Breathing: We all do it, but we don’t usually pay attention to it. This post has a brief summary of some conscious breathing techniques that I like to use in everyday life.
For each technique, I give a quick introduction, a high-level overview of the “when”, “why”, and “how”, and links to learn more.
Table of the techniques (click technique name to go to section with more details):
|Box breathing||Stabilizing breathing patterns||WebMD|
|Physiological sigh||Reduce stress/tension||YouTube|
|Wim Hof method||Warming yourself, building energy||YouTube|
|Alternating nostril breathing||Opening nasal passages||WebMD|
|Odd-rhythm breathing||Balanced exhalations during cardio||N/A|
For best results, breathing techniques should be done standing or seated with an upright spine (not slouching.) Unless otherwise recommended, it’s usually good to breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth.
Also known as “square breathing” or “tactical breathing,” box breathing is a widely referenced and simple technique for consciously bringing your breath into a natural rhythm.
Purpose: Bringing your breath to a baseline, “Goldilocks” level: not too little, not too much. Not too slow, not too fast.
Use when: Working through a strong emotion (stress, anger, anxiety). Having a headache. Needing calm and focus. Realizing you’ve been subconsciously not breathing enough, or breathing too fast, or breathing too slowly.
- Breathe in for 4 seconds. Try to fill your lungs.
- Hold breath for 4 seconds.
- Breathe out for 4 seconds. Try to empty your lungs.
- Hold for 4 seconds.
- Repeat 1-4 as desired.
Mneumonic: In 4 — hold 4 — out 4 — hold 4
Note: Some versions of box breathing suggest counting to 3 instead of 4. Do what feels best for you.
The physiological sigh is my quickest, simplest, and most frequently-used breathing technique. It’s basically just a deliberate, unusually deep breath, to clear carbon dioxide and re-oxygenate the blood.
Purpose: Reduce carbon dioxide levels and raise oxygen levels in the blood.
Use when: Feeling stress, anger, fear, or other strong emotions.
- Deep breath in through nose.
- Another immediate deep breath in to further expand your lungs.
- Unforced exhale through mouth (let the air naturally force itself out of your lungs).
Mneumonic: Double-inhale — unforced exhale
Learn more: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rBdhqBGqiMc
Wim Hof method
The Wim Hof breath control is just part of the overall “Wim Hof method,” alongside cold exposure and meditation. I haven’t tried the cold exposure, but the breathing method is surprisingly powerful for energizing your body, warming yourself up, and clearing certain types of headaches.
I’m not an expert on medical stuff, but I’ve read some work by Dr. John Sarno (e.g. Healing Back Pain) that describes certain kinds of tension-based pain as being caused by under-oxygenated tissues. It’s my unscientific hypothesis, based on personal experience, that the Wim Hof breathing method promotes oxygenation of affected tissue, reducing some types of tension-based pain. (Or it could just be placebo… your mileage may vary. Give it a shot, though!)
I really like this technique, but it can be a little extreme compared to the others on this page. Pay attention to your body and be careful not to hyperventilate too much and pass out or something.
Purpose: Energizing yourself. Increasing blood flow / warmth. Clearing tension headaches and other tension-based pain.
Use when: Waking up or feeling groggy or unmotivated. In the cold and you want to warm up. Feeling tension in head, neck, shoulders, or back.
- Take ~15-30 deep breaths, trying to fill and empty your lungs each time. (This is basically hyperventilation — don’t overdo it!)
- Take one final deep breath, then breathe it out. Completely empty your lungs.
- Hold until you feel the urge to breathe (~30-90 sec for me).
- Deep breath in, fill your lungs. (Using a double-inhale works well here to fully expand the lungs.)
- Hold for a few seconds.
- Repeat as desired. Usually I do the whole thing 2-3 times.
Mneumonic: 15-30 breaths — exhale and hold — deep inhale
Learn more: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D6EPuUdIC1E
Alternating nostril breathing
Alternating-nostril breathing is a basic yoga technique that’s supposed to oxygenate both halves of the brain. I don’t really know if that’s how it works, scientifically speaking, but I like doing the exercise because it helps open airflow in both nostrils. I have a deviated septum and usually air flows more easily through one of my nostrils versus the other, and this exercise helps balance that out.
Purpose: Breath training to open both nasal passages.
Use when: One of your nostrils is clogged. Warmup before doing yoga breath work.
- Deep breath in.
- Close/cover left nostril with a finger.
- Breathe out through right nostril.
- Breathe in through right nostril.
- Open left nostril, cover right nostril.
- Breathe out through left nostril.
- Breathe in through left nostril.
- Repeat steps 2-7 at least 10 times.
Mneumonic: Right in — Left out — Left in — Right out
This is a breathing style I developed for jogging.
I would often experience “side pains” (a painful, cramping-like sensation on the left or right of the abdomen) when running. I read somewhere that when your foot hits the ground while your lungs are empty, it causes a jostling impact on the left or right side where the foot fell, which through repeated impacts causes the pain in the left or right side depending on your breathing rhythm. But when your lungs have air in them, the impact is cushioned.
The odd-rhythm breathing method is based on that idea. By synchronising your breathing to an odd number of footfalls, the empty-lung footfall happens on alternating sides of the body instead of consistently on one side. I found this helped quite a bit with side pains.
Unlike the other techniques, I dreamed this one up myself. It works well for me but as far as I know it’s completely unscientific.
Purpose: Avoiding “side pains” during high-impact exercise (running).
Use when: Breathing hard while running/jogging
- Inhale for 2 strides.
- Exhale for 3 strides.
- Repeat 1-2.
Mneumonic: In 2 — out 3
Note: Since 2+3 is an odd number, the outbreath occurs on alternating footfalls instead of always on the left or right footfall. Feel free to try other cadences like In 3 — out 2, In 3 — out 4, etc. as long as they add up to an odd number.