In this article, I’ll be describing four breathing techniques for better health, increased levels of happiness, deeper sleep, or even prevention of panic attacks. Most of us are not really aware of our own breath and end up breathing in a shallow, stressed way. However, being able to control our breathing can lead to a number of huge health benefits and improve many aspects of our lives.
We enter this life on an in-breath and leave it on an out-breath. Between these two breaths that symbolise our emerging and coming back, we mostly breathe in an automatic, unconscious way. This is because our breathing is controlled by our autonomic nervous systems – it happens automatically, all by itself.
There’s nothing wrong with breathing without thinking of it every second, but a lot of us are breathing in a stressed, anxious way, which then makes us even more stressed and can even result in getting ill.
A yoga teacher Lucas Rockwood illustrates this fact in his famous TED Talk ‘Change Your Breath Change Your Life’. He says that when we cross the street and have a narrow miss with a passing car, the shock causes our sympathetic nervous system to produce a shallow type of breathing, which is typical for the fight or flight response.
A lot of us are breathing this way – as if we were about to be hit by a car – all day long. From the moment we wake up, to the moment we fall asleep. We are responding to our environment on autopilot, and this can be detrimental to our health. It is no secret that many cases of cancer or other serious diseases are primarily caused by stress and unbalanced functioning of the involuntary nervous system.
Controlled Breathing Benefits
Fortunately, we can considerably improve the quality of our lives if we stop living on autopilot and start taking care of your body and mind more consciously. This includes specific breathing exercises mentioned in this article.
Controlled breathing, when done correctly, can have a highly positive effect on our mind (or moods and states of mind) and body, (e.g. our nervous system and our endocrine system).
It can help us with the following:
- Changing the pH of our blood
I find it fascinating that the way we breathe can make a difference in our blood’s pH – i.e. being either more alkaline or acidic. The deeper we breathe, the more alkaline our blood becomes. If our breathing is shallow most of the time, it causes carbon dioxide to be trapped in our blood, and that can make our body highly acidic. I often remind myself that cancer thrives in an acidic environment, and this makes me remember to breathe deeply more often!
- Oxygenating our blood
It is a well-known fact that cancer cannot thrive in a well-oxygenated environment.
- Lowering our cortisol levels
Lowering our stress level by decreasing the amount of cortisol strengthens our immune system and makes us ‘cold-proof’.
- Falling asleep and improving the quality of your sleep
I’ll be describing two powerful breathing exercises for falling asleep – feel free to try them tonight!
- Creating ‘out of the body experiences’
This can be achieved by extreme breathing practices that should always be done under supervision of an experienced guide. However, even the simple techniques described in this post can create a feeling of a mild ‘high’, if not exactly an out of the body state.
Simple Breathing Techniques for Different Purposes
There are many ways of using breathing for improving our health and state of mind. I have selected a few of my favourite ones – the ones that I have tried and tested and that helped me in different situations.
The techniques are known as:
- Water Breathing
- Coffee Breathing
- Whiskey Breathing
- 4-7-8 Technique
I guess you’re wondering about the funny names of the first three techniques. They’ve been named like that by a Lucas Rockwood, the yoga teacher who talked about them in the ‘Change Your Breath, Change Your Life’ TED talk.
Of course, L. Rockwood had not invented any of these techniques. They have been known since ancient times as pranayama, which comes from Sanskrit and means control of life force or regulation of the breath.
(The word prana translates as life force, and ayama can be interpreted as expansion, restraint, control, extension or stopping.)
The yoga teacher Lucas Rockwood, however, has decided to call the breathing practices in a rather more amusing, and therefore more easily memorable way. So let us start with the first technique:
This technique will help you release stress and bring you into balance.
When to Do Water Breathing:
Anytime you feel you need to de-stress and feel more balanced.
- Sit back in your chair comfortably, relax your shoulders.
- Put your hands on your lap and close your eyes.
- Inhale through your nose to the count of four.
- Exhale through your nose to the count of four.
If you want the exercise to be really effective, do up to 10 rounds of the inhale/exhale.
