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Mindful Breathing: Complete Guide (Updated 2020)

Mindful Breathing: Complete Guide (Updated 2020)

In this post, we reveal everything you need to know about mindful breathing and its health benefits. We will also share some great mindful breathing exercises you can do on your own. Let's dive in!

Introduction

The last few years have witnessed increased attention on mindful breathing, both in the mainstream media as well as in medical research. However, it is important to note that mindful breathing is anything but a new concept. In Eastern traditions and religions, mindful breath works hand-in-hand with meditative and religious practices that have been used for hundreds of years.

More recently, Western scientists and researchers have been confirming what yogis and religious meditation practitioners have known for years: conscious breath can change your life for the better.

Whether your aim is to reduce stress, improve blood pressure or lessen chronic pain, mindful breathing is a free and easy treatment option that can improve your overall wellness even when you do not have specific health-related problems. In this guide, we will discuss what breathwork and mindful breathing involves and the many proven benefits it can have on our lives. Finally, we will share several different breathing techniques that beginners can start using today!

This guide includes:

  • What is Breathwork and Mindful Breathing? 
  • What is the Importance of Breathwork and Mindful Breathing?
  • What is the Science Behind Breathwork and Mindful Breathing? 
  • Mindful Breathing and Its Relationship with Our Health 
    • Mindful Breath and Mental Health Disorders 
    • Mindful Breath and Relaxation
    • Mindful Breath and Other Health-Related Problems 
  • Breathing Exercises for Beginners 

What is Breathwork and Mindful Breathing?

Breathwork and mindful breathing are generally interchangeable terms for the same concept and practices that can be traced back to a thousand years ago. Eastern religions like Taoism, Hinduism and Buddhism have known of the importance of breathing and meditation for centuries. According to these religions, breath is a vital source of energy in our bodies.

In Chinese traditions, this energy is known as qi, while Hindus call it prana. Prana can mean both “breath” and “energy” and is a crucial factor when meditating. Hindus also have a word specifically for breathwork in yogic practices: pranayama, which literally refers to stopping or controlling the breath. Pranayama includes different breathing techniques which aim to regulate respiration in one form or another, such as changing frequency, deepness/shallowness or the ratio of inhalation and expiration.

In addition to religious practices, ancient languages had special words to refer to the act of breathing. For example, the Greeks used the term pneuma and the Hebrews used the term rûah with both terms referring both to breathing and a divine presence. In Latin, the root spiritus was found in the terms for both “spirit” and “respiration.” Breathing is our life force, and when we pay extra attention to our breath our bodies can benefit so greatly it is as if our spirit itself is being nourished. 

Mindful breathing can take the form of a specific kind of breathing exercise or a particular frequency. For example, scientists believe that about six exhalations a minute is the perfect number for that period of time and that this frequency triggers a special and restorative “relaxation response” in the brain and body. And, interestingly enough, Donald Noble at Emory University has linked this particular frequency with many repetitive actions involved in long-standing spiritual practices such as the Ave Marias spoken in rosary prayers and chants in yogic mantras.

For hundreds of years, religious practices, yogic exercises and Eastern meditation methods have been using breathwork as a way to achieve enlightenment, increase feelings of calmness and relaxation and decrease anxiety and stress. It is only now that scientists are starting to understand the mechanics behind our body and mind’s relationship with these special breathing techniques. It is also only now that scientists are learning that the effects are far greater than simply feeling more at peace.  

Mindful breath works when one is prepared to pay special attention to the movement, speed, characteristics and frequency of one's breath. It is as simple as being present in the moment, closing your eyes and inhaling and exhaling through your nose and mouth. Being mindful of such a simple bodily function--one we can perform without even realizing it--has surprising and vast positive effects on our health and wellbeing. Simple breathing exercises have the potential to treat life-altering conditions, pain and chronic issues all without prescribed medication or treatments. Scientific American compares breathwork to solar energy in that it powers relaxation, regulates emotions and boosts overall wellbeing through a resource that is free, accessible 24/7, inexhaustible and easy.  

