Which is the right Breathing Exercise for me?

Updated: May 27

A beginner's guide to navigating the world of breathing exercises. You'll get an overview of 10 of the most popular techniques out there and a basic understanding of what they do and how you can pick the ones that are just right for you and your life style.

Woman meditating at beautiful lake
Navigating the world of breathing exercises can be confusing

You might have heard of Wim Hof Breathing, Box Breathing, or maybe even of those exercises with a strange number sequence like 4:7:8, 4:4:8, or even 4:4:6:2. Maybe you've wondered what that all means or maybe more importantly: which one is the right one for me?

And no, there's no magic to it - it's way simpler than you might think or than some marketing people out there would like you to think...

If you've ever been in a yoga class, you've maybe experienced how teachers offer only little in-depth description as to how they affect your body, except that most seem to be relaxing. This article will help shed light on what the different types of exercises do to your body and when and where you should use them (and when not to!). And no, there's no magic to it - it's way simpler than you might think or than some marketing people out there would like you to think...


How we breathe

Before we jump straight into getting to understand the different types of breathing exercises, it'll be useful to know the basics of how you and most of us, breathe daily, yearly and throughout our entire lives.


The average human being breathes, at rest, about 6-8 liters of air per minute. This amounts to no less than 11.000 liters of air per day. The air you inhale has about 20% oxygen in it and when you exhale there's about 15% oxygen still left, which means that you only use around 5% of the total amount of inhaled air. That comes to about 550 liters of oxygen consumed per day. Of course, when you're exercising, you'll consume a lot more than this.


Man breathing
Around 23.000 times per day you inhale and exhale and on average you'll consume around 550 liters of pure oxygen in a day.
Lastly, it's good to know that when you change your breath, you're basically manipulating O2 and CO2 levels in your body and that the latter is the most important one in most cases.

In total, you breathe around 20-30.000 times per day, which translates into a rate of around 14-20 breaths per minute. This is your rate of breathing. According to most text-books, this is simply too fast since a healthy resting breath-rate of an adult on average should be around 12 breaths per minutes. This fast and superficial breathing keeps us stuck in a vicious circle of continuously feeling frazzled, nervous and with too much anxiety in our body and mind. It also turns out that a lot of us are mouth-breathers, which leaves us with less efficient breathing and more vulnerable to getting sick as we bypass the defenses of the nose.

Lastly, it's good to know that when you change your breath, you're basically manipulating O2 and CO2 levels in your body and that the latter is the most important one in most cases.


When you breathe slowly, CO2 levels rise and this will relax your mind and body and open up blood vessels for an increased blood flow to for example your brain. When you breathe rapidly, your CO2 levels will drop and your body will tend to enter fight/flight mode. This is great for waking up and if you need to run away from a tiger, but it's not a good place to linger in for longer periods.


Breathing deeply and calmly using your diaphragm will relax you and ensure that you get the most out of the oxygen that you inhale. Superficial rapid breathing will thus put you in a state of low-grade stress in which you can never really get to relax and you for example could have problems falling asleep.

Fun Fact: Did you know that when you hold your breath and you start to feel that breath-hunger, it's not because you're lacking oxygen? It's because CO2 levels are rising in your lungs and you're starting to surpass your comfort level.

How to pick the right exercises

Please note that this article focuses on breathing exercises as opposed to breath-work therapy like Holotropic Breath-work, Rebirthing etc.

Breath-work like these often include both quite extreme breathing and additional techniques for emotional release. They usually require the practitioner to go through a number of steps and alternate between techniques. An exception to this is that you'll hear about the “Wim Hof Method”, which includes extreme cold exposure and is a systematic practice to a larger extent than a single exercise.

But, first of all, it's important to make something clear: the best method for you... is the one you'll actually do. No matter the exercise you want to use, if you don't actually practice it because it's not really suited to your needs, doesn't fit your schedule or if it's overly long and complicated, it won't do you much good.


Of course, you’ll still want to practice breathing that will support you in your own personal needs. To understand how to do that, we'll first look at how to categorize breathing into three logical categories where we can place the many types of exercises according to the effect on your nervous system and the rest of your body and mind.


Lucas Rockwood from Yogabody.com has done a great work with exactly this and he describes 3 types of breathing categories:

  1. Ice/Whiskey Breathing

  2. Water Breathing

  3. Fire/Coffee Breathing

These are all based on two simple variables: a) the Rate and b) the Ratio between inhalation and exhalation.


