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Learning to Breathe: Breathwork for Meditation, Relaxation and Stress Reduction

May 9, 2016

These pranayam (breathing techniques) are useful for beginning a meditation practice, for personal relaxation therapy, and for stress reduction.


Although breathing is our most natural physical action, it’s also the first thing that suffers when we feel stress, anxiety, panic, overwhelming thoughts etc. Our breath mirrors our mental and emotional states: when we are calm or resting, it can be deep and full, when we lose our calm it becomes shallow and ragged. Breathing techniques are the simplest way to regulate our emotional and mental states. Research shows that there are numerous health benefits to practicing conscious breathing techniques; one of the strongest benefits might be that we can call upon our breathing tools in times of stress and get valuable support and strength from ourselves.



What’s needed for practice?

  • A quiet space. If you don’t have a quiet space, consider gentle relaxation music or nature sounds (or any gentle music you find comforting)—headphones can work if there’s too much external noise.

  • A comfortable chair, and maybe a pillow/cushion for your lower back, or a space on the floor against a wall and a couple of pillows/cushions (one to sit on, one for your lower back).

  • A folded blanket or yoga mat if you’d like to lie on the floor while you practice the first breathing technique.

  • Something light for extra physical warmth (blanket, sweater etc)—if we practice for longer than five minutes, our body will usually begin to cool down.


Physical position:

  • Try to sit with your spine straight and yet restful, and use whatever cushions or props you need to feel comfortable. (When the spine is straight, the nervous system is more restful.)

  • Rest your hands in your lap, or wherever they feel most comfortable. If you are beginning a meditation practice it might be useful to find a comfortable mudra.

  • Gently and calmly adjust or change positions when you need to.


Belly Breath (deep diaphragmatic breathing and physical tension release)

  • Place your hands on the lower belly under the navel.

  • Take a slow, deep breath in through your nose and out through your mouth and feel the belly slightly move beneath your hands. (If you can’t feel your belly move, lie on the floor in a comfortable position, perhaps with knees raised, place your hands on your lower belly and try breathing again.)

  • Focus on making the breaths slow and smooth, but without force or effort. (As you take more breaths, they’ll get smoother and slower.)

  • As you breathe, you can let your thoughts wander and just watch them, try not to get involved with them, just watch them unwind, and gently bring your attention to your breath over and over, just bring your focus back to the breath. There’s no wrong way of doing it, so just do your best to bring your focus back time and again as you practice.

  • After maybe a dozen or so breaths, you’ll begin to feel a shift in your mental/emotional state (you might feel it almost immediately), and after three to five minutes of breathing, you will feel very calm and relaxed.

  • When you feel comfortable breathing deeply, and your breath is flowing well, you can survey your body and look for any places that feel tense or tight. Begin with your feet and move upwards through your body, checking each place for tension, or begin any place that feels tight and travel in whatever order suits you.

  • Use the time during the inhalation to locate any tension, then use the exhalation to soften into those areas and let go of any tightness. You can gently squirm/wriggle those areas to help release tension. Take as many breaths as you need in any particular area, and as many resting breaths as you need between places of tension. Use whatever pace feels comfortable for you.



Ocean Breath (traditionally called Ujjayi Pranayama, translated from the Sanskrit as “victorious breath”).

In this breathing technique we’ll constrict the throat and make a gentle whooshing sound as we breathe in and out through the nose.


  • Take a breath in, then breathe out softly saying “haaaa” for the whole breath. Now breathe in again making a “haaaa” sound for the whole breath. It will sound a little like the white noise of ocean waves.

  • Now try doing this with your mouth closed; that is, breathe in through your nose making that same “haaaa” sound, and breathe out through your nose making the “haaaa” sound—you will feel the “haaaa” sound in your throat.

  • Try to make your breaths slow, even and smooth. (Note: as you feel comfortable with this breath, you don’t have to begin with the verbal “haaaa” sounds.)

  • If you are a feeling person, try focusing on the feeling of the breath moving through your nose and down the throat, and out again.

  • If you are a visual person, try seeing the breath travel into your body and filling it up, then out of your body and emptying it.

  • If you are an auditory person, try focusing on the sound of your breath, listening to any nuances, any gradual shifts in rhythm, sound, etc., as you relax into it.

  • Try six to twelve breaths, and work towards three to five minutes of practice.



Right-left Nostril Breathing or Switch Breath (traditionally called Nadi Shodhanam, translated from the Sanskrit as “channel purification”).


In this breathing technique we’ll be gently blocking one nostril while breathing in, then switching sides and breathing out through the other. One nostril will almost always be more open than the other, begin with this one. If you can’t tell, the general rule is to start with breathing through the left nostril if you’re practicing in the morning, and the right nostril if practicing at night. (If you have a cold, this breathing practice needs to be left aside until you recover.)


Using whichever hand feels comfortable, rest your thumb against one nostril and ready two other fingers against the other nostril (the two smallest fingers often feel easiest).

1. Gently press one nostril closed, then breath in through the open nostril.

2. Now, gently press the open nostril closed, release the other nostril and then breathe out through the newly opened nostril.

3. Breathe in through the same nostril.

4. Then gently press that nostril closed, release the other nostril and breath out through that one.

This completes one round of breathing.


  • Concentrate on smooth, even breaths, and on getting comfortable with the hand-nostril technique.

  • After a few rounds the technique will feel easier, and you’ll also feel more relaxed—three to six rounds is good to begin with, and twelve rounds is a good goal to work towards.

  • Once you feel adept, you can concentrate on making each round a little longer, and a little smoother.



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© 2016 Kyeren Rowena