What is the Importance of Breathwork and Mindful Breathing?

In today’s world, we are overrun and overburdened with stressful day-to-day events. While we may find these small incidences annoying, they can actually have detrimental physical effects on our health and wellbeing. This is because these events can trigger our “fight or flight” stress response. You may already be familiar with this phrase but, if you are not, the “fight or flight” response refers to our body’s sympathetic response controlled by the autonomic nervous system.

Every time we breathe, sensory receptors in the respiratory system send signals to the brain, and how we breathe triggers how the nervous system functions. Therefore, when we find ourselves worried, stressed, frustrated, upset, angry, anxious or scared, we often breathe too quickly or too shallow which triggers the body’s sympathetic (fight or flight) response. When the sympathetic response is triggered, our body is pumped with cortisol and adrenaline and we experience an array of physiological changes from an increase in stress hormones to higher heart rates, higher blood pressure, muscle tension, greater sweat production, immune system suppression and increased anxiety. In other words, anytime we worry about money, get frustrated when stuck in a traffic jam, become concerned about jobs or relationship problems, all of which tend to be daily occurrences, we are hurting our health.

The remedy to this is to trigger the parasympathetic, or “rest and restore” response by stimulating the vagus nerve. The parasympathetic response is triggered when we take slower, deeper and more intentional breaths. When the parasympathetic response is triggered, stress hormones, inflammation, heart rate, blood pressure and anxiety levels all decrease. This is where regularly practiced breathwork and mindful breath can come in handy. By incorporating helpful techniques into our daily routines we can get in the habit of focusing on how we breathe and making sure we are taking deeper, slower breaths.

Habitual breathwork can do wonders for your overall health and can actually permanently modify brain circuits which can make people less vulnerable to stress. Making modifications to how you breathe can be easy to learn but it may take time to train yourself, possibly taking up to six months to replace old breathing habits. However, changing the way you breathe, despite the time commitment, is well worth it. Examples of the positive effects will be discussed in more depth further on, so stay with us!

What is the Science Behind Breathwork and Mindful Breathing? 

There are many peer-reviewed research articles available today on the relationship between breathwork and better health, proving what meditation practices have championed for hundreds of years. Many studies have found that mindful breathing can create positive psychophysiological, neurocognitive, respiratory and biochemical changes as well as combat negative symptoms of greater illnesses. As touched on in the previous paragraph, breathwork mostly affects the autonomic and central nervous systems as well as the respiratory, cardiovascular and cardiorespiratory systems. Researchers at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research identified a strong connection between mindful breathing and activation in the insula. The insula, a small region of the cerebral cortex, is linked to body awareness and regulates the autonomic nervous system. Mindful breathing can also stimulate the vagus nerve which is key to feeling more relaxed. 

According to the Journal of the American Heart, another outcome of breathing more slowly is that it increases baroreflex sensitivity, which is a heart rate mechanism that can regulate blood pressure. Slow breathing exercises also have positive effects on heart rate variability (HRV), respiratory sinus arrhythmia, blood flow dynamics, cardiorespiratory coupling and sympathovagal balance. All of this results in better heart health and lowers the risk of heart disease and cardiopulmonary arrest.

In 2016, an article published by Science Magazine found that the rhythm and type of our breathing, specifically nasal inhalation, can send electrical brain signals through the olfactory “smell” cortex, the region in the brain containing the brain's emotion epicenter, the amygdala. This stimulation can lower fear levels, influence other emotions and help us remember things better.

Another team of researchers at Howard Hughes Medical Institute have discovered a tiny cluster of neurons located deep in the brainstem which is known to link breathing with relaxation, attention, excitement and anxiety. The center, whose technical term is the pre-Bötzinger complex, or preBötC, is affected by breathing and can influence emotions.