Ice / Whiskey breathing

Ice breathing (or Whiskey breathing as Lucas Rockwood calls it) generally describes slow breathing with an extended exhalation that's longer than the inhalation. It's also known as Ice Breathing since it 'cools' us down and gets you ready for sleep or deep relaxation. Rockwood tells us that this type of breathing will be 3 or fewer breaths per minute.


Water breathing

Water Breathing is aptly named after a type of fluid that most of us get too little of and that is good to get all of the time and for anybody. It's a balancing type of breathing that aims to synchronize our mind and body and to neither make us tired or bring us too high up. It's also known as Coherent Breathing since it creates a coherency in our biochemistry, autonomous nervous system, and between heart and lungs. It will be from 5 to 6 breaths per minute.


Fire / Coffee breathing

Fire breathing is controlled hyperventilation where you breathe really fast and even at a rate of 1 breath per second. This will quickly lower your CO2 levels and prepare your mind and body to flee or fight. Great for waking up in the morning or just before exercise since blood will flow to your large muscle groups and your senses become sharpened.


Breathing techniques

Now that you have a basic knowledge of how your breathing works, it's time to move on and take a look at some of the most popular types of breathing exercises out there, how they work and what they actually do to your body.


1. Wim Hof Breathing

Wim Hof sitting on ice doing a breathing exercise
Wim Hof combines cold exposure and a breathing technique inspired by the ancient Tibetan 'Tummo' breathing technique

Category: Fire breathing followed by long breath-holds & cold exposure

Ratio: 1:1 (equal inhale and exhale length), big mouth-breathing for 20-40 rounds followed by long or maximum breath-hold on almost empty lungs and a shorter 'recovery breath hold' to end one round.


Wim Hof can for sure be credited with popularising breath-work with his method that's inspired by an ancient breathing technique called Tummo, which literally means ‘inner fire’. This technique involves both rapid and large breathing and subsequent breath-holds, but also visualization. It has been used by Tibetan mountain monks for centuries and it's said that it will heat up their bodies so much that they can easily spend a night meditating in a cave in sub-zero (Celcius) degrees and have a ring of molten snow around them in the morning. Wim Hof then further combines the Tummo-inspired breathing with cold exposure and calls it the Wim Hof Method.

Wim Hof can for sure be credited with popularising breath-work which his method that's is inspired by an ancient breathing technique called Tummo, which literally means ‘inner fire’.

Wim Hof states that it will boost your immune system, lower stress and generally improve your health. People around Hof also frequently claim that it can cure a number of diseases. A few smaller studies have indicated that the method holds potential, but most evidence is anecdotal and we would advise that you exercise caution when practicing this rather extreme method that will take your body from one extreme (hyperventilation) to the next (long breath-hold).


You should never do hyperventilation exercises when you're for example driving, near water or when diving underwater since it can cause blackout.


Pros: Awakens your body, heightens immune response, feelings of euphoria, heighten the sensation of your body etc.


Cons: Adverse effects can be blackout, nausea, dizziness and there are reports of several other issues. Most of these can most likely be attributed to practitioners pushing it too far, but it's worth mentioning that the technique is not for you if you have a heart or respiratory condition, are pregnant, or in other ways have health complications.

Takes 10-30 minutes to complete practice, which can be too long for many to have high compliance.


2. Box breathing

US Navy Seal
Box Breathing is so powerful that it's endorsed by the US Navy Seals

Also known as Tactical Breathing, Navy Seal Breathing, or Square Breathing


Category: Ice breathing with breath retention

Ratio: 4:4:4:4 (can be longer, but always with an equal ratio on all four parts)


Box breathing is another very popular technique and you can find instructional videos everywhere on the internet. It's a highly relaxing exercise that nudges your nervous system into relax and digest mode. It's a slow way of breathing and the name comes from the four parts of 1) inhale, 2) hold, 3) exhale and 4) hold again after the exhale. By adding a breath-hold after both the inhale and exhale, you're basically prolonging the breath to double length, which will make CO2 levels rise and relax your body as you hold your breath. During a breath-hold, the body cannot get rid of produced CO2, which will build up. This has a strong relaxing and vasodilating effect on your body (expanding blood vessels).

During a breath-hold, the body cannot get rid of produced CO2, which will build up. This has a strong relaxing and vasodilating effect on your body (expanding blood vessels).

