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6 Breathing Exercises to Relax in 10 Minutes or Less

 Over-worked, under-slept, and feeling pressure like whoa?  There are plenty of ways to find calm, that cost nothing!  Turns out all you need is a pair of lungs, your breath, and 10 minutes or less. Here are six expert-approved ways to relax using breathing techniques borrowed from yoga, meditation, and even the therapist’s chair.

The Need-to-Know

Don’t wait until fight-or-flight kicks in before minding the breath. Controlled breathing not only keeps your mind and body functioning at their best, it can also lower blood pressure, promote feelings of calm and relaxation, and help you reduce stress.  While the effects of breathing techniques on anxiety haven’t been studied at length (at least in a controlled clinical setting), many experts encourage using the breath as a means of increasing awareness, mindfulness, or—for the yogis among us—finding that elusive state of Zen.  The following advice and tips and techniques, are modeled from the advice of breathing expert Dr. Alison McConnell, yoga instructor Rebecca Pacheco, and psychologist Dr. Ellen Langer has.  Follow closely:  Easy breathing takes consistency of practice, to then find ease of use.

Action Plan

From the confines of a bed, a desk, or anywhere negativity finds its way, consider these six techniques to help keep calm and carry on.

1. Sama Vritti or “Equal Breathing”

How it’s done:  Balance can do a body good, beginning with the breath.  To start, inhale for a count of four, then exhale for a count of four (all through the nose, which adds a natural resistance to the breath).  Got the basic pranayama down?  More advanced yogis can aim for six to eight counts per breath with the same goal in mind: Calm the nervous system, increase focus, and reduce stress, 

Pacheco says.

When it works best:  Anytime, anyplace—but this is one technique that’s especially effective before bed. “Similar to counting sheep, if you’re having trouble falling asleep, this breath can help take your mind off the racing thoughts, or whatever might be distracting you," Pacheco says.

Level of difficulty: Beginner

2. Abdominal Breathing Technique

How it’s done: With one hand on the chest and the other on the belly, take a deep breath in through the nose, ensuring the diaphragm (not the chest) inflates with enough air to create a stretch in the lungs. The goal: Six to 10 deep, slow breaths per minute for 10 minutes each day to experience immediate reductions to heart rate and blood pressure, McConnell says. Keep at it for six to eight weeks, and those benefits might stick around even longer.

When it works best:  Before an exam or any stressful event.  But keep in mind, “Those who operate in a stressed state all the time might be a little shocked how hard it is to control the breath,” Pacheco says. To help train the breath, consider biofeedback tools such as McConnell’s Breathe Strong app, which can help users pace their breathing wherever they are.

Level of difficulty: Beginner

3. Progressive Relaxation

How it’s done:  To nix tension from head to toe, close the eyes and focus on tensing and relaxing each muscle group for two to three seconds each.  Start with the feet and toes, then move up to the knees, thighs, glutes, chest, arms, hands, neck, jaw, and eyes—all while maintaining deep, slow breaths.  Having trouble staying on track?  Anxiety and panic specialist Dr. Patricia Farrell suggests we breathe in through the nose, hold for a count of five while the muscles tense, then breathe out through the mouth on release.  Type this URL into your web browser to view video:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2MRze-efF4o&feature=youtu.be

When it works best:  At home, at a desk, or even on the road. One word of caution:  Dizziness is never the goal.  If holding the breath ever feels uncomfortable, tone it down to just a few seconds.

Level of difficulty: Beginner

 4. Nadi Shodhana or "Alternate Nostril Breathing"

How it’s done:  A yogi’s best friend, this breath is said to bring calm, balance, and unite the right and left sides of the brain. 

(nah-dee show-DAH-nah)
nadi = channel
shodhana = cleaning, purifying

Step by Step

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Starting in a comfortable meditative pose, hold the right thumb over the right nostril and inhale deeply through the left nostril. At the peak of inhalation, close off the left nostril with the ring finger, then exhale through the right nostril.

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Keep the right nostril open, inhale, then close it, and open and exhale slowly through the left. This is one cycle. 

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Repeat 3 to 5 times, then release the hand mudra and go back to normal breathing. (NOTE: some yoga schools begin this sequence by first closing the left nostril and inhaling through the right; this order is prescribed in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, 2.7-10).


Traditionally Nadi Shodhana includes breath retention, fixed ratio breathing, and the repetition of certain “seed” mantras (cf. Gheranda Samhita 5.38-54). For beginning pranayama students, it’s best to focus only on the inhales and exhales.

When it works best:  Crunch time, or whenever it’s time to focus or energize.  Just don’t try this one before bed:  Nadi shodhana is said to “clear the channels” and make people feel more awake. “It’s almost like a cup of coffee,” Pacheco says.

  •  Lowers heart rate and reduces stress and anxiety
  • Said to synchronize the two hemispheres of the brain
  • Said to purify the subtle energy channels (nadis) of the body so the prana flows more easily during pranayama practice

Level of difficulty: Intermediate

5. Guided Visualization

How it’s done:  Head straight for your happy place, no questions asked.  With a coach, therapist, or helpful recording as your guide, breathe deeply while focusing on pleasant, positive images to replace any negative thoughts.  Psychologist Dr. Ellen Langer explains that while it’s just one means of achieving mindfulness, “Guided visualisation helps puts you in the place you want to be, rather than letting your mind go to the internal dialogue that is stressful.”

When it works best:  Pretty much any place you can safely close your eyes and let go (e.g. not at the wheel of a car).

Level of difficulty: Intermediate.

6. Kapalabhati or "Skull Shining Breath"

How it’s done:  Ready to brighten up your day from the inside out?  

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(kah-pah-lah-BAH-tee) 

kapala = skull

bhati = light (implying perception, knowledge)

Step by Step

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Kapalabhati consists of alternating short, explosive exhales and slightly longer, passive inhales. Exhales are generated by powerful contractions of the lower belly (between the pubis and navel), which push air out of the lungs. Inhales are responses to the release of this contraction, which sucks air back into the lungs.

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Focus on your lower belly. Many beginners aren’t able to isolate and contract this area. If needed, cup one hand lightly in the other and press them gently against your lower belly. 

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Now quickly contract (or pump your fisted hands against) your lower belly, pushing a burst of air out of your lungs. Then quickly release the contraction (or your hands), so the belly “rebounds” to suck air into your lungs. Pace yourself slowly at first. Repeat eight to 10 times at about one exhale-inhale cycle every second or two.

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As you become more adept at contracting/releasing your lower belly, you can increase your pace to about two exhale-inhale cycles every second. Imagine the exhale sweeping out or “brightening” the inner lining of your skull. 

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Do 25 to 30 cycles at first. Gradually increase the number of cycles you do each practice to 100 or more.

When it works best:  When it’s time to wake up or start looking on the bright side.  “It’s pretty abdominal-intensive,” Pacheco says, “but it will warm up the body, shake off stale energy, and wake up the brain.” If alternate nostril breathing is like coffee, consider this a shot of espresso, she says.

Level of difficulty: Advanced

Breathe it in and love it all out!

Tags: breathing, relaxation

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