Breathing Exercises for Beginners
Box Breathing & More

Yoga breathing exercises are an extremely powerful way to change your nervous system state, but many people mix and match practices

at will without considering their desired outcome. While there are literally hundreds of potentially different yoga breathing techniques, there are only three possible effects of any one particular practice.

Option 1: Water Breathing – Balancing Practices

Balancing practices are designed to calm you down if you’re over-stimulated, and to boost your energy if you’re lethargic. Just like a glass of water, balancing practices are always appropriate, any time of the day or night and can be used freely without cause for concern. To achieve a balancing effect, you’ll want to target four to six breaths per minute. There are dozens of breathing patterns you can use, but the rate of breath is what matters most.

Skyscraper Breathing Practice (4×4):

  • Imagine your breath travels up the side of a building as you inhale
  • Imagine your breath travels back down the building as you exhale
  • Breathe in and out through nose only
  • Use Ujjayi Breathing on the way up and down
  • Inhale, your breath climbs the building: 1-2-3-4 > pause
  • Exhale, your breath falls down the building: 4-3-2-1 > pause
  • Repeat for 10 rounds total

Option 2: Whiskey Breathing – Relaxing / Sleep-Inducing Practices

As the name suggests, deeply relaxing breathing practices stimulate your parasympathetic, rest-and-digest branch of your autonomic nervous system. The slow rate of breath boosts your carbon dioxide levels, opens up your breathing passageways, slows your heart, and lowers your cortisol levels. Do be careful, however, these practices can put you to sleep so they are rarely used in the morning or midday. Typically, Whisky Breathing practices are used before bed.

Box Breathing

  • Imagine your breath is traveling around the perimeter of a box or a square (diaphragmatic breathing)
  • Breathe in and out through nose only
  • Use Ujjayi Breathing on the way up and down
  • Pinch your nose at the top to hold, pinch again at the bottom to hold
  • Inhale, your breath climbs up the left side of the box: 1-2-3-4
  • Close your nose and hold as your breath outlines the top of the box: 1,2, 3, 4
  • Exhale as your breath falls down the right side of the bod: 4-3-2-1
  • Hold as your breath travels along the bottom of the box: 4-3-2-1
  • Repeat for 10 rounds total

Option 3: Coffee Breathing – Stimulating / Energizing Practices

When you breathe fast without moving, as if you were huffing and puffing from a sprint, your nervous system responds as if you were running. Coffee category breathing stimulates your sympatric fight or flight response and puts you in a ready state for exercise, busy work, and physical activities. These practices should be used first thing in the morning or just before exercise, but in all cases, it should be used sparingly.

Breath of Fire

  • Sit on the floor cross-legged
  • Relax your face, shoulders, chest, and abdomen
  • Exhale, force the breath out with a sharp exhale
  • It should feel and sound like a sneeze
  • In between each sharp exhale, relax completely
  • Exhale at a pace of 1 to 2 breaths per second
  • Practice three rounds of 20 exhales

Nervous System & Breathing

The goal of yoga breathing is not to hold your breath, increase oxygen, or expel toxins. All of those things may occur, but our main focus is on deliberately and carefully manipulating our autonomic nervous system. As the name suggests, this nervous systems is usually working all on its own, automatically. Yoga breathing allows us to do a manual override and take control to either stimulate, relax, or balance our nerves. While there are hundreds of books, brands, and teachers, on a fundamental level, breathwork can always be categorize as water (balancing), whiskey (relaxing), or coffee (stimulating).

Is Yoga Breathing Safe?

Pranayama breathing and most breathwork is very safe, the real risks present themselves when people are toying with extremes. With breathing, extremes come in two forms. Firstly, many people overuse Coffee Category breathing practices and instead of three rounds of 20 breaths, they might practice for 10, 20 or even 60 minutes continuously. During extended hyperventilation, you can blackout, get dizzy, experience tetany (locked up hands), anxiety attacks, and even hallucinate. Some people find the experience transcendent and even spiritual, but it’s not without risks. Secondly, people who practice extended apnea or breath holds also risk bodily harm from blackouts, reduced oxygen, headaches, and drowning if they are practicing in or near water.

Contraindications for Yoga Breathing

  • If pregnant, do not practice Coffee Category practices and do not practice any breath holds
  • If suffering from anxiety, asthma, COPD or any other respiratory illness or disease, avoid Coffee Category practices—or proceed with extra care
  • If you have recently had surgery or are taking any kind of prescription meditation, check with your doctor before you begin

How is Breathwork Different from Meditation?

Meditation usually falls into one of three categories. Opening monitoring are practices where you observe your thoughts and your monkey mind without judgment or control. Single pointed focus practices involve directing your attention to one part of the body, one sensation on the body, or one real or imagined object. Lastly, mantra or japa meditation involves the repetition of a word or phrase repeatedly, possibly out loud, but most often internally without actual vocalization.

Breathing exercises are often referred to as a moving or active form of meditation. In the yoga tradition, pranayama is sandwiched between yoga asana (poses) and varying levels of sense withdrawal, concentration, and meditation. I don’t think it’s accurate to say that pranayama is easier than meditation, but it is more accessible and more predictable in its results. It’s also worth noting that many meditation traditions use breathing as a prep or even a gateway practice into a quiet, seated meditation practice.

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Learn more about Yoga Breathing Benefits