The technique is also known as 'Tactical Breathing' or 'Navy Seal Breathing' since it has mainly been popularised by Mark Divine, a former Navy Seal commander. It's taught to soldiers and police officers to help them remain calm before and after highly stressful situations. This is also why it's very popular in treating anxiety and stress or for helping you fall asleep. By slowing down your breath and making it leave a stressed state, the rest of your nervous system will follow suit, which creates a chain reaction that can help to reduce stress and anxiety and clear up your mind.


Pros: Quickly calms down the nervous system


Cons: Beginners can find it hard to do the double breath-hold, especially after the exhale. This will have a counterproductive effect and actually induce more stress as the practitioner experiences breathlessness.


3. Cleansing Breath

Category: Fire, also known as Khapalbhati Breathing (yoga)

Ratio: 1:1


This technique is an important breath exercise in yoga breathing (pranayama) It's sometimes used as a cleansing exercise to clear the airways before using other breathing techniques. Fire breathing involves a rapid and forceful exhalation and then relaxing to let the inhalation happen by itself. The movement is done by contracting the abdominal muscles, which are not usually used for breathing. It sounds and feels a bit like sneezing. This will quickly make your CO2 levels drop and put your system in to fight/flight after a while. The exercise is great for waking up in the morning or just before exercise. Be advised that it can cause blackout if continued for too long.


Pros: Awakens your body and mind, put you in a ready-state, powers up your big muscle groups


Cons: Adverse effects can be dizziness, nausea, tingling in limbs etc. and, in more extreme cases, black-out. Just like with Wim Hof breathing, it's important not to push it too far and for sure never to practice this while driving, diving or in other places where blacking out might not be great. Never use it if you suffer from for example heart disease, high blood pressure or hernia.


4. Bellows Breath

Category: Fire, also known as Bhastrika Breathing (yoga)

Ratio: 1:1


Bhastrika is a type of breathing exercise that is similar to Kapalbhati but still different from it in two fundamental ways. The previous exercise, Kapalbhati, is basically a technique that mimics sneezing and involves using the stomach muscles. Bhastrika, on the other hand, is done through the chest and by engaging the diaphragm.


The exercise is often used to clarify the mind and energize the body and works by inhaling and exhaling forcefully through the nose at an equal ratio of about one second both in and out.


Pros: Even move effective than kapalbhati at awakening your body and mind, putting you in a ready-state and in powering up your big muscle groups


Cons: Same as kapalbhati. Adverse effects can be dizziness, nausea, tingling in limbs etc. and, in more extreme cases, black-out. Just like with Wim Hof breathing, it's important not to push it too far and for sure never to practice this while driving, diving or in other places where blacking out might not be great. Never use it if you suffer from for example heart disease, high blood pressure or hernia.


5. Buteyko Breathing (oxygen advantage)

Category: Ice breathing with breath retention

Ratio: Slow nose breathing followed by maximum breath-hold and general breath training to learn slower and smaller breathing.


The Buteyko Breathing Technique is a form of alternative therapy that proposes the use of breathing exercises as a treatment for asthma and other respiratory conditions. The method of breathing teaches to breathe more gently and slower. Treatments include a series of reduced-breathing exercises following 3 main principles 1) nasal breathing, 2) breath retention, and 3) relaxation. The core of the method is to consciously reduce either breathing rate or breathing volume and to practice long breath retention to heighten CO2 tolerance. The emphasis on treating asthma has drawn in a lot of skepticism though and some teachers use hyperbole and some overly bold statements about what can be cured with this method.


Pros: Will lower general stress level and increase CO2 tolerance.


Cons: There is no general consensus about the effectiveness of the technique with asthma and we advise to be aware of hyperbole and too bold statements about what can be cured with Buteyko breathing.

Long-term practice that will take time and effort.


6. Coherent / balance breathing


Category: Water Breathing / Balance breathing

Ratio: 4:4


This is for sure the most inconspicuous and probably also the most overlooked of all the exercises. You might feel like skipping this section since it might not sound all that interesting or like you'll get much out of it. It won't give you hallucinations and tingly limbs like Wim Hof Breathing can do and it won't put your nervous system into deep, sleepy relaxation like Box Breathing. So what is it actually good for? As it turns out, this is maybe the most potent of all exercises on the list.

When you slow down our breathing rate from the average of 8-12 breaths per minute down to about 5 times per minute, you'll enter a state of balance and calm,

Studies have shown that when you slow down your breathing rate from the average of 8-12 breaths per minute down to about 5 times per minute, you'll enter a state of balance and calm, which will heighten your ability to focus and give you more energy without any of the adverse effects of other exercises. It will basically take you up if you're too far down and bring you back down if you're too high up and have anxiety in your body.