Meanwhile, Trinity College Dublin researchers found that breathwork directly affects the levels of a chemical messenger in the brain called noradrenaline. Noradrenaline is released at specific moods and feelings: curiosity, focus, arousal, etc. If produced at a specific level, this natural chemical can help the brain grow. By controlling our breath, these researchers believe we then produce the right amount of noradrenaline to stabilize our attention, increase brain health, improve memory, increase clarity and stabilize our emotions. 

One study published by the non-profit PLOS ONE found that controlled breathing and stimulating the vagus nerve can boost the immune system as well as improve energy metabolism. Furthermore, the relaxation response can result in better insulin secretion which leads to better overall blood sugar management. In addition to stimulating the vagus nerve, deep breathing can increase alpha brain-waves. Alpha brain-waves are associated with feeling relaxed and the practice of meditation. 

When it comes to the perfect number of breaths per minute (b/m), scientists suggest six. An article published in 2019 by Scientific Reports found that six breaths per minute can result in better cardiovascular health by improving blood flow and decreasing cardiac-dependent blood pressure and cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) pulsatility.

A different study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience has also linked 6 b/m with increased positive energy and pleasantness and decreased arousal levels. Although six seems to be the sweet spot, slow breathing is defined as any rate between 4 and 10 b/m according to Australia’s Hunter Pain Clinic.   

Mindful Breathing and Its Relationship with Our Health 

There are a plethora of benefits mindful breath can have on our health, including: 

  • a greater sense of calm and relaxation 
  • less likely to develop feelings of anxiety or depression 
  • reduced stress levels 
  • a healthier immune system 
  • lower blood pressure 
  • lower heart rate
  • better focus and alertness 
  • improved memory 
  • decreased anxiety and negative thinking
  • better coping and lifestyle management skills 
  • insomnia prevention 
  • emotion control
  • reduced possibility of burnout
  • pain relief 
  • improved diabetic symptoms 

The above are simply examples of the many benefits of breathing more slowly and deeply. The following subsections will discuss in-depth the relationships between mindful breath and specific health issues.

Mindful Breath and Mental Health Disorders 

Mindful breath is most often prescribed as a treatment for anxiety, depression and other mental health disorders. By focusing on the breath, those who suffer from negative or sad thoughts can concentrate on breathing instead of their worries.

A 2020 study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research has linked mindful breath with “reduced burnout, cynicism, emotional exhaustion, and anxiety.” This is because the relaxation response triggered by mindful breath can decrease anxiety and stress levels in the brain.

Another 2010 study published in Behaviors Research and Therapy found that breathwork can decrease negative rumination, a common symptom in people with depression. The Scientific American suggests that breathing techniques can also help those with phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Researchers at Trinity College Dublin also believe that because mindful breath increases focus it could be used in therapies for people with attention compromised conditions like ADHD. Yogic breathing can also help reduce reaction time in specially abled children. 

By practicing breathing exercises daily, overtime you will be better equipped to deal with everyday stressors, anxieties and emotional ups and downs. At the end of the article, we cover several different types of breathing exercises, but if you struggle specifically with stress, depression, pain and anxiety, it may be helpful to check out Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s guided meditation program known as MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction). 

Some scientists and therapists, however, warn against mindful breath exercises for those who struggle with anxiety induced panic attacks. While slower breathing can decrease fear and shorten a panic attack, for some the increased focus on the breath can cause them to panic even more as their heightened attention on the breath can make them worry about their health. Furthermore, some fast breathing pranayama can cause hyperventilation which would only exacerbate feelings of stress and anxiety since fast breathing increases stress and anxiety levels.  

Mindful Breath and Relaxation

If mindful breath can reduce stress, it can also improve relaxation. One study found that mindful breath can change our behavior in many ways that can encourage relaxation. For example, it can increase overall comfort, pleasantness, vigor and alertness which can help put your mind and body at ease. A literature review about breath-control found that across several patient studies various paced breathing sessions resulted in an increased perception of relaxation compared to the control groups.

