Updated: Jul 26, 2020
We hold our breath for many reasons - sometimes controlled but mostly unconsciously and involuntarily when we have a stress response from the autonomic nervous system - and there is a lot of stress happening in the world right now. It is definitely in our interest to breathe well - but which exercises should we do? Like all exercise it's not a one size fits all. The various breathing methods suggest a differing amount of time spent on the daily practice, time taken to learn the techniques and time taken before you feel the benefits etc. It's always good to do your own research but I've put together a brief overview of breathing practices to get you started (including my own which I've left till last!).
When practiced regularly breathing exercises provide excellent health benefits: lower blood pressure and heart rate, calm the mind, aid the lymphatic system, increase focus.....and much more.
Pranayama - The yogis choice and most well known. One of the 8 limbs of yoga - asana or yoga postures is another. This is a number of different breathing exercises that some yoga teachers include in the classes. A common exercise is the alternate nostril breathing. All have an aim to bring a health benefit to the mind, body and spirit. I have done yoga teacher training so I can understand the benefits but a word of caution...just be be careful with belly/abdominal breathing - a misconception is to push the belly out. Don't (reasons to be shared in a following article!). Ideally 30 mins-a-day.
Buteyko - Specific for medical conditions. This was very much designed for those with breathing issues: Asthma, COPD, etc. It was developed by the Russian Konstantin Buteyko in the 1950's. You require quite a few sessions and usually see a specialist Buteyko therapist. It focuses on helping to achieve only nasal breathing (for good reason) to the extent they suggest taping your mouth at night! To get the desired results you'll need 15-20 mins 3 times-a-day for 5 weeks (4 x a-day for 12 weeks if you have severe asthma or other breathing difficulties)
Win Hof Method - For the brave and lovers extreme cold sports. This is more than just a breathing exercise. Developed by Win Hof, aka the Iceman because of his love of swimming in freezing waters and running a half marathon in barefoot on ice and snow - as you do! So this method is for those who are into free diving, swimming in extreme cold temperatures and those looking to push their bodies to the edge. Teaching starts with 4 sets of 30-40 rapid breath cycles and a hold. It's highly likely to make you light headed and get pins and needles/tingling in your fingers (signs of hyperventilation). It is now getting a wider audience and also involves ice baths and mind set. There are a number of contraindications so please read all the info to make sure it will suit you. You can learn online and there is an app too. 15 - 20 mins-a-day for 10 weeks
Holotropic Breathwork - The LSD of breathing exercises. This requires a two people; a breather and a sitter to watch over. The instructions for the breather are simply to breathe deeper and faster, keeping eyes closed. It takes you into a "vivid dreamlike" state and a session lasts around 3 hours, so not your every day breathing practice. The practice is from Ireland, and not one I've tried, but I would assume the sitter is required in case you pass out from hyperventilation! Apparently you go on quite a trip. Definitely check with your Doc before doing this. I'm sure it suits some but hyperventilating for 3hrs is not on my bucket list.
Transformational Breathing - Mind, body and spirit. The breathing method from the American Judith Kravitz. Transformational Breath is taught and experienced as a powerful self-healing modality. If you have the time it takes a good 45 mins to an hour a day. It is a gentler version of Holotropic breath work (so I suggest always doing it under guidance, although they don't). This helps with emotional/trauma release. For research purposes, I went to USA to do a week long course with Judith. It was an interesting experience, requiring a re-birthing session under water too! Not for everyone but worth investigating if you're the more spiritual kind and want something different to the yoga breathing exercises.
Body Breathing - The athletes choice. And a competitors secret! Where other breathing exercise methods are about de-stressing the mind and body, this exercise was developed in 2012 purely to release tension in the muscles of the torso (back, ribs, shoulders, etc.). Toning all the respiratory muscles by fully stretching and contracting, as you would any other muscle of the body, it is possible to create greater fluidity of movement bringing more spring and power through your body. Developed when I was working with professional, elite and age- group athletes, it allows your breathing muscles to work efficiently for you, even when you're not thinking about them. BONUS: It can be practiced in bed before you start your day! With all the usual well-known health benefits breathing exercises provide, and it's not just for athletes, this one helps re-align the body and gives you significantly more power with less effort. There is a solid history of results with PB's and podium wins across the board. Due to the nature of the exercise, it's quick and easy to learn in two x 30-mins sessions. Tangible changes are immediate and performance improvement is often noted within 24 hours. In addition, the programme provides "do-it-yourself' remedial breathing positions for back/neck and shoulder pain; taking approx 10 to 15 mins.
So there you go... the choice is yours. Do your own research too. I developed the Body Breathing programme because the other methods took too long to learn and time consuming to practice and didn't achieve what I was looking for namely, fluidity of movement and natural diaphragmatic breathing long after you've stopped doing the exercise.
NB: It is important to note if you have a medical condition, I strongly advise you to consult with your doctor before embarking on any form of breathing exercise.