Using breathing exercises in order to achieve personal healing or visionary states is often referred to generally as breath work.
And it can be the perfect aid to your meditation practice.
We have put together these 7 breathing exercises, from sources both ancient and modern, which you can learn to do at home. Some are easy and gentle – others are extremely powerful. Try them all and see what works best for you!
1. Alternate Nostril Breathing
While sitting in meditation, raise your dominant hand up in front of your face, and rest the other hand on your knee. Place your thumb against the side of your nose; gently, but firm enough to block the airflow on that side.
Then breathe in through the open nostril. Now remove your thumb, and use your forefinger to close off the opposite side. Exhale, then breathe in again.
Remove your finger, and block the thumb side again. And exhale. The idea is to breathe in one side of your nose, and breathe out the other, and keep alternating.
Your breathing should be easy and natural, not forced. This practice is very effective at calming the mind, doing away with random thoughts, and bringing your attention fully into the present. It is an excellent way to begin your meditation session, or a perfect way to warm up and prepare for another, more demanding, breathing exercise.
2. Breath Observation
This method is perhaps the simplest of all – deceptively simple. To practice, all you do is observe the breath without altering it in any way. Close your eyes and focus all your awareness on your nose.
Breathe in and out naturally, through your nostrils, and feel each inhalation and exhalation as it passes in or out. Don’t count your breaths, don’t hold your breath, don’t try to breathe any slower, or faster, or deeper than normal. Just watch.
That of course, is the challenge. The mind will wander this way and that, and you will constantly catch your attention straying from the breath. But the more you practice, the steadier your focus, and the easier it becomes.
If you stay with it long enough, eventually all your thoughts will fall away, and you will experience the profound silence and stillness of pure consciousness – your true nature
3. Ocean Breath
This is another easy, gentle exercise, inspired by a yogic breathing technique. To practice, take long, slow, deep breaths through your nose. With each inhalation, fill your lungs to capacity, expanding your belly and diaphragm to take in as much air as possible.
Then slowly exhale, gently contracting the muscles in your abdomen to remove every last bit of air. When done correctly, each breath should make a sighing or hissing noise, like ocean waves rolling and crashing into the shore, and then receding.
You can even visualize this in your mind, if you like. Or simply focus on your breathing. This exercise quickly creates a state of deep relaxation. If practiced for a greater length of time, your sense of self can fall away completely, as you feel the prana, the cosmic energy of the universe flowing through you, ebbing and flowing like the tide… and realize that you are one with it.
4. Relaxing Breath
This practice, developed by Dr. Andrew Weil, is also called “4-7-8 Breath.” You’ll see why in a moment. He calls it “a natural tranquilizer for the nervous system,” and an effective way to deal with all sorts of stress, anxiety and tension. It even helps you fall asleep! It’s easy to practice.
Start by placing the tip of your tongue against the roof of your mouth, just behind your front teeth. Now inhale quietly through your nose, while silently counting to four; hold your breath to count of 7; then exhale noisily through the mouth to a count of 8.How fast or slowly you count isn’t as important as how steady you count.
It’s the ratio of 4:7:8 that’s important. When you first start, you might wish to count somewhat quickly. As you become more comfortable, you can count more slowly, taking fuller breaths and holding them longer.
5. Cleansing Breath
Close your eyes, and take a deep breath in through your nose. As with the Ocean Breath method, you want to fill your lungs to capacity, expanding your chest and belly. But this time, as you breathe in, visualize the air you breathe as a pure, white, life-giving energy.
See it filling you up, from head to toe. Feel it flowing through your body, bringing new life and energy to every cell. When you’ve taken in all the air you can, hold your breath for as long as it’s comfortable – anywhere from 3 to 10 seconds should do it (or longer, if you’re a professional swimmer, or a pearl diver, or something).
During that time, imagine that this pure white light is healing and cleansing your mind and body. Wherever there is any pain or tension, any blockage, any illness or imbalance, any fear or negativity, feel it cleansed and purified by your breath, by the pure prana energy.
Now exhale slowly through your mouth, and visualize it as a dark cloud of toxins and painful emotions. All your stress, anger, frustration and sadness, everything you want to release and let go of, it all comes spilling out with every exhalation. See it. Feel it. Make it real.
Repeat this process as long as necessary, until you see yourself healthy and radiant and filled with pure love. This exercise can leave you feeling tremendously rejuvenated, peaceful and happy and light as a feather.
6. Fire Breath
This powerful technique is inspired by different yogic breathing practices from both the Hatha and Kundalini yoga traditions. It’s easy enough to begin.
Breathe in and out through the nose, quickly and forcefully. Allow no pause between breaths, but rather a fast, steady, unbroken rhythm. When done properly, you should feel the muscles of your diaphragm working quickly in and out, like a bellows.
It sounds simple, but it can be very challenging to maintain this technique for any length of time. Your diaphragm my start aching, you may feel short of breath, you might just feel silly or bored and want to quit. That’s okay. Listen to your body, and don’t push yourself too much, too fast. Working with this technique for even a short time will leave you feeling alert, energized, and ready for anything.
But with time and discipline, you can learn to break through that resistance, and ride the Fire Breath into powerful altered states of consciousness, where healing, and rebirth, and mystical union with the Divine, and all that good stuff happens.
7. Shamanic Breathing
Inspired by various modern methods of breath work, this technique is easier to do than the Fire Breath, but just as powerful- especially when accompanied by shamanic drumming, or other high-tempo, rhythmic, trance-inducing music.
Find a safe and comfortable place, preferably an inner room where you can turn off the lights and enjoy deep darkness. Cue the music, lie down, and close your eyes. Breathe in and out through both your nose and mouth, to maximize air intake. Breathe deeper and faster than you normally would.
Exactly how fast is up to you. But the faster your breath, the quicker you will start to feel the effects. What effects, you ask? Well, tingling for starters. Then perhaps some mild trembling or muscle contractions. You might also feel a sudden, powerful and unexplainable surge of emotion – anger, sadness, pain, etc. – that can be overwhelming. Or you might start to tune out, get bored and sleepy.
All of these are different forms of resistance. Resistance to going deeper into the psyche, and facing buried memories. Resistance to letting go of the ego, letting go of control, and surrendering to something bigger, something beyond. This resistance can be so intense that many people need a trained coach to guide them through it. But once you break through, you enter a whole new world, of infinite possibilities.
I can’t tell you exactly what you’ll experience, or even whether it will be pleasant and enjoyable, or painful and frightening. But I can tell you this: It will be exactly what you need for your healing, personal growth and spiritual awakening. Because your soul knows – and it won’t let you down.