Like the beating of your heart, your respiratory system doesn’t need monitoring to continue on — every second, of every minute, of every hour, of every day.
Breathing Exercise: For Health, Happiness & Longevity
Like the beating of your heart, your respiratory system doesn’t need monitoring to continue on — every second, of every minute, of every hour, of every day.
Whether you think about breathing or not, it happens.
This, in turn, leads many people to believe that they simply don’t have to think about their breathing. In this article, however, we’ll be countering this notion: Even though it’s not compulsory to give your breath much thought, when you do, amazing things can happen.
Conscious breathing (or breathing mindfully) can transform your life. It can change the way you think and process emotions, how your muscles work, how often you get ill, your chances of developing chronic diseases, and even how smooth and shiny your hair looks.
Surprised? Most people are. But as soon as they adopt some of the methods we’ll be outlining in this article, they become converts almost immediately.
So, let’s get started. We’ll begin by explaining why how you breathe is so important and how exactly breathing works. From there, we’ll talk about the benefits of breathing and explain how to improve your own breathing habits with some useful tips and exercises. Finally, we’ll go over some of the most frequently asked questions we receive about better breathing.
Breathing Basics: Why Proper Breathing Is Essential
It may be a natural body function, but many of us take for granted the power that breath has over our entire body. Let’s learn how breathing works and why improving your breathing is essential for health, wellness, and longevity.
How Breathing Works
From the nervous and cardiovascular systems, right down to your body’s individual cells, deep breathing has the ability to transform and renew your health.
Below, we’ll examine the science of breathing, in order to highlight how stimulation of these systems can bring you closer to achieving overall better health, stress reduction, and longevity.
Digging Deep Into The Science Of Breathing
When you engage your breath, you are activating your nervous and cardiovascular systems. With each inhale and exhale, your breath helps regulate, recover, and restore your body. The science behind deep breathing is a great reminder of how our bodies have a natural ability to be resilient.
The Diaphragm And How It Works
The main muscle responsible for breathing is the diaphragm. This is a dome-shaped muscle, which partitions the abdomen (below) from the thorax (above).
When you inhale normally, the diaphragm (assisted by the intercostal muscles) contracts and flattens. This pushes on the abdomen and simultaneously causes the lower ribs to go up and out. Essentially, the ribcage rises and expands. As a result, volume increases in the abdomen and chest, and the lungs are inflated.
During exhalation, the diaphragm returns to its resting dome-shaped position. The lungs, in turn, deflate, and air is expelled through the mouth and nose.
The Throat Anatomy
The science of breathing is all connected to the anatomy of the throat and lungs breathing exercises, the throat anatomy explained. This is a technical breakdown, without going into great detail but a short explanation of the different components and how breathing actually works from a scientific standpoint.
As you can see there are a lot of different components involved when you take a breath.
Larynx - Larynx is another name for the voice box. It consists mainly of cartilage, soft tissue, and muscles, including vocal cords, and is also the upper part of the trachea or windpipe.
Pharynx - Pharynx is the muscle-lined space connecting the nose and mouth to the larynx. It is also the upper part of the throat.
Nasopharynx - The Pharynx or the upper part of the throat consists of three parts and Nasopharynx in the upper part of the Pharynx
Oropharynx - The Oropharynx is the second and middle part of the throat or Pharynx.
Laryngopharynx - The Laryngopharynx is the third and lower part of the Pharynx.
Hypopharynx - The hypopharynx is where the esophagus stars. More about the esophagus below.
Pharyngeal - This is the muscle group that forms the Pharynx, the Pharyngeal group.
Stylopharyngeus - The lateral muscle group of the Pharynx and part of the Pharyngeal muscle group.
Trachea cartilage - Also known as the Tracheal rings. The Trachea cartilage helps support the trachea, making it flexible and able to move.
Epiglottis - The Epiglottis is a flap that folds over the vocal cords, preventing food and liquid to enter the lungs
Cricoid cartilage - It is a cartilage ring that supports the back of the Larynx, aka voice box.
The esophagus - Is the tube that connects the throat to the stomach, starting at the Hypopharynx
Hyoid bone - Has two important roles, one is to hold up the tongue but also support and hole up the Larynx that sits below it.
