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Relax by Using Breathwork

Purpose: Breathwork may help someone to relieve stress and anxiety and generate positive moods.


Breathwork is a practice that involves using the breath to restore breathing capacity and correct dysfunctional breathing habits. This Background section provides a brief overview of how the breath influences the nervous system and why mastering the breath can help to relieve stress and anxiety and generate positive moods. The Practice section then provides eleven breathwork practices for calming the nervous system, generating positive moods, restoring breathing capacity, and correcting dysfunctional breathing habits.


The autonomic nervous system, which regulates the stress-response system, is influenced by the breath. The autonomic nervous system is made up of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The SNS is activated when a person is enduring a challenge and needs to mobilize to obtain or avoid something. Once the challenge has passed, the SNS is supposed to quiet down and the PNS is supposed to come online to relieve the stress-response. The SNS speeds up the heart rate and respiration rate while the PNS slows down the heart rate and respiration rate and triggers a natural rest and repair function. When a person is overly stressed, the SNS remains active and the PNS remains underactive, making it difficult to relax or calm down. 


Speeding up the breath activates the SNS while slowing down the breath activates the PNS. Inhaling causes the heart rate to speed up, while exhaling causes the heart rate to slow down. Since the respiratory system has millions of receptors (chemical receptors, pressure receptors, stretch receptors, etc.), every breath sends information to the brain and influences emotions, perceptions, judgements, thoughts and behaviors. By controlling the breath, a person can therefore influence the information that the brain and body send and receive, and thereby change the mind-body state. How often, how fast, and how much the lungs are inflated will directly affect the brain and how it operates.


Every physiological, emotional, and psychological state has a breathing pattern associated with it. A person breathes differently when they are upset compared to when they are calm. When a person feels angry they are generating the energy of anger and when they feel love they are generating the energy of love. A physiological, emotional, and psychological state can change by changing the breathing pattern, which is what makes breathwork so transformational.

Practice: This practice may help someone to understand how to relax by using breathwork.

There are two basic aspects of breathwork: Breath awareness and conscious breathing. Breath awareness is passive and is the act of observing the breath and allowing it to come and go on its own. Conscious breathing is active and is the act of controlling the breathing process with a conscious intention. It is important to practice both breath awareness and conscious breathing. 


Observe the breath and then take control of it before, during, and after activities, events, and interactions. Notice any changes in the experiences of the events when this is done. The first practice in this section is breath awareness and then all that follow are forms of conscious breathing. With all of these practices, a general rule of thumb is to do a practice for ten minutes in the morning, ten minutes at night, and then ten times during the day for two minutes each time.


Breath Awareness

Breath awareness does not try to analyze or judge the breath. Breath awareness is simply observing the breath and sensing it in each moment. 


To practice breath awareness, try the following: Observe physical sensations such as what parts of the body move during breathing, what muscles are used, if there are any tensions, and the breathing habits and patterns. If the mind wanders, try to bring it back on the next breath. Do this practice throughout the day and observe breathing habits and patterns during different situations, such as when feeling stressed or at peace, stuck in traffic, standing in line, or waiting to meet a friend.


Therapeutic Breathing

Breathing at a rate of four to eight breaths per minute is considered to be a therapeutic zone. This may help produce a calm feeling and alleviate tension and scattered thinking. When a person is overly focused or worried about a task, they may act less flexible and be more reactive. By consciously slowing down the breath, this may activate the PNS and create more relaxation and clearer thinking. This consistent breath count creates heart coherence, which refers to a consistent fluctuation in the heart rate. Remember, inhaling speeds up heart rate and exhaling slows down heart rate, so having a consistent rate of breathing creates heart coherence. This heart coherence is associated with a positive mood and a feeling of inner balance.


