Somatic breathwork training (also known as pránáyáma) helps people release anxiety by controlling their breath and ultimately regulate their nervous system. Pránáyáma literally means "to expand vital life force" in Sanskrit. Historically, people have practiced breathwork to access high spiritual realizations. Pránáyáma also helps to release emotional energy by stimulating major systems of the human body, including the respiratory system, circulatory system, skeletal system, lymphatic system, immune system, digestive system, endocrine system, and the reproductive system. If you would like to start practicing and teaching Breathwork we are creating a Breathwork Facilitator Certification class soon.
This article presents 20+ breathing exercises that can calm your nervous system or generate heat (tummo). It is important to not force anything and listen to the unique intelligence of your body. Although Somatic Breathwork Training is a powerful way to release conditioning, healing can only be accomplished through sensitivity and patience. Somatic Breathwork training allows you to detach from identification with the reactive mind so that you can be liberated from old emotional patterns and stories. If you are practicing with a facilitator, it is important to have an intelligent and non-judgement relationship.
Before we jump into the somatic breathing exercises it will be helpful to briefly understand the the role of the nervous system in regulating our health. Breathing is an essential source of life energy and one of the few body functions that is controlled both by the somatic (voluntary) nervous system and autonomic (involuntary) nervous system. As a result, breathwork helps us access and release patterns of emotional reactivity that are typically stuck beneath our conscious control. We can study the nervous system scientifically, but it is also important to respect the complex experiential interconnectedness of our physical, emotional, and spiritual health. Breathwork invites us to experience this journey with increased intentionality and awareness so that we may ultimately find and stabilize a sense of peace and unity. You can learn more about how to regulate your nervous system in this article.
Every time we practice pránáyáma we activate either the sympathetic or the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. Because modern lives typically follow rigid energetic patterns, we do not typically access this deep emotional imprinting. Somatic breathwork Training acts as a safe tool to stimulate these dormant micro-traumas and enable the re-integration of new connections in our nervous system. Once we create enough space in the mind and allow the ego-mind so subside, we discover intelligent awareness. This is our natural state, but most people have lots of mental and emotional baggage from social conditioning that cover it. Ultimately, somatic breathwork training helps us penetrate into our innate capacity to heal and integrate the wholeness which has always been inside us. You can learn more about somatic experiencing and trauma release exercises here.
As shown in the graph above, the Parasympathetic nervous system helps the body relax and is often referred to as the "rest and digest mode". It is responsible for slowing our heart and breathing rates, lowering blood pressure, and promoting digestion. You can activate your parasympathetic nervous system through breathwork by creating a slight oxygen deficit and feeling slight air hunger. Contrary to popular belief, breathing more air does not translate to better health. In order to increase oxygen delivery and blood flow to the tissues, the breath needs to slow down so that less air enters the body. After a few minutes of slowing your breathing and feeling air hunger, your body body’s relaxation response will activate through queues such as slightly increased temperature, improved blood circulation, increased mouth watering. Other ways to activate the parasympathetic nervous system include meditation, massage, yoga, moderate exercise, and sleep.
Other breathing exercises presented in this article stimulate your sympathetic nervous system and generate heat. The sympathetic nervous system is often referred to as the fight or flight system and controls our stress response. It is an evolved survival mechanism that helps us detect if there is a perceived threat. These exercises derive from ancient Tummo breathing techniques that combine breathwork and visualization to generate heat. In Tummo breathing you visualize a fire burning from your lower stomach and feel the heat rising in your central channel. The lower belly (more specifically called navel channel wheel beneath the belly button) is emphasized in Buddhist and Dantian practices because it stores our "essence," and helps us ignite the inner fire and purify delusions.
Somatic Breathwork is performed either sitting or lying and can be learned with trained facilitators and in a safe group container. First, the breath is consciously engaged with no pauses or conditions. This allows your body to naturally release physical tension and stress. Then, as you learn to engage the diaphragm and let go, you gain the capacity to release deeper emotional and mental patterns. This creates a state of increased energy which is commonly referred as Activation that helps to uncover, release, and integrate repressed physical, emotional and mental patterns. Conscious breathing induces increased awareness of the body’s physical, energetic, and perceptual systems. Your capacity to consciously breathe reflects your current ability to access and work with suppressed, un-integrated material. The way you exhale during breathwork reflects how your mind holds onto fear-based beliefs showing up as tension in the body. Learning to relax the body during breathwork help to release old energetic patterns.
The Diaphragm is the most important breathing muscle. When we are born we engage the diaphragm naturally, however stress and trauma cause people to adopt unhealthy breathing habits. The breath should always start at the bottom part of the lungs by engaging the diaphragm properly. This will help you avoid unhealthy chest breathing and send a signal to the vagus nerve to rest and digest. While you are practicing Natural Diaphragmatic Breathing you can observe how there are no pauses between the inhale and the exhale. This is called conscious connected breathing and is also a part of your natural breathing.
Diaphragmatic Breathing enables deeper breaths than belly breathing alone because it slightly activates the lower abdominal muscles, which allows the sides and the back of the body to engage and expand. This three-dimensional movement allows the lower lungs to expand in all three directions. Additionally, having a controlled abdomen keeps you awake and allows for increased oxygen capacity. Over time this helps to unlearn bad breathing habits and return to the full, open, and relaxed breath.
Once you learn how to breathe from your diaphragm, you can bring your awareness to the other parts of the torso. Three part breathing (aka Dirga Pranayama) helps you to track the full breath across the three main regions. You can place your hands on your low belly, low chest, and low throat as you practice.
