Over-worked, under-slept, and feeling pressure like whoa? There are plenty of ways to find calm—without investing in a 90-minute massage. Turns out all you need is a pair of healthy lungs, your breath, and 10 minutes or less. Here are six expert-approved ways to relax using breathing techniques borrowed from yoga, meditation, and even the therapist’s chair.
Don’t wait until fight-or-flight kicks in before minding the breath. Controlled breathing not only keeps your mind and body functioning at their best, it can also lower blood pressure, promote feelings of calm and relaxation, and help you de-stress. Effects of mental relaxation and slow breathing in essential hypertension. Kaushik RM, Kaushik R, Mahajan SK. Complementary therapies in medicine, 2006, Jan.;14(2):0965-2299. Regular slow-breathing exercise effects on blood pressure and breathing patterns at rest. Anderson DE, McNeely JD, Windham BG. Journal of human hypertension, 2010, Mar.;24(12):1476-5527. While the effects of breathing techniques on anxiety haven’t been studied at length (at least in a controlled clinical setting), many experts encourage using the breath as a means of increasing awareness, mindfulness, or—for the yogis among us—finding that elusive state of Zen. To get to the bottom of the breath work, Greatist spoke to breathing expert Dr. Alison McConnell, yoga instructor Rebecca Pacheco, and psychologist Dr. Ellen Langer. But follow closely: Easy breathing isn’t quite as easy as it sounds.
Your Action Plan
From the confines of a bed, a desk, or anywhere negativity finds its way, consider these six techniques to help keep calm and carry on.
1. Sama Vritti or “Equal Breathing”
How it’s done: Balance can do a body good, beginning with the breath. Yoga breathing, meditation, and longevity. Brown RP, Gerbarg PL. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 2009, Sep.;1172():1749-6632. To start, inhale for a count of four, then exhale for a count of four (all through the nose, which adds a natural resistance to the breath). Got the basic pranayama down? More advanced yogis can aim for six to eight counts per breath with the same goal in mind: Calm the nervous system, increase focus, and reduce stress, Pacheco says.
When it works best: Anytime, anyplace—but this is one technique that’s especially effective before bed. “Similar to counting sheep, if you’re having trouble falling asleep, this breath can help take your mind off the racing thoughts, or whatever might be distracting you," Pacheco says.
Level of difficulty: Beginner
2. Abdominal Breathing Technique
How it’s done: With one hand on the chest and the other on the belly, take a deep breath in through the nose, ensuring the diaphragm (not the chest) inflates with enough air to create a stretch in the lungs. The goal: Six to 10 deep, slow breaths per minute for 10 minutes each day to experience immediate reductions to heart rate and blood pressure, McConnell says. Keep at it for six to eight weeks, and those benefits might stick around even longer.
When it works best: Before an exam or any stressful event. But keep in mind, “Those who operate in a stressed state all the time might be a little shocked how hard it is to control the breath,” Pacheco says. To help train the breath, consider biofeedback tools such as McConnell’s Breathe Strong app, which can help users pace their breathing wherever they are.
Level of difficulty: Beginner
3. Progressive Relaxation
How it’s done: To nix tension from head to toe, close the eyes and focus on tensing and relaxing each muscle group for two to three seconds each. [Relaxation techniques for chronic pain]. Diezemann A. Schmerz (Berlin, Germany), 2012, Feb.;25(4):1432-2129. Start with the feet and toes, then move up to the knees, thighs, glutes, chest, arms, hands, neck, jaw, and eyes—all while maintaining deep, slow breaths. Having trouble staying on track? Anxiety and panic specialist Dr. Patricia Farrell suggests we breathe in through the nose, hold for a count of five while the muscles tense, then breathe out through the mouth on release.
When it works best: At home, at a desk, or even on the road. One word of caution: Dizziness is never the goal. If holding the breath ever feels uncomfortable, tone it down to just a few seconds.
Level of difficulty: Beginner
4. Nadi Shodhana or "Alternate Nostril Breathing"
How it’s done: A yogi’s best friend, this breath is said to bring calm, balance, and unite the right and left sides of the brain. Starting in a comfortable meditative pose, hold the right thumb over the right nostril and inhale deeply through the left nostril. At the peak of inhalation, close off the left nostril with the ring finger, then exhale through the right nostril. Continue the pattern, inhaling through the right nostril, closing it off with the right thumb, and exhaling through the left nostril.
When it works best: Crunch time, or whenever it’s time to focus or energize. Just don’t try this one before bed: Nadi shodhana is said to “clear the channels” and make people feel more awake. “It’s almost like a cup of coffee,” Pacheco says.
Level of difficulty: Intermediate
5. Guided Visualization
How it’s done: Head straight for your happy place, no questions asked. With a coach, therapist, or helpful recording as your guide, breathe deeply while focusing on pleasant, positive images to replace any negative thoughts. Psychologist Dr. Ellen Langer explains that while it’s just one means of achieving mindfulness, “Guided visualization helps puts you in the place you want to be, rather than letting your mind go to the internal dialogue that is stressful.”
When it works best: Pretty much any place you can safely close your eyes and let go (e.g. not at the wheel of a car).
Level of difficulty: Intermediate.
6. Kapalabhati or "Skull Shining Breath"
How it’s done: Ready to brighten up your day from the inside out? This one begins with a long, slow inhale, followed by a quick, powerful exhale generated from the lower belly. Once comfortable with the contraction, up the pace to one inhale-exhale (all through the nose) every one to two seconds, for a total of 10 breaths.
When it works best: When it’s time to wake up or start looking on the bright side. “It’s pretty abdominal-intensive,” Pacheco says, “but it will warm up the body, shake off stale energy, and wake up the brain.” If alternate nostril breathing is like coffee, consider this a shot of espresso, she says.
Level of difficulty: Advanced
While stress, frustration, and other daily setbacks will always be there, the good news is, so will our breath.
Originally published July 2014. Updated September 2015.