A beginner’s guide to breathwork practices

A beginner's guide to breathwork practices that can change your mindset and even affect your health

If you’ve been following the advice of any meditation apps, self-help gurus, trending Instagram topics or inspirational tote bags over the last couple of years, you probably already know that #JustBreathe is actually a pretty solid rule for life – focusing on your breathing, on the most basic level, can calm you down and help you concentrate, among a host of other helpful effects. But can breathing do more than that?

That’s the question behind breathwork practices, which promise to do everything from helping you do more press-ups to altering your consciousness entirely. But where you do you start? Read this beginner’s guide to breathwork practices to find out.

4-7-8 breathing

If you only learn one bit of breathwork, it should be one that helps you calm down in stressful situations or even go to sleep – the biggest leverage for your lungful, if you like. There are several options, but 4-7-8 breathing, based on the yogic practise of pranayama, is one of the most powerful.

You’ll be breathing through your nose, so put the tip of your tongue against the ridge behind your teeth and keep it there throughout. Inhale for a four-count, hold the breath for seven seconds, and exhale for eight, then repeat half a dozen times. While you’re learning, you’ll want to sit up with your back straight, but once you get the hang of this, you can combine it with gentle yoga for a mind-body tonic that’s tough to beat. 

Resonant breathing

Studies have found this form of breathwork can both reduce the symptoms of depression (when combined with yoga) and help your cardiovascular regulation. Further research is required, but it might even lower your blood pressure.

The aim is to reduce the amount of breaths you take per minute from the typical 15-20 to an ultra-minimal five. To do it, inhale for five seconds and exhale for five, pause briefly and then repeat. You can experiment with shorter inhales and longer exhales – but aim for roughly the same breaths per minute. 

So, those are entry-level practices (box breathing is also an easy practice to try). The rest of these breathwork practices are a little more physically demanding so if you’ve got a history of heart problems or high blood pressure, chat to a medical professional before trying them.

The CO2 tolerance test

Okay, this one isn’t pleasant: it’s designed as a test of your ability to deal with stress and anxiety, developed by endurance coach Brian MacKenzie and a favourite among MMA fighters. Try it seated in a comfortable position. 

  1. Take four full breaths, one every 5-10 seconds. Aim for a 3-5 second inhale, followed by a relaxed 5-10 second exhale, and a short pause before starting again. 

  2. As you finish your fourth inhale, start a timer and let it out as slowly as possible.  

  3. Stop the timer when you need to inhale – anything over a minute is good. 

Wim Hof breathing

If you’ve heard of Wim ‘Iceman’ Hof, it might be because of his minimalist climbing exploits –  in 2007, he climbed to an altitude of 7,200 metres on Mount Everest wearing nothing but shorts and shoes. It wasn’t just showing off, though – he did it to prove a point about the effectiveness of breath control, which he says he can use in conjunction with meditation to gain better control over his body’s functions.

You’re probably not interested in going that far, but plenty of people use his basic ‘power breathing’ method to quickly get into a meditative state. Here’s the simple version:

1. Lie on the floor, or in bed, preferably on an empty stomach. You can also sit, but definitely don’t try this standing up. 

2. Take 30-40 lung-filling ‘power breaths’ – the inhales should be fairly forceful and you should feel your belly rise as you do them. The exhale should be relaxed. 

3. After your last power breath, empty your lungs of air and hold your breath until you feel the urge to breath again. Now take a recovery breath - half-fill your lungs and hold for 10 seconds. 

4. Repeat this for another 2-3 rounds. After your last round, stay in the same position for a few minutes and breathe naturally, concentrating on how each breath feels.

Power press-ups

This is an optional add-on for the Wim Hof breathing method, detailed by Scott Carney in his book The Wedge. Instead of meditation after your final set of power breaths, hold your breath while you roll over and immediately crank out a set of press-ups. In theory, because you’ve been flooding your lungs with oxygen (and expelling carbon dioxide), you’ll be able to do more than normal.

Holotropic breathing

Now we’re getting a bit more experimental. Holotropic breathing hasn’t been heavily researched, but one 2015 study suggests that it can improve self-awareness, and practitioners claim it gives them a more positive outlook on life.

Most workshops recommend doing it with a partner: essentially, you lie somewhere comfortable and take deeper and deeper breaths, then start to inhale and exhale faster and faster, until you reach an altered state. Sessions can last for hours, and it helps to have someone steering you in the right direction. Be warned: some practitioners describe hallucinatory and even out of body states!