In pursed lip breathing you exhale through the mouth with pursed lips for an extended period of time. This slows your heart rate, relaxes your body, and regulates your fight or flight nervous system. Using an extended exhale to calm the nervous system is a simple and effective practice found in many of these breathing techniques.
Box breathing is a simple and memorable way to slow your breathing and calm your nervous system. It is also known as square breathing because you imagine square to help you time your breaths and remember the technique.
In coherent breathing you only take five breaths per minute. This technique works perfectly with pursed lip breathing to calm your nervous system.
4-7-8 Breathing simply adds a seven second pause after the inhale. Although this technique has gained lots of popularity, be careful that the surplus of air created will slightly wake up your nervous system and give you a head rush. The other timed breathing techniques here are preferred for calming your nervous system. It is said to improve sleep quality.
I invented compound breathing to rapidly shift your nervous system into a state of rest and digest. It progressively increases your capacity to remain without air at the bottom of the exhale. to The exhale hold is emphasized in this technique because it signals the parasympathetic nervous system to relax. I call it compound breathing because the timing follows a doubling pattern. There are four consecutive levels (indicated by each row below) intended to be completed back to back in sequence. Try your best, but be careful with the the final 64 second breath hold. During the final breath hold simply go as long as you can without hurting yourself. It is recommended that you practice this lying down in a safe place in the unlikely scenario that you pass out.
Inhale, Hold, Exhale, Hold with consecutive timings below:
Interrupted breathing (also known as Viloma Pranayama) helps to regulate your nervous system, strengthening your lungs, and increase breath control. It is recommended to start with the simple three-part inhale below and then create your own timings once you have skill.
Breath of fire (Kapalabhati Pranayama) is useful for increasing heat (prana) in the body and is common in kundalini yoga. Breath of fire simply involves rapid exhalations through the nose, and the inhalation occurs naturally.
Wim Hof Breathing uses hyperventilation to create a surplus of oxygen in the body. It is recommended that you practice Wim Hof Breathing for three rounds so that you can progressively increase the retention time of the breath holds. Don't think in time or numbers, think in intensity
Up and down breathing utilizes fast breathing and head movements to generate heat in the body and cause the energy to rise upwards. Unlike to the Wim Hof method, you go transition directly into an inhale hold after breathing. Skipping the exhale hold causes this exercise to activate the sympathetic nervous system and generate more heat. You can optionally include an exhale hold before and after the inhale hold for more parasympathetic nervous system activation and to decrease the linkelihood of passing out.
Bellow breath, also known as Bhastrika Pranayama is a great exercise for increasing life force (prana) and waking you up. The arm movements in this exercise force air to move in and out of the body. Focus on the rapid expansion and contraction of the belly. Try to inhale at a rate of one second per cycle
Nose breathing is optimal for health and maintaining good energy flow. You can learn how to These two alternate nostril breathing methods (Nadi Shodhana) will help you balance and clear your energetic channels.
Single nostril breathing is good for isolating the masculine and feminine energies. Left nostril breathing (Chandra Bhedana Pranayama) is associated with the feminine energy, and right nostril breathing (Chandra Bedha Pranayama) is associated with masculine energy. The left side has a cooling effect on the body and the right side has a warming effect on the body. To practice single nostril breathing, inhale through the intended side, and exhale through the other.
Left nostril breathing (Chandra Bhedana Pranayama) - Feminine
Right nostril breathing (Chandra Bedha Pranayama) - Masculine
Having clear nasal passages is important for performing all of these technique and maintaining good overall health and energy. Over breathing and mouth breathing cause the carbon dioxide levels in our bloodstream decrease and mucous secretion and constriction in the airways increases. These exercises temporarily increase the carbon dioxide levels in the blood to open the nasal passages.
You can learn more about Somatic Experiencing and Trauma Release Exercises Here
Holotropic breathwork is based on the fundamental principal that we have all the answers inside of us. It uses an extended duration of conscious deep breathing to allow the ego mind to die down so that you can access your inner wisdom. Holotropic breathwork is typically done for three hours at a time with a trained facilitator. You can also practice this breathing for shorter one hour or 30 minute sessions, which is called neurodynamic breathwork. Holotropic breathwork is sometimes called Shamanic breathwork when done in a ceremonial container.
Lion's breath is a quick and expressive way to release stress energy, clear your throat, eliminate toxins, and get the funk out of your system. It's a useful tool to combo at the beginning of other techniques.
Ocean Breath is simply nose breathing with a gentle constriction of the throat. This creates some heat in the body and gives you increased control over the nervous system. As breath with a constricted your throat, you can hear a gentle hissing sound like ocean waves or Darth Vader.
Once you have mastered these breathing techniques, you can add visualization to your breathing practice for increased power in shaping your mind. There is no hard-set rules to visualization, however it can be helpful to follow practices from ancient wisdom. I suggest following pure visualization instructions that cause your mind to become peaceful and virtuous because this is a precious opportunity to purify your mind. Here are key practices in Buddhism that you can incorporate as visualizations in your breathwork practice.
Breathwork is one of the best methods for regulating your nervous system, releasing trauma, and finding inner peace. Most breathing exercises fall under the category of calming exercises or heat-generating exercises and help us access the intelligence and wisdom to heal within ourselves. If you would like to start practicing and teaching Breathwork we are creating a Breathwork Facilitator Certification class soon. Make sure to sign up for more information.
The purpose of Tummo Breathing is to purify the mind and gain realizations for meditation. Tummo means "Inner Fire" because the practice involves visualizing an inner at the central channel.
The best way to stop mouth breathing is to increase awareness and practice breathwork. The correct way to breathe is through your nose with the tongue resting on the roof of the mouth.