Take a deep breath through your nose and exhale through your mouth. You’ve successfully started your first breathing exercise. A variety of health benefits accompany this simple practice. What's more, adding just a few other breathing exercises to your daily routine could improve lung capacity, reduce blood pressure, or faster recovery from exercise. It can also benefit your mental health and improve concentration and focus.
So how can you get all there is to offer from your breath? Below are my top 5 breathing exercises to practice daily, along with a bonus recommendation of the best times to do them!
1. Slow Breathing
Slow breathing involves less than 10 breaths/min (but usually closer to 5-6 breaths/min). It is the most scientifically-validated breathing technique that is generally safe and effective for anyone.
Slow breathing for as little as 10-20 minutes a day has shown to:
Reduce stress and anxiety
Lower blood pressure
Improve cardiovascular function
Improve autonomic function
How and when to do it: The simplest way to get started is to inhale for 4 seconds and exhale for 6 seconds. You can practice slow breathing anytime, but for the best results, aim for two 10-minute sessions, one in the morning and one in the evening.
2. Alternate Nostril Breathing
Alternate nostril breathing (ANB) is an ancient yogic technique now validated by modern science. It has been found to reduce blood pressure, enhance cardiovascular function, improve focus, and help memory retention.
How and when to do it: ANB uses the following pattern:
Breathe in through the left nostril while blocking the right with your thumb.
Block the left nostril with your right ring finger and breathe out the right nostril.
Keeping the left nostril plugged, breathe in through the right nostril.
Block your right nostril and breathe out through the left.
Start over at step 1.
ANB is an excellent method to practice to prepare your mind for focus. It can also be used any time of day, and a convenient time is right before your slow breathing practice. For example, perform 3 minutes of ANB followed by 7 minutes of slow breathing. The simplest way to start is by using the same pace you use for slow breathing – 4 seconds in, 6 seconds out.
3. Fast Breathing
Breathing fast stimulates the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) branch of the nervous system. It causes an acute bout of stress and a short burst of energy. Although many people use breathwork to calm themselves (we have enough stress as is), this technique can be therapeutic if used safely.
Somewhat paradoxically, you can combine fast breathing techniques with slow breathing methods for deeper relaxation. Putting your body through a short burst of controlled stress prepares you for greater calm afterward.
How and when to do it: Although several methods are available, a good one to start with is Bhastrika (or “bellows breathing”). The technique involves forceful inhalations and exhalations at about 30 breaths/min. It’s done through the nose and uses arm motions synchronized with the breath. During inhalation, the arms go straight up, and during exhalation, the elbows come down, and the hands come into fists.
Here’s a video that can also help you get started.
Use this breath before a slow breathing session or anytime you need a quick burst of energy. For example, it can be used in the afternoon when you need a pick-me-up without caffeine.
4. Deliberate Sighs
Stanford Neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Huberman has recently popularized the use of deliberate sighing for relaxation. Sighs act to reset your physiological and emotional state. Therefore, a few sighs can quickly relax and reset you after a stressful event.
How and when to do it: Sighs generally consist of two quick nasal inhales (the first is slightly longer than the second) followed by an extended exhale through the mouth.
Here’s an excellent 3-minute video from Dr. Huberman explaining how.
Deliberate sighing only takes a few seconds and can be used throughout the day whenever you need a quick mental and emotional reset. Just be careful not to overdo it, as doing these too often could cause over-breathing.
Breathwalking is the synchronization of your steps with your breath. It provides a powerful yet, efficient way of combining physical exercise, breathing, and meditation.
How and when to use it: Breathwalking can be used any time of day, but it can be particularly helpful as a reset between tasks. Moreover, it can also serve as an all-in-one practice, allowing you to get physical exercise, breathwork, and meditation in one session.
A good one to start with is either the 4/4 or 8/8 pattern, meaning you inhale for 4 (or 8) steps and exhale for 4 (or 8) steps. These should be performed through the nose while walking at your normal pace. Start with just 2-3 minutes and build up over time.
These are 5 excellent breathing practices you can implement into your daily routine. And, of course, one is better than none, so pick the one that interests you most and have fun getting started. The key here is consistency!
About the Author
Nick Heath, PhD, is an atmospheric scientist, breathing researcher, Oxygen Advantage coach, and type-1 diabetic. His work focuses on optimal breathing for diabetes, chronic disease, and overall health and wellness. Learn more at thebreathingdiabetic.com or follow Nick on Instagram.