You can scroll to 4:09 to watch Lucas Rockwood talk about Water breathing.
How Often Can You Do Water Breathing?
This exercise can be done anytime throughout the day, as many times as you need.
One way to remember this is imagining a bottle of water that you carry with you the whole day and sip from it anytime you feel thirsty; you can use it anytime you feel like and you can’t really overdo it. This is similar to Water breathing – you can ‘carry it’ with you all day and use it whenever you need without worrying about doing too much of it.
How Have I Benefitted From This Exercise?
This exercise has helped me to feel calmer and less stressed in many situations. When something really upsets me, I use this technique in combination with an energy medicine technique called ‘Mellow Mudra’, which I’m describing in my post How to Relieve PMS. I highly recommend learning these two techniques together.
One of the techniques, which Lucas Rockwood calls ‘Whiskey Breathing’, is used specifically for falling asleep. Why Whiskey? Some people have a little ‘nightcap’ before going to sleep, as it’s traditionally considered to help with falling asleep.
I personally don’t find Whiskey the best sleep aid; although alcohol can help you fall asleep, it will make your sleep shallower, as alcohol can take several hours to metabolise, and it gives your kidneys and your liver extra job to process the alcohol while you’re asleep. If you like to drink alcohol in the evening, then allow at least an hour to have your last drink before going to sleep. (More on this in my article 20 Ways for Better Sleep.)
Anyway, back from booze to breathing. We’re using this exercise mainly for falling asleep. After about 10 rounds of the Whiskey breathing your heart rate slows, your blood pressure drops, and your parasympathetic nervous system is stimulated, helping you rest and digest better. (This is the opposite of your sympathetic nervous system which governs the fight or flight response.)
We should use this exercise with care – i.e. we should not do it throughout the day because it could make us drowsy or tired.
When to Do Whiskey Breathing:
Right before sleep – when you’re already in your bed.
Do not do this technique during the day because it will make you drowsy.
- Lie down and close your eyes.
- Inhale to the count of 4.
- Exhale to the count of 8.
Repeat this cycle several times. You can do this cycle 10 times in a row, or until you fall asleep.
You can watch the technique in the video further up – just fast forward to 5:27.
How Often Can You Do Whiskey Breathing?
Make sure you only practice this technique when you need to fall asleep, and not during the day.
How Have I Benefitted from This Exercise?
This has worked as a sleeping aid for me and helped me to enjoy better sleep. I also use it before meditation to get more centered.
This breathing technique will stimulate you when you need a kick of energy. And like coffee, you should not over-use it. As Lucas Rockwood says, Coffee breathing is a technique that people get most excited about, but it should be used most sparingly.
Why is that? The technique uses fast, rapid breath that stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, which is related to the fight or flight system. If we do too much of it, we might get overly agitated. (Imagine downing five espressos in a row.)
When to Do Coffee Breathing:
In the morning, and/or in the afternoon. When you need to get in the ‘clean the house, answer emails’ kind of mood and energy.
Important: It is not recommended to do it in the evening if you want to have a good quality sleep!
Coffee breathing is different from the other techniques he presents. With this technique, we focus only on the exhale. The main point is to push the air out from your lungs in a similar way to sneezing, in a sharp, rapid way.
Do 20 rounds of fast and short out-breaths from your belly.
Try to keep your shoulders relaxed, don’t let them jump up and down. It’s your lower abdomen/diaphragm that should be doing all the work.
The exercise goes as follows – do this through your nose only:
You can do three rounds of these 20 exhales, ideally in the morning and afternoon, when you feel that you’re getting tired.
In the video further up, scroll to 7:02 to watch Lucas Rockwood explain the mechanics of Coffee breathing.
How Often Can You Do Coffee Breathing?
Not too often – just a few times a day when you need a boost of energy. (Think about coffee – you shouldn’t drink it too often either) Morning and afternoon are ideal times for practicing this. Use it with care so you don’t end up over-agitated, which could even lead to a blackout or a panic attack.
How Have I Benefitted from This Exercise?