Windpipe - The windpipe transports the air from your nose or mouth to the lungs with each inhale or exhale
The Benefits of Better Breathing
Carving out a few minutes each day for deep breathing can help you reduce stress, feel calmer, and have more energy — all good things when it comes to living a healthy, well-balanced lifestyle.
But improved diaphragmatic breathing has additional benefits as well — some of which might surprise you. From improved hair growth to better posture, breathing affects the whole body from the inside, out.
Let’s take a look at the top benefits of deep breathing.
Improvement of Respiratory Illness and Diseases
Deep, slow, and mindful breathing breaks the cycle of gasping breaths and airway constriction, which are often associated with respiratory illnesses such as asthma and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). When taking in shallow and slow breaths through the nose, as many people commonly do throughout the day, you gradually lengthen the time between your breaths, which exacerbates this problem.
With regular practice, the technique of deep breathing has the ability to reduce wheezing and promote calm, regulated breathing. In fact, deep breathing exercises are regularly recommended1 by leading health professionals, doctors, and researchers who work with respiratory illness sufferers.
Pulmonary Function Test
A Pulmonary Function Test, also known as PFT is a respiratory assessment test to measure the lung capacity in a human. Doctors do a so-called lung function test to get an accurate respiratory assessment. To perform the PFT they use a machine called spirometry. This lung function test measures lung capacity by measuring how much air you can inhale. This is done by first blocking your nose with a clip so you can't inhale through it, then the spirometry is used, placing your mouth on the PFT, simply inhale into it. In this way, doctors are able to determine how much air you are able to inhale.
Greater Relaxation and Sounder Sleep
Once you start breathing deeply, you’ll notice tension release and an overall calming effect. You might even feel your heartbeat regulating and see your pulse lowering if you wear a health tracker. If you are experiencing trouble sleeping, a breathing exercise for sleep is an excellent option.
This calming effect also triggers a relaxation response, and in turn, this allows you to fall asleep faster when it’s time for bed. During your sleep, you’ll notice that you wake up less frequently. Improved oxygen in the blood also enhances the metabolism, giving you the boost of energy you’re looking for before you start your day or a workout. The body does this using the baroreceptors, which expand the arterial walls, thus controlling blood pressure but also allowing for the blood to absorb additional oxygen throughout the body.
All of this is behind the reason why the National Sleep Foundation recommends deep breathing relaxation exercises2 to help people fall asleep when they’re restless.
It’s no secret that our daily environment doesn’t facilitate the maintenance of good posture. From all-day sitting at desk jobs and while driving, to hours spent in front of the TV or computer at night, the less our bodies are able to fight the forces of gravity and maintain a strong, stable core, the worse off our posture becomes.
According to Judith Marcin, MD, “Over time, [a sedentary lifestyle] weakens the strength of our respiratory muscles. It also creates tension in the upper body that can alter our posture and undermine our health3". Furthermore, when you breathe from the chest instead of the lower abdomen, it’s the muscles in your neck and shoulders that end up doing most of the work.
It should go without saying that these muscles were not meant for this kind of work, and over time, the shoulders will round, and the head will drift forward, which strains the neck and weakens the back muscles. Shoulder and neck pain is often common when this occurs.
But there’s good news. The action of deep breathing almost automatically corrects rounded shoulders, opens the chest muscles, and allows the rib cage to expand.
Reduced Stress and Enhanced Mood
The mind-body connection remains an enigma to many medical experts. Still, even scientists agree that there’s something special about the link between the mind and emotions and how you breathe.
Notably, when we are stressed, the airways in the body become tighter, making it harder for air to travel from the mouth to the lungs. Essentially, your body has to work harder to transfer air, and you end up breathing faster, which perpetuates the problem.
This is, of course, why they always tell people to “take a deep breath” during times of stress or when someone is nervous before a big presentation or performance. It’s not without reason. Achieving mind-body calming starts with the breath. Slow and relaxed breathing allows for more oxygen to reach your cells, and it calms the nervous system.
Similarly, mindfulness practices like mindful yoga and meditation can help reinforce this mind-body awareness. Those who regularly practice mindful deep breathing, such as yogic breathing, report this practice4 as alleviating “anxiety, depression, everyday stress, post-traumatic stress, stress-related medical illnesses, or fight or flight response".
