere in your body.
- Exhale slowly through your mouth to the count of four letting all the breath out.
- Hold your breath again for a count of four.
“Repeat steps 2 to 5 a few times just paying attention to the movement, sound, and feel of your breath,” Ingram says. “If a count of four is too difficult, start with a count of two or three and work your way up.”
2. If You Want to Evoke a Sense of Calm, Try 4-7-8 Breathing
If you need to quiet your mind after a long day, 4-7-8 breathing may help.
“This technique, also known as the ‘relaxing breath,’ is a simple and effective way to calm the mind and body and promote relaxation,” says John Landry, a licensed registered respiratory therapist (RRT) who uses breath work in his practice, in Memphis, Tennessee.
It involves holding your breath after inhalation for a fairly significant length of time. “This retention allows for organs and muscles to get a bit of an oxygen boost, keeping them healthy and vitalized,” explains Ellie Smith, a certified yoga instructor trained in breath work in Mie, Japan. “The longer exhalation stimulates the parasympathetic nervous response, also known as ‘rest and digest.’”
To get started with 4-7-8 breathing, Landry offers the following instructions:
- Sit or lie down comfortably, with your back straight and shoulders relaxed.
- Close your eyes and take a few normal breaths to settle.
- Inhale quietly through your nose for a count of four.
- Hold your breath for a count of seven.
- Exhale slowly and audibly through your mouth for a count of eight.
- Repeat this cycle for a total of four breaths or until you feel more relaxed.
If 4-7-8 is too difficult, start with a 2-4-5 count or a 3-5-6 and work your way up, Ingram recommends. “Just encouraging the longer exhale can really give you a sense of calm,” she says.
3. If You Need a Confidence Boost, Try Lion’s Breath
When you’re preparing for a big presentation at work or getting ready for a job interview, remember to keep lion’s breath in your back pocket.
“This technique is great to give a sense of strength,” Ingram says. “Maybe if you’re not feeling your strongest and need a quick boost.”
To get started, she recommends:
- Start in your comfortable upright seated position.
- Inhale deeply through your nose.
- Exhale loudly through an open mouth with a “ha” sound, sticking your tongue out. You can also make a slight growl like a lion in the back of your throat.
“This breath can release a lot of tension in the face and jaw, reduce stress, and increase your energy,” Ingram says. “It definitely would help if you are feeling self-conscious and need to just not take yourself so seriously for a moment.”
4. If You Need Better Balance, Try Alternate Nostril Breathing
“In Sanskrit this type of breathing is called Nadi Shodhana,” Smith explains. “It works to bring the parasympathetic nervous system and sympathetic nervous system into balance.”
According to traditional yogic philosophy, the left nostril is the gateway to the right side of our brain, she says, which is associated with the parasympathetic nervous system (the “rest and digest” response). The right nostril is the gateway to the left hemisphere, responsible for the sympathetic nervous system, which stimulates the “fight or flight” response.
“When we are anxious and stressed for too long, we can become right-nostril dominant,” Smith says. “And the converse is also true. If we are too lethargic and brain-foggy, our left nostril is likely dominant for too long. We can bring the two nervous systems into balance through alternate nostril breathing, to help give them a reset.”
To get started with alternate nostril breathing, Smith suggests:
- With your right hand, bend your forefinger and middle finger so the fingertips are resting on the meaty part of your thumb. Bring your thumb to just under the bony part of your right nose. Lift your elbow out to the side so you have space between your lungs and your arm.
- Before closing the nostril, inhale. Close the nostril with the thumb and exhale for four. Keep the thumb there and inhale for four. Repeat three to five times and return to normal breathing.
- With the ring finger, close the left nostril and open the right. Inhale for four, exhale for four and repeat three to five times before returning to normal breathing.
- Inhale, close the right nostril, exhale for four, and inhale for four.
- Close the left nostril and open the right. Exhale for four, inhale for four.
- Repeat steps 4 and 5 for three to five more rounds, then return to normal breathing for a minute or two before repeating them again.
Beginners may want to stick with steps one to three for a few days before building up to steps four and five, Smith advises.
5. If You Need a Quick Stress Reliever, Try Falling-Out Breathing
Falling-out breath is a simple technique that helps release tension and stress by encouraging a deep exhale, Landry says.
The technique is essentially a few rounds of big sighs, Smith notes. “It emphasizes the exhale, signaling to the body that you’re safe and helping you to stimulate the rest and digest response,” she says.
Landry offers the following instructions to practice falling out breath:
- Stand or sit in a comfortable position, with your feet shoulder-width apart and your knees slightly bent.
- Place your hands on your thighs or your lap.
- Take a deep breath in through your nose, filling your lungs completely.
- Open your mouth and exhale slowly yet strongly, making a long “haa” sound as you release the breath fully.
- Allow your body to relax and repeat several times.
Talk to Your Doctor Before Starting Breath Work if You Have Certain Conditions
While breath work is considered to be generally safe, certain people may want to avoid certain exercises or need to check with their doctor before getting started.
“Breath work can be practiced by people of all ages and fitness levels, though individuals with respiratory issues, cardiovascular disease, or other medical conditions should consult their healthcare provider before beginning a breath work practice,” Landry says.
Smith notes that certain breath work exercises may not be appropriate for people with certain mental health conditions. “For example, if you’re feeling anxious, then any techniques that use rapid breathing [may] not be suitable, as these [generally] serve to keep you in that state,” she says.