In these tumultuous times, many people have sought out different activities to relieve stress. Among the many methods available, meditation has emerged as a popular choice. According to a statement by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the popularity of meditation has increased significantly in recent years.
Many want to meditate so that they can sleep better. Although many of us think we can easily invoke a meditative state and fall right to sleep, that’s not usually the case. Learning how to meditate requires patience. Even with popular apps such as Insight Timer, Ten Percent Happier Meditation, and Simple Habit (which usually offer free trial periods), meditation isn’t always an accessible practice to get into.
For those who experience prolonged intervals of anxiety, stress, or chronic pain, meditating can seem promising but daunting.
But there are deep rewards to turning inward instead of reacting to everything in your external environment. And for those who struggle to turn their thoughts down, there’s a way to increase your ability to meditate—breath work.
Breath work can help you achieve the seemingly lofty goals of reducing stress and anxiety while making it easier to drift off into more restful sleep.
So What Is Breath Work?
You can think of breath work as a form of active meditation. In practice, that means altering your breathing patterns in order to improve your mental, emotional, and physical states. Many spiritual traditions make breathing a focus of their meditation. Breath work (also known as deep or diaphragmatic breathing) has been known to help with pain relief, stress reduction, and the duration and quality of sleep.
Breath work emphasizes concentrating on your body. Therefore, many folks who have been finding it hard to get into meditation may find breath work more approachable, as the focus isn’t necessarily on calming their all-too-busy minds.
During a breath work session, your attention is focused on the length of your inhalations and exhalations and the way your abdomen moves. This focus enables a higher awareness of how your body feels. When properly performed, breath work stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system.
Breath work can aid you in switching off your sympathetic system—the “fight-or-flight” system—and helps to guide you into the more tranquil parasympathetic system, the “rest and digest” system.
Getting Started With Breath Work
If you think that breath work might be right for you, there are many breath work resources available—both online and in-person. If you prefer to go the in-person route, look for reputable independent establishments that hold regular classes. Just make sure to do your due diligence and ensure that they’re legitimately qualified. Many clinics and hospitals also incorporate breath work relaxation techniques.
If you want to go the solo route, there are many resources available online. Using online breath work programs can produce the same benefits as in-person classes or one-on-one sessions. Apps, such as Headspace, Calm, and Ten Percent Happier Meditation, can greatly aid your solo sessions, should you decide that’s what works best for you.
Before you embark on your new breath work journey, take the time to contemplate the average time you would like to dedicate to it per week and per day. The duration usually depends on why you want to incorporate breath work into your life in the first place and the type of breath work in which you’re most interested. Breath work sessions can be as short as two minutes or as long as several hours. Twenty minutes is a good place to start.
The actual practice of breath work involves taking deep, circular breaths that are continuous (without breaks). Those deep belly breaths allow for diaphragmatic, or abdominal, breathing patterns that stimulate your vagus nerve—the longest cranial nerve in your body. The vagus nerve connects your brain to many of the crucial organs throughout your body, such as your intestines, heart, and stomach. After a while, your body and mind can enter into a more tranquil state.
Different Breath Work Options
Since breath work is becoming more popular, it’s also becoming easier to find different breath work techniques.
Different techniques have distinguishing characteristics and methodologies, such as variances in length of breaths, whether they should be faster or slower, and whether they should be done exclusively through the mouth or nose (or a combination of both). Some techniques suggest that you hold your breath and inhale, then hold your breath and exhale more slowly. Some just suggest that you breathe deeply and feel each breath.
There is no “right” answer—it all depends on what works for each individual.