Yogic breathing is not as intimidating as you may think. It is a more advanced breathing technique that focuses on breathing awareness and retention. Whether you’re looking to balance out your nostril breathing, find a deeper mind-body connection, or feel a sense of cleansing and renewal, this practice will help you make each breath count.
Enhanced Learning and Cognitive Performance
A recent study published in Scientific Reports found that breathing exercises can enhance humans’ ability to retain newly learned information5. In this study, two groups of healthy humans were taught to trace a unique path in a fixed timeframe. After they learned the path, one of the groups rested for 30 minutes while the other group engaged in a breathing practice for the same duration.
After this, both groups were tested on their abilities to recall the unique trace path that they had been taught 30 minutes prior. The results showed that "The breathing-practice group retained the motor skill strikingly better than controls, both immediately after the breathing session and also at 24hours.”
Enhanced Physical Endurance and Performance
Whether you partake in active sports such as soccer, basketball, or volleyball or you’re looking to increase your physical stamina strictly for athletic performance reasons, deep breathing exercises (and in particular, yogic breathing) can have a huge range of benefits.
This was recently proven to be true6 in a study testing the effects of yogic breathing practices on the lung functions of young swimmers. The study was published in the Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine.
Two groups of young swimmers were designated. One group was chosen randomly and taught to train in yogic breathing practices while the other group was the control. In the end, “there was a significant improvement in the YBP group as compared to the control group in maximal voluntary ventilation … forced vital capacity … and the number of strokes per breath.”
Deep Breathing's Effects on Balance
In addition to improving endurance and overall athletic performance, diaphragmatic breathing has also been shown to improve balance. A recent study published in the Journal of Physical and Manipulative Psychological Therapeutics tested 13 healthy individuals7 from the University of Western states.
Over an eight-week period, the subjects were taught a series of breathing exercises. These exercises were performed on a regular basis at home and in-clinic, and at the same time balance was assessed by the researchers using the Modified Balanced Air Scoring System and the OptoGait's March in Place protocol.
In the end, the “study indicated that promotion of a costal-diaphragmatic breathing pattern may be associated with improvement in balance.” This conclusion stemmed from the fact that as their associated breathing scores improved, the subjects showed a decreasing error rate in single-leg stance balancing exercises. In other words, they were able to stand and balance on one leg more easily and for longer as their deep breathing scores improved.
Improved Hair Growth
Did you know that it has even been shown that deep breathing exercises can help promote hair growth? When practicing deep breathing, your body delivers more oxygen to the hair follicle and stimulates more blood flow, which, in turn, helps hair grow faster and stronger.
How To Breath Better
The truth is, most of us don't breathe correctly. This may have been a learned habit that we acquired because we were taught to “suck in our gut,” or it may simply be a matter of getting older. Research has shown that children tend to deep breathe deeper and slower than adults, but when exactly this change occurs is not completely known.
Regardless of where you're starting out, you can learn to breathe better. Here are some techniques and tips that we recommend exploring in your journey toward healthier diaphragmatic breathing. Before diving in, however, let’s go over what poor breathing looks like.
Understanding Poor Breathing
Poor breathing is short, shallow, and high up in the chest. Optimal breathing includes longer, deeper breaths and occurs low in the abdomen.
To test your breathing, try this:
Put your right hand on your chest and your left hand on your stomach. Take a deep breath as you count to three. When you do this, which hand do you feel moving the most?
If it's your right hand (the one on your chest), you’re breathing from your chest. If it's your left hand (the one on your stomach), you are breathing from your abdomen. You want to do the latter— breath from your abdomen.
When you breathe from your chest, your breaths are automatically going to be short and shallow because they're only scooping up the air from the tops of your lungs. The bottoms of your lungs are bigger and fuller. That's where your lungs store most of their air, and it's where you want to gather your breath each time you inhale.
Breathing is more than just inhale and exhale. What’s important is the quality of your breathing, how you allow it in and out of your lungs how you perform your exhales and inhales, how you take that air in and out in a certain pattern and time frame.
