You’ve probably heard this before: When you’re anxious or stressed, there are breathing exercises that can help. And even though you’ve heard it before, you probably ignored the idea, because something as natural as breathing doesn’t seem like it needs much practice. But there are exercises that you definitely should practice — or at least try, to see how they make you feel — as well as a few apps that can help you get started if you want to continue learning better breath work and meditation.
Box breathing is an incredibly simple practice, and a great place to start: Inhale to the count of four, hold your breath for four counts, exhale for four counts, and again hold your breath for four counts.
Continue this rhythmic pattern for a couple of minutes, and you’ll likely notice yourself feeling noticeably calmer. You can get in the habit of doing it daily — say, every morning before starting work — or when you begin to feel particularly stressed, like before an important meeting. Try the video above by the wonderful YouTube channel “Therapy in a Nutshell.”
Alternate nostril breathing
Alternate nostril breathing (also known as Nadi Shodhana) is an ancient Indian yogic breathing exercise. (I learned it way back in primary school, but like most taught in school, I discarded it as “uncool” at the time.) This breathing exercise involves blocking off one nostril while you breathe through the other one. The trick is learned to do it rhythmically and consistently, which should help both ease anxiety and increase lung capacity. Take a look at the above video by Yoga With Adriene.
The 4-7-8 breathing exercise is also referred to as “relaxing breath” because it’s meant to soothe and relax your nervous system. If you’re feeling anxious or overwhelmed, a couple of rounds of this exercise should help.
It’s also pretty simple: You inhale for four counts, hold your breath for seven counts, and then slowly exhale for eight counts. When you’re starting out, it’s best to do this seated and with your back straight. If you can’t hold your breath for seven counts, don’t worry — just start where you feel comfortable and build from there.
This might seem like a silly exercise, but it’s been practiced for millennia: Lion’s breath is a breathing exercise where you stick out your tongue and you roar like a lion.
The exercise is designed to help ease tension in your face and your jaws, along with — you guessed it — reducing stress. You take a seat, lift up your palms, and spread your fingers wide. Then, inhale through your nose, open your mouth wide, stick your tongue out, and stretch it down to your chin. Exhale with a force, and make a “ha” sound from deep within your abdomen. Then breathe normally for a few seconds. Try repeating it seven times.
When we’re anxious, our breathing tends to become shallow. Instead, what you want are long, deep breaths, but it’s not easy to transition from shallow to deep breathing. This is where the pursed-lip breathing technique can help. It essentially forces your body to transition into deep-breathing mode.
First, relax your shoulders and neck muscles. Keep your mouth closed and slowly inhale through your nose for two counts. Then, purse your lips like you’re going to whistle. Exhale slowly by blowing air through your pursed lips for four seconds.
Belly breathing, or diaphragmatic breathing helps you use your diaphragm properly. Unlike the exercises listed above, you should do this one when you’re feeling rested and relaxed. You can do this 5-10 minutes a day, 3-5 times.
- Lie on your back with your knees slightly bent, and your head supported by a pillow. You can also place a pillow under your knees for support.
- Place one hand on your upper chest, and one just below your rib cage to feel the movement of your diaphragm.
- Start to slowly inhale from your nose, feeling your stomach pressing into your hand. Keep your other hand as still as possible.
- Exhale through pursed lips as you tighten your stomach muscles.
The best apps for guided breathing and meditation
It’s best to not be dependent on apps when it comes to breathing exercises and meditation, but there’s where most of us begin. There are plenty of great guided meditation apps if you’re getting started, and once you get in the groove, you can try to keep going on your own. Here are some great meditation apps to try:
Unwind: It’s a really simple and beautifully designed app for iPhone and Apple Watch. It will help you practice box breathing.
iBreathe: iBreathe is a simple, visual app that covers many of the breathing exercises we talked about above. Best of all, it’s free, and there’s no in-app subscription. You can choose to pay $US1.99 ($3) to remove all ads.
Mindfulness app for Apple Watch: If you use an Apple Watch, you can use the built-in Mindfulness app to practice deep breathing.
Prana Breath: This is a free Android app that features many breathing exercises we covered above.
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