Breathwork is the Answer if You Hate Meditating As Much As I Do
Updated: Mar 3
Anyone else so sick of hearing about meditation that they could scream?! Ok, maybe I’m being a bit melodramatic. I do believe in the benefits of meditation. It’s just that I struggle so hard with meditation (ever since I was first introduced to it almost 10 years ago), and I want people to stop talking about the power of being a regular meditator so I can stop beating myself up about not being one. I know, I know – the purpose of meditation isn’t to completely clear your mind or be perfectly at ease. But that’s not stopped me from being frustrated nearly ever time I meditate. Enter breathwork.
Breathing is one of those curious bodily functions that is necessary to sustain life, typically happens voluntarily, and can be controlled. This last bit, controlling the breath, has allowed me to harness many of the benefits of meditation without the frustration I normally feel when meditating. I’ll admit that breathwork may not be for everyone, but I do think everyone should give it a try.
What Exactly Is Breathwork?
Simply put, breathwork is breathing in a controlled pattern. If you’ve ever been told to take three deep breaths, that is a form of breathwork. I first was introduced to a breathwork practice when I was going through yoga teacher training. In yoga, there are several different “breathwork patterns” that are used to accomplish different things. Some of the patterns use longer calming breaths while others are shorter, more rapid breaths. And yoga isn’t the only place that you find breathwork. In fact, several different cultures have been using breathwork for thousands of years in order to reap its benefits. Even in modern times, breathing practices are gaining more traction in the mainstream. For example, the Navy Seals are taught a form of breathwork called box breathing as it helps calm the nervous system and allows someone to focus. Another example is Hillary Clinton using alternate nostril breathing after she lost the 2016 presidential election to reduce stress and help her process her emotions.
The Benefits of Breathwork
As breathwork is gaining popularity, there is more and more research surrounding the scientific benefits of it. To name a few, science has found that breathwork can:
Beyond the science-backed benefits of breathwork, the reason I like practicing it is I’ve found it to be a great replacement for meditation. I know there are differences in what the purpose of meditation is versus breathwork. But if the biggest focus of meditation is to be present in the moment and not form an attachment to your thoughts, then I can think of no better way to do this than with a breathing practice. It allows me to have something to focus on (you’re controlling the breath after all, not just “watching” it) while also forcing me to be present in the moment. I can’t be thinking about the breath I’m going to take in five breaths from now, I have to focus on the current one. Being able to reap meditation-like benefits from breathwork has been a win-win for me.
Also, I’m told that if I start with breathwork before meditation, then I’ll be able to calm my mind enough to not be as frustrated with meditation. I’ve yet to really commit to doing that so the jury is still out on whether that actually works for me. But give it a try!
The Breathwork Practices I Swear By
There are many, many more practices than these so explore beyond what I have listed. With the gaining popularity of breathwork, there are several quality online programs that walk you through a variety of breathing practices (so don’t think you have to travel to a monk in the Himalayas to learn these techniques.) There are also plenty of YouTube video tutorials, articles, and other resources available to learn all you could ever want to know about breathwork. (PS: check out our resources below!)
Alternate Nostril Breathing
This practice comes from yoga and is slightly more complicated sounding than other breathing techniques. But once you get the hang of it, it’s sure to become one of your favorites.
Like it sounds, you will be alternating which nostril you are breathing in and out of. To start, you will be covering/plugging the right nostril and breathing in through the left nostril. You will pause momentarily at the top of the inhale, cover/plug the left nostril and breath out of the right nostril. You will then breath in through the right nostril, pause at the top of the inhale, cover the right nostril, and breath out of the left nostril. That is one full round of alternate nostril breathing. Start the next round of breathing by breathing in through the left nostril. Continue with this for up to five minutes. I recommend starting with one minute and building from there over a few weeks.
While yoga has specific ways of positioning your hand for the one covering each nostril. I keep it simple by just using my thumb and index finger.
The benefits of this practice is a balancing of your sympathetic & parasympathetic nervous systems in your body. So you should feel a calming effect while maintaining alertness. For those that have heard about the energetic channels in the body (and what yoga emphasizes with this practice), alternate nostril breathing is good for balancing the energy in your body.
Right Nostril vs Left Nostril Breathing
This is actually two breathing techniques that come from alternate nostril breathing. Depending on what you are looking to achieve, you may select one over the other.
Put simply, you will be breathing solely through one nostril. So you will cover/plug the left nostril and breath in and out through the right nostril and vice versa. So unlike alternate nostril breathing, you will only be breathing through one nostril in this practice. Make sure to keep the pace of breathing slow and steady while also not feeling the need to lengthen the breath out for longer than an 8 count in and 8 count out.
When you breath through the right nostril, you will notice more of an energizing effect. Pay extra attention to how you feel in your body as some people find the effect too much and start to clench in their body or get a headache. This is a great practice for an afternoon pick-me-up when you’re feeling sluggish.
When you breath through the left nostril, you will notice a calming effect. Breathing through this nostril taps right into the “rest and digest” portion of our nervous system.
Longer Exhale Breathing
Such a simple, but oh so profound practice! This is one that you can easily do anytime and anywhere without drawing any attention to yourself.
Just as it sounds, you are going to exhale longer than you inhale. To start, I recommend breathing in for a count of three and exhaling for a count of four. And then repeat. Nothing fancy, but it’s effective. As you continue the practice, you can lengthen in the counts that you do for the inhale and exhale.
This practice is great for calming down when you feel agitated or stressed. I also love it for stopping the negative thought spiral – since I have to focus on the counting of my breath, my thoughts naturally shift to the breath.
This is the breathwork that I mentioned earlier that is taught to Navy Seals. So I figure, if it is good enough for the Navy Seals, it is good enough for me.
You aren’t going to be breathing into a physical box for this one, but you will be breathing in the shape of a box. What I mean by that is – you will inhale, hold at the top of the inhale, exhale, and hold at the bottom of the exhale for the same count for each portion. When starting, use a count of four. So inhale for a count of four, hold for a count of four, exhale for a count of four, and hold for a count of four. That is one round. (Side note: I like to use my finger to trace the shape of a box on my leg as I do this one.) After you’ve been practicing box breathing for awhile and want to try and increase the length of the count, know that studies show that you don’t necessarily get more benefits beyond a count of eight so just bear that in mind.
Like so many breathing practices, this one is great for managing stress and bringing you back to your physical body.
As some final pieces of advice when it comes to starting a breathwork practice:
Learn breathing patterns that already exist rather than making them up on your own. While I don’t think you will hurt yourself if you make up your own breathing, you most likely won’t get the benefits that you seek. (Check out some of our resources below!)
Start low and slow with your practice. Don’t overwhelm yourself by feeling that you need to extend your breathing counts immediately or need to commit 20-30 minutes daily to breathwork. Begin with one minute and work up from there.
Try out as many breathing practices as you can. Like so many things in life, breathwork is not one size fits all so explore a variety of them.
Want to dive deeper?
Check out our episode with Sam Skelly - Episode 32: Breathwork is Like Active Meditation
Join a 6-week breathwork course with Sam Skelly through Pause Breathwork
Check out our episode with Josh Trent - Episode 51: Self-Love is a Practice & a Choice
Take Josh Trent's 21-day breathwork course through Breathe