Heard the term “breathwork” lately?
You’re not alone.
The practice of focusing on your breathing as a way to calm the body and mind is seemingly everywhere, from yoga studios to Goop to wellness influencers’ Instagrams. The idea is that performing a series of breathing exercises can lead to emotional and physical shifts—namely, letting go of stress. Most practitioners advise making it a regular part of your day or week, as you would a meditation practice or yoga class.
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But if you’re anything like me, the last thing you want is more things on your to-do list. Which is why I’d like to humbly suggest an alternative: a “breath break.”
Consider it a time-out to focus on getting air into your body, and then back out. Taking a breath break can help when you’re feeling stressed, exhausted, or just need to hit the reset button.
While a designated breathwork practice can have lasting benefits, taking a few moments to breathe can act as a sort of spot treatment.
“Even just a short session of mindful breathing can work wonders,” yoga and mindfulness teacher Claire Grieve tells Shine.
The deep, methodical breathing works by stimulating the vagus nerve, which in turn triggers a calming response in the body. “Slowing your breath can lower your heart rate, release tension, and calm your nervous system, relieving symptoms of stress and anxiety,” she explains. “It can also help take the focus (away) from thoughts that may be causing you tension, (and moving it) to your breath.”
If you’re at work, try ducking into a break room or pulling your door shut. On a date? Head to the bathroom for a minute or two. If you’re solo, put your phone down and give yourself a few moments to focus. Then, try one of Grieve’s favorite ways to take a breath break.
Here are three breath exercises to kick things off:
Count Your Breaths
Breathing in and out for a certain amount of time gives you control over the process, taking your attention away from racing thoughts and back to your physical body. Plus, like counting sheep to fall asleep, the simple arithmetic can soothe your stressed-out brain.
“I’ve used this exercise while stopped in traffic on the 405, in the bathroom while on a date, and on a sardine-packed subway in New York City,” Grieve says.
Here’s how to do the exercise:
- Pause and breathe in slowly and deeply while counting to 6.
- Hold your breath for 2 counts.
- Slowly exhale, counting to 8.
- Repeat this sequence for at least 3 repetitions and for up to 3 minutes.
Focusing on your breath can help keep you alert, too: taking meaningful breaths helps bring more oxygen into your body, which helps you sharpen your focus and think a little clearer.
When an afternoon slump hits or you’re feeling a little frazzled, try this alternate-nostril technique.
- Breathe in and out for a few breaths, filling your lungs and fully emptying them.
- Place your right thumb over your right nostril. Breathe in for 4 counts.
- Release your right nostril and place your right pointer finger over the left nostril. Breathe out for 4 counts, then in for 4 counts.
- Release your left nostril and place your thumb back over your right nostril, breathing out for 4 counts and back in for 4.
- Repeat for at least one minute, or until energized.
Scan Your Body
Stressing out on a date? Overwhelmed by a work task? Head to the bathroom and take stock of how you’re physically feeling with this body scan.
- Close your eyes and focus in on your breath.
- Notice how your body feels, are you tense? sore? exhausted?
- As you inhale, breathe into places of discomfort.
- As you exhale envision your body releasing any tension or exhaustion.
- Continue this exercise for 1-3 minutes.
You may notice that you’ve been clenching your fists, or bringing your shoulders toward your ears—natural moves your body makes to defend itself, which can often mirror or trigger emotional reactions.
You can use the info you learned from your scan to help you feel better: If you picked up on some chest tension, try stretching your arms above your head. Jaw clenched? Give your head a good shake and massage your temples.
Then, give yourself a smile in the mirror and get back out there.
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