In 1932, German psychiatrist Johannes Heinrich Schultz developed a technique to boost relaxation called autogenic training. This technique incorporates breathwork with verbal repetitions, visualizations and concentration to alleviate different stress-induced psychosomatic disorders, which leave patients feeling calmer and more relaxed. If you want to feel more relaxed before bed or you struggle with insomnia, mindful breathing can also come in handy. In 2012, researchers at Harvard Medical School found that more than 20 percent of Americans who experience insomnia use breathing exercises to sleep better.    

Mindful Breath and Other Health-Related Problems 

Other scientific studies have reported that mindful breath can have beneficial effects on other types of health-related problems from cigarette withdrawal to arthritis to cancer treatment related symptoms. One article published by the Indian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology in 2002 found that yogic breath is effective at combating oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is an imbalance between the production of free radicals and the body’s ability to counteract or detoxify these free radicals by neutralization through antioxidants. In this case, deep breathing can lower the free radical load while increasing the amount of an antioxidant called superoxide dismutase (SOD). 

Yogic breathing can also help people undergoing cigarette withdrawal. One 2013 study found that 10 minutes of pranayama helped participants reduce cigarette cravings and the desire to smoke. Mindful breath can also benefit patients with hypertension and cardiac arrhythmias due to the fact consistent deep breathing can lower blood pressure overtime. Decreasing blood pressure overtime also lowers the risk of stroke and cerebral aneurysm and decreased stress on blood vessels. Yogic breathing has been shown to alleviate the symptoms of bronchial asthma as well as enhance pulmonary functions. 

Additionally, mindful breathing is a promising adjunct therapy to cancer patients experiencing cancer related fatigue caused by radiotherapy. It is said that it can also enhance the antioxidant status of radio- and chemotherapy cancer patients.

Mindful breath can also be used as a therapy for patients with chronic pain conditions such as arthritis, fibromyalgia, migraines and lower back pain. In 2016 a study published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences reported that mindfulness meditation can reduce pain perception in patients with chronic pain conditions and could potentially become an alternative for opioid prescription. 

The Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine found that yogic breathing could also act as an ancillary aid to modify body weight and the symptoms of patients with pulmonary tuberculosis as well as improve quality of life in diabetics.

Lastly, mindfulness meditation strengthens the brain networks, keeping the brain more “youthful.” Youthful brains have a reduced risk of dementia and other cognitive brain disorders. 

Of course, if you have any of the above illnesses or medical conditions, it is important that you contact a medical professional before beginning any new breathing exercises or mindful breath therapies. 

Breathing Exercises for Beginners 

There are many different, beneficial mindful breathwork exercises you can perform on your own. Many of these are simple and easy, making them perfect for those who are beginners in meditation.

Most breathing exercises can be performed while either sitting up straight and relaxed or lying down in a comfortable position. While you should be comfortable and relaxed, be mindful of your posture. Make sure to hold your shoulders back with the rest of your back standing straight without becoming stiff.

Mindful breath can be incorporated into your everyday routine to become a habitual exercise, or you can do exercises during or before specific moments or events in your life, such as before a test, big meeting, presentation or competition. In a stressful moment that causes anxiety or anger, a simple deep inhale for three seconds, holding your breath for two seconds and exhaling for four seconds or more can do wonders for your mind, body and emotions. 

Please note that some of these exercises can do more harm than good in certain circumstances. Please consult your doctor before attempting any of these exercises if you meet any of the following criteria:

  • you are pregnant; 
  • you suffer from serious blood pressure issues; 
  • you have a heart condition; or 
  • you have interoceptive anxiety (anxiety over one’s physical state).

Most of the following techniques can be performed by yourself, but beginners may find they need a little extra help. In that case, there are a plethora of free guided meditations and mindful breathing exercises available online. Finding a guided meditation video or audio can be as simple as typing a specific technique into the YouTube search bar or App store. 