For me, this exercise is a life-saver! I do it almost every day when I work on the computer and need a refreshing break. It always fills me with fresh energy.
The 4-7-8 Technique
The following method that I’ve learned from Dr. Andrew Weill, can help people with sleeping disorders, such as insomnia, difficulty falling asleep, shallow sleep, or interrupted sleep.
The method is knowns as The 4-7-8 Technique and, like the Water, Coffee, and Whiskey breathing, it is based on the ancient yogic practice of breath control called pranayama (already mentioned further above, but why not having little recap:
Prana = Life Force
Ayama = Regulation, Expansion, Control, Restraint, Pranayama = Control of life force (or Regulation of the breath)
Dr. Andrew Weil talks about the 4-7-8 technique as a ‘natural tranquiliser for the nervous system’.
Many people fall asleep after just one minute of doing this technique, which decreases your tension and allows your body to relax, all of which improves the quality of sleep.
After 2 or 3 months of regular practice you are likely to notice significant changes in your physiology, such as:
- Your sleep will improve
- Your digestion will improve
- Your heart rate and blood pressure will slow down
- Your blood circulation will increase, so if you’ve suffered from cold hands, they may start to feel warmer thanks to improved circulation
- You’ll be less susceptible to anxiety and panic attacks
When to Do The 4-7-8 Technique:
Right before going to sleep or before meditation.
- Place the tip of your tongue just behind your upper front teeth and keep it there for the rest of the exercise.
- Let all air out first by exhaling.
- Inhale through your nose to the count of four.
- Hold your breath for the count of seven.
- Exhale through your mouth for a count of eight (try to keep your tongue behind your front upper teeth)
Do four rounds of this technique (not more than that).
Watch Dr. Weill demonstrate this technique in the following video.
How Often Can You Do The 4-7-8 Technique?
For the exercise to be effective, you should do it at least twice a day.
How Have I Benefitted From This Exercise?
Dr. Weill has successfully taught the 4-7-8- technique to patients with severe forms of panic disorder. He presents it as a highly effective anti-anxiety technique as well as a sleep aid, and I can back this up by my won positive experience in both fields.
You can also read more about this technique in my article 20 Tips for Better Sleep.
Recap of All Four Techniques
Purpose: To de-stress and balance you
Procedure: Inhale to the count of 4, exhale to the count of 4. Do this up to 10 times.
When/How Often: Anytime throughout the day.
Video: Change Your Breath, Change Your Life – Lucas Rockwood (4:09)
Purpose: To help you fall asleep
Procedure: Inhale to the count of 4, Exhale to the count of 8. You can do 10 rounds of this, or more if you want to fall asleep.
When/How Often: Right before falling asleep. Not during the day – may make you drowsy.
Video: Change Your Breath, Change Your Life – Lucas Rockwood (5:27)
Purpose: To energise you
Procedure: 3 rounds of 20 short, sharp out-breaths
When/How Often: In the morning and/or in the afternoon when your energy starts dropping or when you need to get going
(e.g. clean the house, answer emails etc.)
Video: Change Your Breath, Change Your Life – Lucas Rockwood (7:02)
The 4-7-8 Method
Purpose: To help you fall asleep, to prevent panic attacks
Procedure: Inhale to the count of 4, Hold to the count of 7, exhale to the count of 8
When: Right before falling asleep or before a sitting meditation
If we can learn to control our breathing, we can dramatically improve our health – from our immune, endocrine, and nervous, system, to our moods and states of mind. The techniques mentioned in this article are simple, effective and available to everyone. Let’s hope the word gets spread and that more people will learn to use them to combat everyday stresses, prevent many health issues, and feel better on the whole. And if you happen to forget about these exercises, at least remember to breathe deeply more often, to keep your body more alkaline – which can help with preventing cancer!
Share Your Thoughts
I hope you have enjoyed this post, and above all, that you will take some of these breathing techniques with you and use them to improve your health and feel better. I look forward to hearing from you about how it has worked for you. Just leave a comment below – I look forward to reading about your own experience!
BY LUCIE DUN