6 Breathing Exercises to Reduce Stress and Anxiety

Writer Pearl Yan | June 24, 2020

With everything that’s happening around us, finding that moment of calm can seem so far-fetched at times. If you find your breath shallow and short and your mind racing: you’re not alone. 

Fortunately, the most powerful tool for us to regain our sense of peace already exists within us. Breathing, something that we do every day without thinking, can actually help reduce stress, anxiety and create mindfulness—when it’s done correctly. 

Here, Hong Kong breathwork coach Brian Lai, who has been trained by Wim Hof (aka The Iceman”) and modern day breathwork masters, shares with us the benefits of conscious breathing, the basics of breathwork and breathing exercises that we can do by ourselves, whenever and wherever we like it.

  • What are some of the most common mistakes people make when it comes to breathing?
    80-90% of the population are breathing sub-optimally. Most are breathing in a way that is highly inefficient and strains the body and the heart unnecessarily, as well as breathing in a way that is most likely causing more stress and anxiety than it should be.

Many people in Hong Kong are used to breathing into the upper body (clavicular breathing) instead of how the body was designed to breathe, which was into the lower lobes of the lungs engaging the diaphragm muscle (diaphragmatic breathing).

Another common mistake is breathing through the mouth instead of using the nose. Noses are for breathing; mouths are for eating and talking. Nasal breathing allows us to access our parasympathetic state (our calming branch of the nervous system), it cleans and filters the air whereas the mouth has no filter thus quality of air is huge.

Nasal breathing also brings in an important gas into our system called Nitric Oxide (NO2), this doesn’t happen when we mouth breathe. NO2 helps lower blood pressure and significantly increases the lungs’ oxygen-absorbing capacity as well as having antibacterial and antifungal properties. In fact, NO2 has been shown to positively impact Covid-19.

People also tend to over breathe—the average person takes approximately 20 breaths per minute, we should be aiming to breathe 6 times per minute. This is known as the therapeutic zone of breathing i.e. breathing just enough to meet the body’s metabolic needs.

In times of stress, anxiety and fear, people tend to hold their breath a lot without being conscious of it, which makes the situation worse.

How does breathing help us calm our mind in stressful times (like during the pandemic)?
Breathing is one of the fastest and most powerful entry points we have into our nervous system. Our nervous system is split into two branches: the stress/alert side (sympathetic) and our calm/relaxed side (parasympathetic). 

By breathing to a certain cadence or pattern such as Box Breathing or Triangle Breathing will send calming signals to our system, shifting our internal state from sympathetic dominant to parasympathetic dominant and bringing the practitioner to a calmer state in a very short amount of time. Breathing is quite literally the remote control to your nervous system.

  1. When’s the best time for breathing exercises? And where?

Depends on what breathing exercise is being practiced—some are stimulating exercises that will bring energy and clarity while some exercises are for relaxing or sleeping.

One rule is to not practice breathwork on a full stomach. Best to not have anything heavy to eat 2 hours beforehand. Anyone can practice on a yoga mat, couch, bed, cushion. Basically, anywhere comfortable that doesn’t restrict your breathing mechanics.

  1. Do we need to know how to meditate to do breathing exercises?
    No. Breathwork is a dynamic form of meditation. It has similar benefits as meditation but much more.

How much time does one need for breathing exercises?Anywhere from 1 minute to 2 hours. A breathwork practice could go from simply being aware of your breathing patterns to a full-on rebirthing/transformational/holotropic breathwork session.

  • Can you share 3-5 breathing exercises (step by step) that would help relieve stress and anxiety?
  • 1. Everyday breathing: Calm nasal breathing from the diaphragm. Belly expands on inhale and falls with the exhale.
  • 2. Energy: 3 short powerful inhales through the nose and 1 big exhale through the mouth. “Sniff, Sniff, Sniff, Wooooosh”. Start with 4 reps and increase over time.
  • 3. Calming 1 (Triangle Breathing): 3 seconds inhale, 3 seconds hold, 3 seconds exhale. Start with the 3-second ratios, once this becomes easy, increase it.
  • 4. Calming 2 (Box breathing): 4 seconds inhale, 4 seconds hold, 4 seconds exhale, 4 seconds hold. Start with the 4-second ratios, once this becomes easy, increase it.
  • 5. Calming 3: Inhale deeply into the belly once, then take another inhale filling the chest up. Exhale slowly through the mouth (i.e. 5 seconds or more).
  • 6. Sleep (4-7-8 Breathing): 4 seconds nasal inhale (close your mouth, tip of tongue touches back of front two teeth where it meets the gums), 7 second breath hold, 8 seconds mouth exhale.
  1. Catch Brian in these upcoming workshops:
  2. Wim Hof Method Experience
    When: July 11, July 25 & August 15
    Where: TheDESK, Sheung Wan
    When: August 5
    Where: The Hive
    Breathwork Masterclass (Explore the Transformative Benefits of Conscious Breathing)
    When: July 26 & August 23
    Where: Fivelements Habitat

Regular classes:
Ikigai: Every Thursday at 1:15pm
Fivelements Habitat: Every Thursday at 6pm and Sunday at 5:30pm
Enhale Meditation Studio: Monday at 7:30pm
Privates and 1-1 at Balance Health in Central available by appointment.

For updated schedule, follow Brian at @primalbreathwork or visit primalbw.com