365 Method 

One method often suggested by therapists is the 365 method, which utilizes cardiac coherence (CCT). CCT uses biofeedback to control heart rate variability (HRV), or the time between each heartbeat. According to CCT, slowing and steadying the breath can slow and stabilize the heartbeat. With this method, you will perform the exercise at least three times a day, breathing at a rhythm of six cycles per minute by inhaling for five seconds and exhaling for five seconds. You do this for five minutes at a time every single day. This method is good for anyone struggling with chronic stress and anxiety, phobias, pain perception and management of nicotine withdrawal.  

4-7-8 Method 

The 4-7-8 Method, developed by Andew Weil, an American doctor and advocate for alternative medicine, is a breathing technique that is especially useful for those wishing to fall asleep, improve their sleep, manage their cravings or work on anger management. This method involves counting your breath. As you inhale, count to four then hold your breath to the count of seven, and then finally exhale to the count of eight. You can repeat this exercise as often as needed before bed or during times when you could benefit from feeling more relaxed. 

Abdominal Breathing

To practice abdominal breathing, also sometimes called diaphragmatic breathing, belly breathing or paced respiration, it is often easier to lie down with one hand on your stomach. Simply begin inhaling, inflating your stomach and then your chest as you inhale. When exhaling, empty your stomach first and then your chest.

Placing a hand on your stomach during abdominal breathing can help you be more aware of how your belly inflates and deflates as you inhale and exhale. Belly breathing increases the amount of oxygen in our bodies and, because of this, it is often an exercise suggested for those suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Breath Focus

By practicing breath focus, you are practicing mindful breathing by focusing on your breath without trying to change the rate at which you inhale, exhale or hold your breath. You simply focus and observe it.

To practice breath focus, get comfortable and clear your mind of any distractions and put all your attention on your breath. It may help to be in a quiet place or close your eyes. At first, take a normal breath and then a slow, deep breath. When it is time to exhale, slowly breathe out through your mouth. Begin to alternate between normal and deep breaths. If you find it difficult to rid your mind of any distractions, it can help to focus on how the breath moves throughout your body; focus on the sensation you feel when you breathe in through your nostrils or how your chest fills with air when you inhale during a deep breath. Tune into your natural breath the best you can; you do not need to try to breathe perfectly each time. Instead, stay curious and follow the natural flow of your breath.

Do not get frustrated if your mind wanders; just make sure to put your attention back on your breath when you get distracted. You can do this for however long you wish, or until you feel less anxious or stressed or more relaxed. If, however, you are wishing to incorporate breath focus into your everyday routine, start out doing this routine for 10 minutes at a specific time each day. You can gradually add more time to each session until the exercise is at least 20 minutes long. Breath focus is very similar to traditional meditation, so just try to clear your mind and focus on your breathing. 

Mantra Breathing and Rhythmic Breathing 

Mantra breathing and rhythmic breathing are two separate but similar ways to practice mindful breathing. With these techniques, you incorporate phrases or words to keep a rhythm or to help you focus. In mantra breathing, you choose a mantra, which is a phrase or word, that you can repeat to yourself while breathing.

Your mantra can be anything you choose, but some people find it helpful if the mantra is related in some way to relieving stress, improving confidence or promoting self-care. Examples of mantras include: “I am happy,” “I am content,” “I am accepted,” “I am loved,” “I am inhaling calm and exhaling stress” etc.

By breathing while repeating the mantra, you can focus and become more relaxed. Rhythmic breathing is similar in that you count to yourself repeatedly as you inhale and exhale. As you near the end of your inhalation, pause and count to three before exhaling. Do this between each inhale and exhale. The repetitive nature of counting mentally should boost focus and help you relax more. 

Nostril Breathing 

There are several different types of nostril breathing. Most types of nostril breathing started as ayurvedic or yogic exercises. Single nostril breathing, also referred to as uninostril breathing or Surya Anuloma Viloma/Chandra Anuloma Viloma, is breathing while closing one of your nostrils. To practice single nostril breathing, inhale and exhale through the open nostril at a slow and even pace. 

