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Joseph Gibbons
  • Writer's pictureJoseph Gibbons


Unlocking the Benefits of The Breath

If I had to limit my advice on healthier living to just one tip, it would be simply to learn how to breathe correctly. There is no single more powerful—or more simple—daily practice to further your health and wellbeing than breathwork.—Andrew Weil, M.D.

Have you ever wondered why taking deep breaths can be so beneficial when you’re frustrated, angry, or anxious?

From a physiological standpoint, when you take deep breaths (called diaphragmatic breathing) you move your diaphragm up and down a lot more than it would with normal breathing (called tidal breathing).

During the process you are stimulating the Vagus nerve. This is beneficial because when you’re in a negative mindset you have much higher stimulation in your sympathetic nervous system.

As you’re aware, living in this state for too long will deplete your important resources such as adrenaline and cortisol, and over time will contribute to your excessive daily fatigue.

Stimulating your parasympathetic nervous system via your Vagus nerve doesn’t have to be done in a formal meditation or mindfulness session.

Similar to a regular exercise routine, having a regular mindfulness routine is extremely beneficial, however, you don’t need to limit it to just the time you have set aside. When you feel a negative emotion coming you can take a few deep, mindful breaths. This will help to stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system and reduce the amount of sympathetic energy loss you would have accrued.

Below you will find a sample of the many breathing techniques available – each provides a different method of utilizing your breath for the purposes of mental and/or bodily improvement.

Circular Breathing

Circular breathing is thought to help release negative energy or tension that is stored in the body. If you play a wind instrument (saxophone, trombone, flute, etc.) or you’re a professional singer, then you’ve likely heard of circular breathing. This technique helps the artist maintain continuous, uninterrupted tones for long periods of time. Aside from music, the technique can be utilized for meditation. It involves taking deep breaths from your abdomen through your nose.

The breath in and the breath out should be the same length, and there should be no pause between breaths.


  • Lie down on your back, relax, and practice resonant breathing (in for 6 seconds, out for 6 seconds).

  • Once you feel calm and relaxed, change your breathing patterns. Slowly breath in through your nose, allowing the air to expand your lungs and move your abdomen outward, then out through your mouth at the same pace.

  • There should be no gap between the inhale and the exhale, so when your lungs are almost full, begin the exhale.

  • Your breathing will begin to go faster and faster – but you should not be anxious at all – on the contrary, this exercise should feel effortless, and your body should feel calm and relaxed.

  • After about 10 minutes you should feel your consciousness shift. Some people describe the feeling as euphoric – and at this point you may feel unusually receptive to inspiration.

  • After about 20 minutes you should stop and spend a few minutes breathing normally.

  • If you’re looking for insights or answers, as soon as you’re done, write down your thoughts.

Note: this can cause some people to feel light-headed or dizzy. Don’t do it if you’re pregnant or suffer from high blood pressure or heart disease.


Alternative Nostril Breathing (ANB)

Did you know that right now you likely have one nostril that’s more open than the other?

Each nostril corresponds to a different side of your brain. When your left nostril is dominant you have more right cerebral hemisphere activity, and vice versa for the right nostril and left hemisphere. When you’ve had a stuffy nose, you’ve likely noticed the switching from one nostril to the other. Suddenly one of the nostrils opens and you can now breath out of just that one. This doesn’t just happen when we’re congested, it switches between the two nostrils everyday (this is referred to as “alternating dominance of cerebral hemispheric activity”).

Interestingly, the switching from one nostril to the other is partially dependent on the activity you’re involved in. When you’re involved in an activity that causes cerebral dominance in one hemisphere, you would stimulate the cerebral hemisphere associated with that activity. With regards to an activity such as drawing a picture, it would stimulate the right hemisphere and therefore lead to more left nostril dominance.

To understand how the ANB technique can be effective, let’s first look at the “role” of each nostril:

Right Nostril

Left Nostril

Left brain hemisphere

  • associated with logic, math, science, analytics, etc.

Sympathetic nervous system

  • fight or flight mode

Physical activity (running, sports, exercise, etc.)

Increases energy

Activates the mind

Right brain hemisphere

  • associated with creativity, music, dancing, languages, etc.