To practice therapeutic breathing, try the following: Choose a breathing rate of between four to eight breaths per minute. If choosing to do six breaths per minute, this would involve a five-second inhale and a five-second exhale. Try to make the pattern smooth and notice any mental and physical changes after a couple minutes of practice. If the rhythm is too easy then try five breaths per minute or if it is too difficult then try seven breaths per minute. Sit or stand upright, but in a relaxed posture as this decreases the effort needed to breathe. Breathe in through the nose and out through the nose or pursed lips. Focus 100 percent on the subtle sensations of breathing. Create a conscious intention or affirmation before the start of the practice, such as “every conscious breath makes me healthier.” Also, try to focus on the heart and positive emotions, beautiful images, or powerful intentions.


Diaphragmatic Breathing

A breathing pattern of shallow breaths high in the chest can activate a stress reaction. To relieve stress, breathe low and slow. Focus on breathing into an area about two inches below the navel. Put one hand over the navel and the other hand on the upper chest. Notice if breathing was done with the chest or the diaphragm.


To practice diaphragmatic breathing, try the following: Inhale and let the abdomen extend out and then exhale and pull the abdomen in toward the spine. When sitting, place both hands over the navel and interlace the fingers. On the inhale the fingers should move apart and on the exhale they should come together. When standing, place the hands on each side of the waist, above the hip bones, fingers toward the front and thumbs toward the back. On the inhale, the hands should be pushed apart and the fingers should be spread open.


Breathing for Stress Relief

To practice breathing for stress relief, try the following: Breathe at a rate of four to eight breaths per minute while using the diaphragm. In this pattern, the rate of inhalation and exhalation is the same, which keeps the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system in balance. There can be a slight pause after inhalation or exhalation which serves as a moment of transition. 


Another breathing pattern for stress relief is to make exhalation last longer than inhalation. Exhalation activates the parasympathetic nervous system, so by activating the parasympathetic nervous system more than the sympathetic nervous system, this can quickly create a more relaxed state.


Another way to practice breathing for stress relief is to consciously expand the inhale a bit more than usual by making it deeper and fuller. The exhale can then be released with a sigh and peaceful visualizations can be used to create deeper relaxation. For example, someone may imagine the boundaries of their body dissolving and a feeling of light radiating from their heart and merging with everything and everyone. Or they could sense that they are connected to everything around them in the universe.


Increase Breathing Capacity with Breath Holding

An increase of carbon dioxide in the body can trigger the urge to breathe. The body can adapt to allow the breath to be held for longer durations of time. This can strengthen the lungs and decrease the effort that is needed to breathe. 


To increase breathing capacity, try the following: Start by taking several long, slow, deep breaths to relax and prepare. Then, take thirty to forty deep, full breaths through the nose and let out the breath through the nose or mouth. After the last exhale, hold the breath until there is a strong urge to breathe. Then, take in a full inhale and hold this for ten to fifteen seconds. Let it go and then relax. Do three rounds of this at least once a day. Breathing should be able to simply resume to normal after this is finished. If a deep inhale is needed to catch the breath, then this means that the breath was held beyond a comfortable pause and the practice should be approached more gently the next time. Over several weeks, breathing capacity and the ability to hold the breath should increase.


Another way to practice increasing breathing capacity is to breathe normally and then pause after the exhale. A healthy person should be able to hold the pause after the exhale for a minimum of thirty seconds. Practice controlled pauses after the exhale and very gradually over a period of weeks increase the duration of the pause to over forty-five seconds. If a deep breath is needed when resuming breathing then this means that the breath was held beyond a comfortable pause and the practice should be approached more gently the next time. 


Breathing in Affirmations

Thousands of thoughts are generated in the mind everyday. Strongly held beliefs influence the nature of these thoughts. Combining the breath and affirmations can help shift the nature of those thoughts to become more positive. 


To practice breathing in affirmations, try the following: Start this practice by breathing gently and fully and pay attention to the thoughts that are triggered when an affirmation is introduced. Do not judge or take personally any of the thoughts. When breathing, think about what affirmations can help to produce a feeling of peace, joy and satisfaction. Inhale the affirmation with each breath.