Alternate nostril breathing, also called Nadi Shodhana/Nadi Shuddi, is a breathing practice where you close your right nostril while inhaling through the left nostril and then close the left nostril while exhaling through the right nostril. Then reverse this by inhaling through the right nostril and exhaling out the left. Keep repeating this process for about 5 minutes or until you feel more focused and relaxed. 

Another type of nostril breathing is called psychic breath, or Ujjayi. To practice psychic breath, steadily inhale and exhale through the nose. While doing this, partially contract the area at the back of your throat called the glottis. While doing this, your breath may sound a little bit like snoring. Focus on your breath and observe its movement though your throat and body. Nostril breathing techniques are great for mindfulness meditation. 

Pranayama Breathing 

As discussed earlier, pranayama refers to the practice of controlling your breath during yoga. To practice pranayama breathing, simply inhale with the mouth closed and then exhale through the nose. This simple technique can clean blood as well as clear the respiratory system.

Clearing up the blood and respiratory system increases the amount of good, clean oxygen that reaches the heart and the brain. In addition to this simple way to practice pranayama, there are other techniques associated with pranayama breathing that were established in yogic exercises. 

One such technique is known as the female honey bee humming breath, or Bhramari. To perform this exercise, take a deep breath, cover your ears and then exhale while making a soft buzzing or humming sound, like a honeybee.

Another pranayama exercise called Kapalabhati, meaning skull shining breath, is said to help clear mucus, decongest the air passages and reduce bloating. To do this exercise, inhale quickly and exhale sharply through the nostrils while moving your naval in the direction of your spine. Do this while counting to 30, rest for a minute and repeat. You can do this exercise for 15 minutes or longer.

Lastly, another pranayama breathing exercise called sitali, which means cooling, can have a cooling effect on your mind and body. If you are feeling overheated or irritable due to hot temperatures, this exercise is great. To start, roll your tongue to have the outer edges touch, forming a tube, or simply make an oval shape with your mouth and lay your tongue flat. Then inhale through your mouth, filling it as much as you can. Hold the air in your mouth and bring the tip of your tongue to the top of your mouth and close your lips. Enjoy the cooling sensation and then exhale through your nostrils. Repeat as needed or up to ten times. These types of yogic breathing have many benefits! 

Square Breathing 

Square breathing is a great technique if you are a more visual person. This technique relies on the visualization of a square to create focus while breathing. To perform this exercise, inhale and visualize just one side of a square. As you exhale, visualize the next side. Keep inhaling and exhaling until you have visualized each side of the square.

Another type of square breathing is often called box breathing. Box breathing is a technique often attributed to a retired Navy SEAL Commander named Mark Divine. This technique slows the breath which in turn can help calm the nerves, regulate bodily functions and improve mood disorders. To box breathe, inhale for 5 seconds, hold your breath for five seconds, exhale for five seconds and hold your breath again for five seconds. Repeat this process for one to three minutes several times a day or during stress or anxiety-inducing situations. 

The Wim Hof Method 

Finally, the Wim Hof Method can be used to invigorate the nervous system by limiting shallow breathing. As we already know, shallow breaths increase feelings of fear and anxiety while causing the body to oxidize and acidify. This guided breathing meditation uses quick successive inhalations and exhalations for 30 seconds and then a 30 second period to hold your breath. You can do this meditation several times a day with about three cycles each session.   

Conclusion 

“Take a deep breath” or “just breathe” can sometimes seem like cliche responses whenever you hear it from someone during a time when you are upset, stressed or sad. However, we hope you now realize that it is some of the best advice you can ever receive! Practicing mindful breath is easy, free and takes just a few minutes each day, and yet the benefits are priceless. Every year, the science on mindful breathing is becoming more clear: for a healthy life, we need to breathe right! 

If you are looking for a way to remind yourself to breathe mindfully or enhance your mindful breathing experience, you should consider making use of mindful breathing jewelry. For more on that subject, see complete guide to mindful breathing jewelry here!

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