4 Breathing Techniques to Relieve Tension

In my previous post, we covered the benefits of learning how to breathe properly, as well as the foundation of our breath outlined by diaphragmatic breathing. Once you have learned the basics of proper breathing, you can move into different breathing techniques to foster a positive healing environment for the body and aid in managing stress. Other prerequisites are to find a comfortable seated posture and a calm, inner focus. My recommendation is to experiment with each and find the technique which resonates with you.

1. Equal Breathing 

This technique entails matching the length of your inhales with the length of your exhales, steadily increasing the count of each over time. It can be a great way to introduce your body to deeper breaths while staying mindful. A study from 2017 has shown that when performing equal breathing in and out to a count of 5, also known as coherent breathing, it can lower depressive symptoms [1].

To practice:

  • Inhale through the nose for a count of 3
  • Exhale through the nose for a count of 3
  • Repeat working your way up to a count of 6 or even 7
  • Continue this cycle of equal breathing for 2-5 minutes

2. Box Breathing

Also known as ‘square breathing,’ this gets your body accustomed to carbon dioxide (CO2) retention. This process stimulates the vagus nerve, which allows the parasympathetic nervous system –– i.e. your ‘rest and digest’ nervous system that’s optimal for promoting a healing environment in the body – to kick in.

To practice: 

  • Inhale through the nose for a count of 4
  • Hold the breath at the top of the inhale for a count of 4
  • Slowly exhale through the nose for a count of 4
  • Hold the breath at the bottom of the exhale for a count of 4
  • Continue this cycle of box breathing for 2-5 minutes 

3. Ujayi (OO-ja-ee) Breathing 

Also known as ‘victorious breathing’ and ‘ocean breathing,’ this is commonly cued throughout a yoga class. This technique helps warm up the body before physical activity focusing specifically on nasal breathing, with a slight restriction in the back of the throat. It also has a way of bringing internal awareness to your breath, relaxation to the body, and calmness to the mind. 

To practice:

  • Inhale through the nose
  • Exhale slowly with an open mouth whispering the sound “HHHHAAAA”
  • Close the mouth and inhale through the nose 
  • Keep the mouth closed and exhale with the same whisper of “HHHHAAAA”
  • Continue this breath cycle for 2-5 minutes, as if you’re whispering this sound or pretending to fog up a mirror

4. Alternate Nostril Breathing 

This type of breathing is known in sanskrit as ‘nadi shodhana’ and refers to an alternate nostril and channel cleanse. This is best for bringing balance to the right and left sides of the brain, right (masculine) and left (feminine) sides of the body, and promoting an even mind. This is considered more of an intermediate breathing technique.

To practice:

  • Traditionally the right hand will be used to create the ‘vishnu mudra’ by closing the index and middle finger into the palm, using the thumb against the right nostril and the ring finger against the left nostril. 
  • Close the left nostril. 
  • Inhale through the right nostril. Pause.
  • Close the right nostril. Exhale through the left nostril. 
  • Inhale through the left nostril. Pause. Close the left nostril. 
  • Exhale through the right nostril.
  • Repeat steps c-f taking for a total of 3 times.
  • Lower your hand and take 3 even breaths through both nostrils.

Be aware that practicing these techniques too much or incorrectly may induce dizziness, anxiety, light-headedness, shortness of breath, or irritability. Take care to listen to your body and if these symptoms surface, just return to your normal breath pattern until they subside. Beneficially, you may feel an absence of restlessness in your body, your body may feel lighter, and perhaps a sense of increased ‘gastric fire’ as deep breathing acts like a massage for the internal organs. Aim to set aside 2-5 minutes to practice each day as a way to induce mindfulness, promote pain management, improve your lung function –– and of course, relieve tension and manage stress.

REFERENCES:

1. Streeter, C., et al. Treatment of Major Depressive Disorder with Lyengar Yoga and Coherent Breathing: A Randomized Controlled Dosing Study. Published Online:1 Mar 2017 | Click here to view study

Disclaimer:  The views expressed in this article are based on the opinion of the author, unless otherwise noted, and should not be taken as personal medical advice. The information provided is intended to help readers make their own informed health and wellness decisions.

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Krystal Sterling, PT, DPT, CMTPT

Physical Therapist / Yoga Specialist
Krystal Sterling is a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) specializing in orthopedic conditions with an integrative sports medicine approach. She works at Activcore in Atlanta, Georgia, located just 2 miles from Emory University.
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