There are a number of different symptoms you can experience when it comes to breathing issues. Shortness of breath when under anxiety and/or stress, wheezing when breathing, heavy breathing, agonal breathing also known as labored breathing, shallow breathing, and rapid breathing. Whatever the issue is with your breathing, there is often some type of breathing treatment that can address some if not all of these issues. All you need to do is find the one that fits your needs.
*Please note that not all problems can be solved with a certain breathing technique. If you are having difficulty breathing, agonal breathing, or abnormal breathing patterns that won't go away, seek medical attention as soon as possible or call 911.
You should also seek medical advice or breathing treatment if you experience any of the following issues:
Chest Pain when breathing
Back pain when breathing
Sharp pain when breathing
Lower back pain when breathing
Trouble breathing after eating followed by pain
Middle back pain when breathing
Feel the need to breathe but feeling that you are not able to get enough air with each inhale
Sharp pain in breast
Dull pain under left rib cage
Different Breathing Exercises
As mentioned above, breathing is more than taking air in and out, inhale and exhale. How it’s done depends on which breathing technique you find works for you, as they all achieve different objectives. Some will correlate with others, while others don’t.
Square Breathing (Box Breathing)
This is a breathing technique based on square framework. You breathe in, to the count of 4, hold to the count of 4, breathe out to the count of 4, hold to the count of 4. This process is repeated over and over from anywhere between 5-20 minutes. The amount of time can also be extended to 6 or even 8 seconds, once you have started to master this technique. Box breathing can help with anxiety, stress, shallow breathing, or sleeping disorders. Here you can find additional box breathing benefits.
4 7 8 Breathing
Also known as 4-7-8 or 4 7 8 breathing, this is an exercise that was first developed by Dr. Andrew Weil. It's similar to box breathing but here you inhale to the count of 4, hold to the count of 7 and exhale to the count of 8. And this process just like box breathing is repeated over and over during 5-20 minutes on a daily basis or several times a day depending on your needs. This exercise helps you sleep better, helps lower blood pressure, rapid breathing, and improves digestion
Mindful breathing is a deep breathing technique focusing on mindful awareness with each exhale and inhale.
Paradoxical breathing happens when the diaphragm moves in the opposite direction when taking a breath, compared to normal breathing.
This is a deep breathing technique that focuses on deep inhales, where you not only fill your chest but also your belly. This is why diaphragmatic breathing also is referred to as abdominal breathing or belly breathing. It is the opposite of shallow breathing techniques.
Meaning “victorious breath” Ujjayi breathing is one of many different types of yogic breathing techniques.
Alternate Nostril Breathing
This is a method used to promote relaxation and stress reduction.In alternate nostril breathing, you only use your nose, breathing in through one nostril, and out through the other nostril.
This means “breath control” and is just like Ujjayi breathing a yoga breathing technique. However, Pranayama breathing is also known as yoga breathing or yogic breathing.
This type of breathing is done in conjunction with each posture or movement during pilates.
A breathing technique used to achieve an altered state of consciousness.
Wim Hof Breathing
Similar to holotropic breathing, Wim Hof Breathing is also about achieving an altered state.
Suffering from asthma, using this technique will help open up your airways to be able to breathe better. Buteyko breathing also helps reduce blood pressure amongst other things.
This is a technique an alternate breathing method based on a relaxed state, performing longer inhales mixed with bursts of short exhales
This is not a technique used to help with relaxation, stress, or similar. It is a technique used by musicians playing a wind instrument. The object is to be able to purposely hold a continuous tone without stopping. They managed to perform this by breathing in through the nose while simultaneously pushing air out through the mouth. This is done using air stored in the cheeks.
Also known as Dirga Pranayama, and is another type of yoga breathing technique. It is by many seen as the most calming, grounding breathing exercises you can do in yoga.
Unlike most other breathing methods, mouth breathing is exactly what it sounds like. Here you only use your mouth to inhale and exhale.
A slow deep breathing technique often used by pregnant women. It is done to help promote relaxation and reduce pain.
Developed by the ancient Tibetians, meaning “Inner Fire”. The breathing method uses both breathing and visualization to create this inner fire.
Pursed Lip Breathing
Below we dig a little deeper into 3 of these different breathing exercises. First, 3-part breathing, followed by kapalabhati breath, and finally alternate nostril breathing.
