Overworked, sleep-deprived, and stressed out? Same. But luckily, there are plenty of ways to regain a sense of calm that don’t require investing a chunk of your paycheck in fancy-schmancy spa treatments.
In fact, one the best relaxation methods is entirely free. All you need is a pair of healthy lungs, your breath, and 10 minutes of “me” time. It’s called controlled breathing.
Controlled breathing exercises can help keep your mind and body in shape, by helping to lower blood pressure, promote feelings of calm and relaxation, and relieve stress.
While the long-term benefits of breathing exercises 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, and putting yourself on the path to Zen.
Ready to harness the power of your inhales and exhales? Here are six expert-approved ways to relax using controlled breathing exercises borrowed from centuries-old yoga and meditation traditions.
This breathing exercise is especially effective before bed. According to yoga instructor Rebecca Pacheco, it works similarly 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,” she says.
How to do it: Begin by sitting or lying down in a comfortable position. Your eyes can be open or closed. Inhale for 4 counts, and then exhale for 4 counts.
All inhalations and exhalations should be made through your nose, which adds a slight, natural resistance to your breath. Once you get these basics down, try 6–8 counts per breath.
The abdominal breathing technique can be really helpful before experiencing a particularly stressful event like taking an exam or giving a big presentation. Oy, our hearts are pounding just thinking about it.
However, Pacheco said, “Those who operate in a stressed state all the time might be a little shocked by how hard it is to control the breath.” So, if the pacing doesn’t come naturally to you at first, don’t sweat it. Just keep practicing.
How to do it: Place one hand on your chest and the other on your belly. Take a deep breath in through your nose, allowing diaphragm (not your chest) to inflate with enough air to create a slight stretching sensation in your lungs. Slowly exhale.
According to physiologist and breathing expert Alison McConnell, taking 6–10 deep, slow breaths per minute for 10 minutes each day using this breathing technique can help reduce your heart rate and blood pressure.
Keep at it for 6 to 8 weeks, and those benefits might stick around even longer.
The progressive muscle relaxation method works best when you’re sitting at home, in your office chair, or even in your car. By intentionally tensing and then relaxing each muscle group one at a time, you can nix excess tension from head to toe.
How to do it: Close your eyes and focus on tensing and relaxing each muscle group for 2 to 3 seconds. Start with your feet and toes, and then move up to your knees, thighs, glutes, chest, arms, hands, neck, jaw, and eyes. Maintain deep, slow breaths the entire time.
Having trouble staying on track? Psychologist and anxiety and panic specialist Patricia Farrell suggests inhaling through your nose, holding for 5 counts while tensing your muscles, and then exhaling through your mouth as you release those muscles.
If holding your breath ever feels uncomfortable, tone it down to just a few seconds.
Experiencing major deadline pressure at work? Try alternate nostril breathing to refocus and reenergize. According to Pacheco, it can help and make you feel more awake and alert. “It’s almost like a cup of coffee,” she says.
How to do it:Start by sitting in a comfortable meditative pose. Hold out your dominant hand and press the tips of your pointer and middle fingers into your palm, leaving your ring finger, pinky finger, and thumb extended.
Bring your hand up in front of your face and press your thumb on the outside of one nostril. Inhale deeply through your open nostril. At the peak of your inhalation, release your thumb, press your ring finger on the outside of your other nostril, and exhale.
Continue this pattern for 1–2 minutes before switching sides so that you inhale through the nostril that you originally used to exhale, and vice versa. Spend equal amounts of time inhaling and exhaling through both nostrils.
This breathing exercise is an alternative to equal breathing that can also help you fall asleep faster. It has roots in yoga’s pranayama, which is all about helping people learn how to gain control over their breath.
How to do it: Begin by sitting or lying down in a comfortable position. Your eyes can be open or closed. Press the tip of your tongue to the roof of your mouth, slightly open your mouth, and exhale until you reach the bottom of your breath.
Close your mouth and quietly inhale through your nose for 4 counts. Then hold your breath for 7 counts. Finally, exhale very slowly so that it takes a total of 8 counts to return to the bottom of your breath.
Repeat for 4 full breaths, and work your way up to 8 breaths over time.
Wake up and look on the bright side of life with this breathing exercise. “It’s pretty abdominal-intensive, but it will warm up the body, shake off stale energy, and wake up the brain,” says Pacheco.
If alternate nostril breathing is like a cup of coffee, think of Kapalabhati breathing like a shot of espresso, she added.
How to do it: Begin sitting in an upright position with good posture and your hands on your knees. Take a long, slow inhale through your nose. Then exhale powerfully (also through your nose) by contracting your lower belly.
Your body will naturally inhale again, so focus mainly on your forceful exhales as you continue this fiery breathing technique. Once you’re comfortable with the abdominal contraction component, up your pace to 1 inhale-exhale every 2 seconds for a total of 10 breaths.
Your breath is one of your best defenses against daily stress, frustration, and existential angst. Once you learn the art of expert inhaling and exhaling, you’ll likely start to feel better. You might notice that you’ve developed a little extra resilience and grace.