Breathing. It’s something we all do from the very first moment of our lives up until the very last. In his wonderful book Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, James Nestor states:
In a single breath, more molecules of air will pass through your nose than all the grains of sand on all the world’s beaches—trillions and trillions of them. These little bits of air come from a few feet or several yards away. As they make their way toward you, they’ll twist and spool like the stars in a van Gogh sky, and they’ll keep twisting and spooling and scrolling as they pass into you, traveling at a clip of about five miles per hour.
In every moment of every part of our lives, the breath is there.
But most of us do not breathe properly most of the time.
This is a problem.
Because there actually is a right and a wrong way to get oxygen into your system if you want to perform better, manage stress better, and live longer.
In this article, we will share how most people currently breathe, the health implications of this, and how to improve your breathing with some tried-and-true techniques that are safe, easy to use, and free.
Mouth Breathing Vs. Nose Breathing
There are two ways you can breathe—through your mouth or through your nose.
In his book, Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, James Nestor says:
“Mouthbreathing, it turns out, changes the physical body and transforms airways, all for the worse. Inhaling air through the mouth decreases pressure, which causes the soft tissues in the back of the mouth to become loose and flex inward, creating less space and making breathing more difficult. Mouthbreathing begets more mouthbreathing.”
Consistent or chronic mouth breathing, especially in children, is linked to slower growth, behavioral issues, and dental and facial abnormalities.
There are times when breathing through your mouth is needed (like during physical activity, when you have sinus congestion, etc.); however, mouth breathing can cause sleep disorders, crowded teeth, cavities), gum disease, digestive issues, chronic fatigue, morning headaches, and sore throats.
It seems the nostrils filter, warm, and humidify air in a way that the mouth simply cannot.
How to Breathe Better: Start With the Nose
Proper breathing starts with an inhale through the nose followed by a deep exhale through the mouth.
A growing body of research shows that nose breathing techniques are effective for managing anxiety, insomnia, PTSD, and many other conditions. And nearly every relaxation, calming, or meditation technique relies on nasal breathing as its core strategic imperative.
As far as the optimal amount of time between each breath, Nestor’s research revealed the following:
The most efficient breathing rhythm occurred when both the length of respirations and total breaths per minute were locked in to a spooky symmetry: 5.5-second inhales followed by 5.5-second exhales, which works out almost exactly to 5.5 breaths a minute.
The key to optimum breathing, and all the health, endurance, and longevity benefits that come with it, Nestor says, is to practice fewer inhales and exhales in a smaller volume. To breathe, but to breathe less.
Deep Breathing Exercises, Methods, and Techniques
Similar to how exercise improves your heart function and strengthens your muscles, breathing exercises can make your lungs stronger and more efficient.
A word of caution here though: don’t do any breathing exercises in a swimming pool, before going underwater, beneath the shower, or piloting any vehicle. Always practice these breathing techniques sitting or lying down in a safe environment.
Pursed Lip Breathing
Pursed lip breathing helps you use less energy to breathe. When you are short of breath, it helps you slow the pace of your breathing and can help you feel less short of breath.
To practice pursed lip breathing, simply breathe in through your nose and breathe out at least twice as long through your mouth, with pursed lips.
Try it when you’re doing activities that typically make you short of breath, such as exercising or climbing stairs, or during stressful situations or moments when you’re feeling anxious.
Belly breathing is when you breathe “through your stomach.” To practice belly breathing, start by inflating your belly with a full inhale into your belly and chest, then as you exhale, “empty” your stomach and chest.
Make sure you breathe in through your nose and breathe out through your mouth at least two to three times as long as you inhale, similar to pursed lip breathing.
This type of breathing can also be done while lying down, with one hand on your stomach to feel the breath filling and releasing from your belly.
The 365 Method
Many therapists use the 365 breathing method, which involves breathing at a rhythm of six cycles per minute (five seconds inhaling, five seconds exhaling) for five minutes, at least three times a day.
The Wim Hof Method
Wim Hof, also known as The Iceman, is a Dutch motivational speaker and extreme athlete noted for his ability to withstand low temperatures using the power of deep breathing. He previously held a Guinness World Record for swimming under ice and prolonged full-body contact with ice, and holds a record for a barefoot half marathon on ice and snow.
He created his own breathing technique, which consists of the following steps:
Step 1: Get Comfortable
Step 2: 30-40 Deep Breaths
Step 3: The Hold
Step 4: Recovery Breath
Alternate Nostril Breathing Technique
To practice alternate nostril breathing, breathe in and out slowly through one nostril, holding the other one closed using your finger; then reverse and continue by alternating regularly.
There are many variations you can do as well—for example, inhaling through one nostril and exhaling through the other.
What’s most important, similar to the other techniques, is breathing through the nose.
Cyclic sighing is a breathing technique in which exhalations are pronounced and prolonged.
In a 2023 study, researchers compared cyclic sighing to box breathing and cyclic hyperventilation (when inhalations are longer and exhalations are shorter) and found that cyclic sighing led to the greatest amount of mood improvements, stress reduction, and physiological arousal. Over the course of a month, five minutes of daily breathing using this technique provided similar benefits to mood and anxiety as five minutes of daily mindfulness meditation. The research team stated:
Overall, breathwork practices, particularly cyclic sighing, were more effective than mindful meditation in increasing positive affect, supporting our hypothesis that intentional control over breath with specific breathing patterns produces more benefit to mood than passive attention to one’s breath, as in mindfulness meditation practice.
To practice cyclic sighing, start by inhaling slowly through your nose. Once your lungs are expanded, inhale once more to maximally fill your lungs — even if the second inhale is shorter in duration and smaller in volume than the first, Then, slowly and fully exhale all your breath. Repeat this pattern of breathing for five minutes. Ideally, both inhalations are performed via the nose and the exhalation via the mouth.
Your breath can be a friend or foe. For most people, it’s the latter, because our default way of breathing is simply not healthy.
The missing pillar in health is breath. It all starts there.”
― James Nestor, Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art
It’s a bit puzzling why controlled breathing is not recommended by more healthcare providers and practiced more often.
Considering how often everyone experiences emotional discomfort in their everyday life and its negative and pervasive consequences on health, we could all stand to benefit from paying more attention to the way we breathe, and taking a few minutes out of each day to consciously focus on it.
Breathing is like solar power for relaxation: it’s a way to regulate your emotions that’s free, always accessible, inexhaustible, and easy to use.
Resources / References
Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor
Brief structured respiration practices enhance mood and reduce physiological arousal
Mouth breathing: Mayo Clinic Health System
Mouth breathing: Cleveland Clinic