Breathing Love

To practice breathing love, try the following: Place both hands over the heart and generate the feeling of love, peace, joy, gratitude, or compassion with each inhale. Fill the whole body with it. Then let the energy out with the exhale. Take three long inhales and three big sighs of relief with each exhale and focus on the heart. Feel love, peace, joy, gratitude, or compassion and send it out into the world. This can be a great way to start the day.


Another strategy is to think of a time that felt happy, inspired, connected, or overall wonderful. Then imagine that memory as if it were happening right now. Feel it fully and use the breath to make it feel more alive. Feed the feeling with the inhale and use the exhale to relax into it.


This practice can also be used to breathe compassion for others. For example, when standing in line at a store, focus on the heart, and breathe compassion toward the self and the people in the store. To breathe with compassion, think about how a person who is feeling compassion would breathe. Add a conscious quality to the breath to create the breath of love, gratitude, or compassion.


Breathing as a Way to Connect with Others

Breathing is a behavior and in the same way that information can be given and received through posture, facial expression, and tone of voice, people can sense others through their breathing. To send a subtle signal of safety, try the following: Create a long smooth inhale and a gentle, relaxing sigh of relief through the nose. People will naturally feel more comfortable in the presence of someone who is at ease with the breath. Mirroring someone’s breath can also add a sense of connection the same way that mirroring posture or demeanor does.


Breathing to Process Feelings

To practice breathing to process feelings, try the following: Start by becoming aware of what is being felt physically, emotionally, or mentally without doing anything about it. Then, breathe into that feeling and allow the feeling to move. Doing these steps may help someone create a more conscious response in how they respond to a situation rather than acting right away. To let go of feelings, try to release the exhale quickly and completely. To do this, inhale deeply to stretch the chest muscles. Then use the pressure and the elastic tendency of the chest muscles to do the exhale. Do not blow or push, just relax and let the breath pour out.


Yawning and Sighing

Yawning triggers the parasympathetic nervous system and a natural relaxation response that relieves stress and tension and helps with sleep, mood and anxiety. The yawning reflex lights up the same part of the brain that is associated with empathy, bonding, play, and creativity, which might be why it is contagious. A yawn can help to discharge a feeling of anxiety, anger, fear, or tiredness. If there is an urge to stretch during a yawn, then do so.


A sigh is made up of an inhale that is twice as big as usual followed by a long, relaxing exhale. Use the exhale to consciously release any physical tension from the jaw, neck, and shoulders. The sigh can also trigger the yawn. Mix yawning and sighing and observe the effect that it has on energy levels.



Tonglen is an ancient Buddhist practice that involves the visualization of inhaling the pain and suffering from oneself or others, transforming it, and exhaling wishes of relief from the pain and suffering. This transformation of energy can generate feelings of compassion and love for oneself and others. It can also increase the capacity to be emotionally there for others who are suffering. This practice is not about taking on the burden of pain and suffering, but instead acknowledging that it exists and contributing wishes for its relief. The ability to think beyond oneself is what strengthens the capacity for compassion and love.


There are four stages to practice Tonglen:

Stage 1: To start a Tonglen practice, allow the mind to find a state of openness or stillness. Traditionally, this stage is referred to as creating an awakened heart-mind.


Stage 2: Next, inhale deeply and fully with the feelings of heat, darkness, and heaviness with the intention of transforming this into positive energy. Then, exhale deeply and fully with the feelings of coolness, brightness, and light. With each exhale, imagine the positive energy radiating out of every part of the body.


Stage 3: Now, focus attention on any situation that causes suffering to someone that there is a desire to help. Inhale the energy of suffering, transform it, and exhale the energy of relief. Hold this focus for as long as is needed. Then, focus attention on any situation that causes suffering to the self. Continue to inhale the energy of suffering, transform it, and exhale the energy of relief.

Stage 4: Finally, expand the focus to all people who are in the same situation of suffering. Tonglen can be used for people who are not known personally but who have been seen suffering and even for those who have hurt others. Consider that their actions were caused by the same pain and suffering that everyone has experienced sometime during their life. As Tonglen is practiced, focus will naturally be able to expand to encompass more situations of suffering.

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