This is also the type of breathing that is usually used in yoga classes together with the so-called Ujjayi breath, where you close off your throat slightly to create a hissing Darth Vader'ish sound and thus a slight vibration in the throat that stimulates the vagus nerve and further relaxes your system. Together you'll have a humble yet powerful tool that you can pull out at any time.


Pros: Relaxing, gives energy and enhances your ability to focus. Can be done by anyone at any time. Unlikely to have any adverse effects. Can be done invisibly to people around you.


Cons: Not strongly relaxing. Otherwise none.


TIP: Try our free audio taster exercise here


7. Alternate Nostril breathing

Woman doing alternate nostril breathing
Alternate nostril breathing involves only breathing through one nostril at a time. This help keep focus on the breathing and adds a level of mindfulness.

Category: Water Breathing / Balance breathing

Ratio: 4:4

This technique involves only breathing through one nostril at a time and it's is also well-known from yoga classes. Like coherent breathing, it's also in the water category, which means that it'll balance your system and enhance your ability to focus.

Where the two methods differ is that here you'll start by inhaling only from the left nostril while you block the right with your thumb. Then you close both and exhale from only the right nostril. You stay on the same side, inhaling from the right and then out again on the left. It requires a bit of practice, but it's easy to learn.


Pros: The active technique with closing the nostrils will put all attention on the exercise and have a further meditative effect. Relaxing, gives energy and enhances your ability to focus. Can be done by anyone at any time. Unlikely to have any adverse effects.

Cons: Not strongly relaxing. Requires more focus and practice to master. Looks rather silly if done in an open office setting or on the bus.


8. "4:7:8" Breathing

Category: Ice breathing with breath retention of the inhale

Ratio: 4:7:8

This method is described by the numbers in its name, which refer to the ratio of 1) the length of the inhale, 2) the length of the breath-hold, and finally 3) the length of the exhale. So you would inhale for 4 counts, hold your breath for 7 counts and exhale for 8 counts. Adding a breath-hold and extending the exhale will raise CO2 levels in your body and further relax you. The long exhale also has a calming effect and will help slow your heart rate and stimulate the parasympathetic (relax/digest) nervous system. When researching the method you'll find that it's hard to find an evidence-based background of why the ratio is exactly these numbers and as you'll see there are several other types of breathing exercises that use just slightly different timings, like in the next example below.


9. "4:4:8" Breathing

Category: Ice breathing with breath retention of the inhale

Ratio: 4:4:8


This technique is pretty much the same as 4:7:8, but simply has a slightly shorter breath-hold in the middle. This would likely translate into a bit less CO2 build-up in your body, but on the other hand, it will probably also be a bit easier for many people that they don't have to hold their breath for that long.


10. "4:4:6:2" Breathing

Category: Ice breathing with breath retention on both inhale and exhale

Ratio: 4:4:6:2


As you can see this method now has four numbers describing the ratio, which simply means that there's an added breath-hold after the exhale also. Since it's a bit harder to hold the breath after an exhale, the method uses a shorter retention time here. The exhale is slightly prolonged, which again helps relax your body.

One could easily say that this is simply a modified type of box breathing, which could then also be called 4:4:4:4 Breathing.


Conclusion


As you've maybe concluded all by yourself, there is no "right" exercise for you. Some are good just when you wake up, others for falling asleep. Some are great if you want to dive deep into breath-work and spend lots of time exploring it and others are better if you don't have much time and might want to use it discreetly at work where you might have other people around you. We hope you have a better overview and that'll it'll help you pick the exercises that work for you. Just take good care of yourself and never push it too far. Remember that learning to improve the way you breathe is simpler than you think and more powerful than you can imagine!


Are you missing an exercise you'd like to understand better? We will be super happy if you let us know in the comments!

I suggest that you try it out yourself. If you have just 2 minutes then put your headphones on right now and do this balancing breathing exercise that's both simple and safe for everybody at any time: 4:4 Balancing Breath If you're still skeptical or just curious to know more, then check out this collection of science and studies on the topics of breathing.

 

Kasper Karup is a certified Breath Coach and yoga teacher and has practiced and taught breathing techniques from yoga and beyond for more than 15 years. Since he found out how powerful these practices are, he's now focused on sharing his passion with the world and on how to apply the techniques in a corporate setting.

320 views0 comments