Learn 3-Part Breathing
Deep breathing is rooted in the diaphragm, your body’s miracle muscle that helps push air into the lungs. 3 Part Breathing is a simple deep breathing technique you can begin with as you practice your breathing.
It’s an easy way to become aware of the breath in your body.
While on your back or sitting upright, begin to inhale starting from low in your abdomen.
Watch your abdomen slowly inflate with air. You should see your lower belly rise first, then this inflation should carry up to the rib cage.
Now, exhale slowly from your chest. Watch your chest and belly go down. The effect should occur opposite to the inhale: Your ribcage should deflate first, followed by the top of your abdomen, and finally, the bottom of your belly.
During the process, your shoulders should not rise or fall. Everything is happening in the abdomen and thorax.
Learn Kapalabhati Breath
For those, a bit more adventurous, “kapalabhati breath” is a technique that emphasizes exhales. Here’s how to do it:
- Sitting upright (or in a seated twist, wherein this technique can be especially beneficial), begin to focus on exhaling short, quick breaths from the nose.
- Find your own rhythm. Your inhale will naturally follow.
- Try this for 20-30 seconds.
Kapalabhati breath works by inducing “controlled stress.” Doing this via breath techniques forces your body to work up resiliency in managing the stress of daily life. It’s also a great way to rebalance the body’s CO2 levels.
Try Alternate Nostril Breathing
Alternate nostril breathing or “Nadi Shodhana” is a nostril cleansing technique that balances out the energy, reduces your systolic blood pressure, and brings vigilant attention to the breath without activating your stress response (“fight or flight”).
Start sitting upright. Using your ring finger and your thumb, block your right nostril with your thumb and inhale for 3 seconds through the left nostril.
On the exhale, use your ring finger to block the left nostril and exhale for 4 seconds through your right nostril.
Continue to alternate nostril breathing for a few minutes and notice your nasal pathways clear out (keep a tissue nearby!).
* Consult a physician before these exercises if you have asthma or COPD. At any time if you become lightheaded, stop the exercises and resume normal breathing.
Focus on Breathing Slower
On average, most adults have a regular breathing rate of 12 to 18 beats per minute. But if you can learn to breathe more slowly, this can be especially advantageous for cultivating better breathing habits. A recent article on the physiological effects of slow breathing in the journal Breathe, notes that, “ ‘autonomically optimized respiration’ … would appear to be in the band of 6–10 breaths per [minute]8". This helps you alleviate issues such as rapid breathing.
Cultivate the Three R's
As you practice deep breathing, learn to cultivate “The Three R’s.”
Feel the beat. Inhale slowly for 3 counts, and exhale slowly for 3 counts.
Breathing techniques like this one, allow you to sync your breathing with the rhythm of your heartbeat and stimulate the vagus nerve. This stimulation regulates heart rate, decreases blood pressure, and relaxes your muscles.
From mind to body, this state has the ability to relax the brain for increased feelings of peace and tranquility allowing you to breathe easily.
Find your resiliency. Take 6 to 10 controlled, slow breaths per minute.
This exercise stimulates your cardiovascular and respiratory systems. When your breath is controlled, slow, and regulated, you maximize the heart rate variability (HRV), allowing you to recover from stress faster — a key to maintaining health and wellness longevity.
Breathe to heal.
The act of deep breathing sends oxygen to your blood cells. This is your body’s way of promoting rejuvenation and repair. Incorporate deep breathing practices into your routine, especially in moments of stress or fatigue. You may not feel the direct effects of your breath on a cellular level, but the restorative effects are happening!
Bring Texture to Your Breath
This may sound a bit odd, but your breath can indeed have a texture to it. “Ujjayi” or victorious breath is a breath control technique that increases the breath’s pressure and promotes relaxation of the body and mind. Here’s how to do it:
Lying on your back, begin to inhale applying a slight block at the back of your throat.
Exhale, and notice that your breath begins to have weight.
Visualize your breath rolling to the back of the throat on an inhale and exiting softly on the exhale - this flow of breath sounds like waves rolling in and out of the shore!
You do not have to be an expert or have a lot of experience when taking a breathing lesson. Anyone can try it, young, old, men and women. We all have to start somewhere so why not start now. This will allow you to breathe easier, improve your lung health and it carries a long-term effect in regards to many different benefits, mentioned above. You could find a breathing treatment that works for you and your condition. Not all breathing treatments or breathing exercises fit everyone so finding the one that meets your needs is essential.
