How Breathwork Can Help You Manage Stress

Feeling on edge? Us too. If we’ve learned anything this past year, it’s that carving time for your mental and emotional health matters — and that neglecting to do so creates a domino effect when it comes to your well-being. But tapping into how you feel and deal with different emotions, whether it’s anxiousness, grief, or everyday life stresses, is challenging for most, if not all of us, which is where the practice of controlled breathing, or breathwork comes in.  “Breathing! We take our breath for granted,” says Maryam Ajayi, the founder of Dive In Well and a breathwork coach. “It is such a powerful and free resource. It’s a privilege to breathe right now.” 

So, what is it?

Breathwork is known as an active form of meditation and offers its practitioners the tools to process, feel, and work through deep, underlying emotions. It’s no surprise too that for this reason, breathwork is the foundation of wellness practices of yoga and meditation.

Any breathing techniques and exercises in which you are aware of your inhales and exhales is considered breathwork. The work empowers the practitioner to release tensions and connect with one’s body to open up to more creativity, joy, and peace — in fact, it changes one’s relationship with the nervous system.

"Exploring the practice of breathwork can help ease stress and 'clear the fog.'"

In breathwork, you learn to listen to your body, which helps restore a nervous system that might be overworked and stressed out. And the best part is, learning to tap into your body’s intuition has implications that go far beyond breathwork: the ability to listen to yourself ultimately impacts how you show up in other facets of your life, from relationships to the workplace. It’s a tool you can tap in the morning to get centered, midday to fend off that “afternoon slump” or at night to wind down before bed.

Exploring the practice of breathwork can help ease stress and “clear the fog,” explains Susan Ateh, a breathwork guide based in LA. 

Many who practice breathwork feel like the breath gets deep into the body and removes dark energy, almost like a detox for the body. There will be uncomfortable moments, but the overall practice can result in a powerful reawakening to oneself. 

How to get started.

Find a comfortable spot where you will not be disturbed. Select music to help with the rhythmic breathing. No one genre of music is better than another, it’s all about what helps you breathe and relax.   

Most coaches recommend engaging in active breathing exercises for 30 to 45 minutes with a 10- to 20-minute rest at the end to unpack what you’ve experienced during the breathing period. The meditative state at the end often brings clarity and feels grounding.

Research shows people who breathe into their stomachs are less stressed than people who breathe into their chest. Ajayi offers a simple ritual you can do to check in with your breath. “See where you are holding it in your body, she explains. “If it’s in your chest, start breathing into your stomach for three to four deep, long breaths. I promise you will see a shift.”

GIF - Breathwork Technique

A breathwork technique for reducing stress.

Ateh, who discovered a personal connection to breathwork, and ultimately healing, after decades of unprocessed experience, recommends using a Pranayama two-to-one (inhale, inhale, exhale) breathing exercise. It goes like this:

  • Take a comfortable seat or lie down.

  • Breathe in and out through the nose for a few cycles to settle in.

  • Inhale into the belly, inhale into the heart, exhale. 

  • Repeat for 30-45 minutes. 

  • Then, bring your awareness to your body and notice how you feel after your practice.

All breathing is through the mouth and it’s done as a repetitive breath cycle (usually for 30 to 45 min.). The elongated breath allows the body to relax, making it easier to reach deep emotions within the body. 

According to breathwork coach Eliza Kane, controlled breathing exercises are most successful when practiced consistently. “It’s better to practice breathwork 10 minutes a day, rather than 30 minutes once a month,” she says.

"[Breathwork is] using the breath to get to know yourself."

Don’t rush it.

Kane likes to remind her clients that breathwork is an on-going practice. It can take time to find the right music to breathe with or learn how long to actively breathe before reflecting and truly feeling the work your breath has done. 

There are many breathwork practitioners available to provide on-going virtual support. This list isn’t meant to be exhaustive but reflects a few all-stars who have come highly recommended to Feals: Susan AtehMaryam Ajayi, who is offering a monthly membership program, Eliza Kane, Jasmine Marie of Black Girls Breathing, and Ashley Neese, the author of How to Breathe.

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