Breathing today has become even more and more important due to the pandemic we are experiencing where many of us are wearing a face mask when we step outside. Wearing a face mask will affect your breathing but at the same time, it will keep you safe meaning it's a compromise we have to undertake. There is a solution to both staying safe and relieving stress and anxiety associated with wearing face masks - oxygen promoting breathing techniques!
Bettering Your Breathing: Frequently Asked Questions
As a rule, is it better to breathe through the nose or the mouth?
It is generally better to breathe through your nose. During deep breathing practice, it is often the protocol to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. According to the American Lung Association, the nostrils of your nose9 "filter, warm, and humidify air in a way that the mouth cannot.”
Of course, sometimes, you’ll need to breathe through your mouth (for example, when you have nasal congestion or are exercising), but when you can, breathing through your nose is preferable.
Is there a difference between “belly breathing,” “diaphragmatic breathing,” and “deep breathing”?
Not really. All of these terms refer to the same type of breathing practice wherein breaths are taken deeply, slowly, and low — from the diaphragm.
How soon can I expect to see results from my new breathing techniques?
You should start to see beneficial results from deep breathing and taking your first breath. Of course, it's important to remember that these benefits are going to be life-changing right away. It takes time to cultivate a strong deep breathing practice that can be with you as a tool wherever you go.
The good news is, the benefits will only increase with time. Not only will you expand your lung's capacity for air and develop a habit of turning to your breath in times of stress and anxiety, but the overall physical and emotional effects that you can't necessarily see will be working all the while in the background.
I feel weird when I take deep breaths like I’m breathing really loudly. Can this be helped?
Some people may feel awkward if they practice deep breathing in front of other people. Well, you certainly shouldn't feel self-conscious about the way you breathe, if you two prefer to practice your deep breathing alone or with a coach or in a class, this is perfectly fine.
On the other hand, if you are in a social situation and have become aware that you're getting anxious or agitated, taking a deep breath or two at this point can be especially useful. For this reason, you may want to excuse yourself to the restroom to do some deep breathing in private.
How often do I have to practice my breathing?
There’s no hard-and-fast rule here.
If you can, we recommend partaking in a meditation practice, which is the perfect time to work on your breathing. Even if you don't meditate regularly, taking a few moments out of your day to do some deep breathing will be beneficial. Actually, simply noticing your breath is the first step toward building a better breathing habit.
You can set aside time to do some deep breathing every day, or do it while you're partaking in another relatively idle activity — for example, while you’re chopping vegetables, taking a bath, or waiting in line at the bank drive-through.
In high-stress and fast-paced environments, it can be hard to focus on the quality of your breathing. Still, this is when noticing your breath will actually be most useful. Again, even if you can just notice the quality of your breath during these stressful periods (are you holding your breath? Are your breaths more shallow or shorter than usual?), you begin to become more aware of how changing everything will be beneficial.
Can anyone learn to breathe better?
Yes, of course!
No matter where your starting point is, improving your breathing will improve your life. Certainly, if you struggle with asthma, COPD, or other lung-related medical conditions, it's imperative that you consult your physician before starting a new reading practice.
At the same time, these conditions shouldn't hold you back from working toward better breathing habits. Absolutely everyone can benefit from becoming more mindful of and in tune with their breathing.
Better Breathing Means You're Closer To Living a Healthier, Happier, and Longer Life
By now, you’ve seen the breadth of how important breathing is to repairing, maintaining, and rejuvenating the mind and body.
While better breathing takes mindful practice to ensure each inhale and exhale is slow, deep, and properly executed, it’s also beneficial to remember that this practice is free.
You don’t need a pill. No membership is required. Breathing is free.
It’s also something you can work on any time — and it’s all “grist for the mill,” meaning even taking one breath mindfully while you wait in traffic or stand in line at the post office can be beneficial to your overall health and wellbeing. Gaining a strong mastery of your breath may not happen overnight, but with time, we guarantee you’ll notice the benefits.
So, why not try it today? Right now, even? Here we go … close your eyes, center your mind, and focus. Now breathe.