Parasympathetic nervous system

  • rest and digestion mode

Calming activities

Alternative nostril breathing originated thousands of years ago from pranayama yoga. In Sanskrit it’s called nadi shodhana pranayama – the translation to English is “subtle clearing energy”.

As you have likely surmised by the translation, this technique is utilized to clear negative or unwanted energy from the body.

Yogis believe in the life-giving force, Prana (a cosmic energy) – it is a universal energy that flows throughout the body. In Chinese philosophy, Prana is referred to as Chi.

Your day-to-day lifestyle-related decisions are likely contributing to the improper energy flow you’re experiencing. Excessive stress, a sedentary lifestyle, poor sleeping patterns, an unhealthy diet, substantial toxin exposure, a sluggish lymphatic system, etc. is counterproductive to an ideal/optimal energy flow. There are various techniques and strategies for restoring the healthy and vital flow of energy throughout your body, alternative nostril breathing is one of them.

Utilizing this technique can help your body in a variety of ways. For instance, we’re all aware that excessive stress can take a negative toll on our physical and mental well-being. A 2013 study (Effect of fast and slow pranayama on perceived stress and cardiovascular parameters in young health-care students) by Sharma et al. discovered that the people who practiced ANB (alternatively called Nadishodhana) were able to lower their perceived level of stress. It was also discovered that there was a positive effect on the participants cardiovascular function (lowering heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure).

Additionally, a 2011 study (Effects of a 6-week nadi-shodhana pranayama training on cardio-pulmonary parameters) by Singh et al. determined that a six-week alternative nostril breathing program is “known to significantly reduce stress and anxiety.” The study also found that the participants heart rate was lower, and their vital capacity (which is the maximum volume of air that can be expelled from the lungs after taking a maximum inhalation) was higher. Also (can you believe there’s more it can do?!), it has been shown to improve heart rate variability, balance the autonomic nervous system, and enhance activity of the vagus nerve.

Do I have your buy-in yet?

I’m going to assume that you just emphatically shook your head to indicate “Yes”. So now let’s give it a try:


  1. Sit in a comfortable position with your back straight.

  2. Take the middle and index fingers of one hand and place them between your eyebrows.

  3. Take a deep breath in (through your nose), then block the right nostril with either your thumb or ring finger (depending on which hand you’re using) and breath out your left.

  4. Breath in through your left nostril, then block the left and breath out the right nostril.

  5. Breath in through your right nostril, then out through your left nostril (while blocking your right).

  6. Continue alternating 25 – 30 times.

Alternatively, you can still see the benefits by breathing through one nostril for a sustained period of time (ideally ~5 minutes), then switching to the other nostril for the same amount of time.


Bellows Breath

Bellows Breath (aka Bhastrika) is a breathing technique I utilize every morning as a part of my priming for the day. To perform, you will rapidly inhale and forcefully exhale air from your nose. As you breathe in you should raise both arms straight up (like you’re signaling a touchdown in American football); as you breathe out you should bring both arms rapidly down so that your upper arm is touching your torso and your hands are adjacent to your ears.

Begin with 10 repetitions, followed by a break of 20 – 30 seconds as you notice the sensation in your mind and body.

Then perform two more rounds of breath work, aiming for 20 – 30 repetitions. If you feel light-headed, reduce your repetitions and/or increase the restful time between rounds.

Note: this breathing technique initially causes excitation – but is followed by a sense of calm.


Wim Hof Method

Wim Hof, or as he’s more colloquially known, The Iceman, is famous for developing a method of breathing that lets him control his autonomic nervous system and his immune system.

His method combines the Pranayama breathing technique with Tummo meditation. His claims have been put to the test and have proven that we have at least some amount of control over our autonomic nervous system.

In a 2014 study (Voluntary activation of the sympathetic nervous system and attenuation of the innate immune response in humans) by Kox et al. the researchers injected 24 healthy male volunteers with the same bacterial endotoxin (E coli). They were separated into two groups: Group 1 (control group, n = 12) received no training, and Group 2 (intervention group, n = 12) were trained for 10 days in meditation (third eye meditation), breathing techniques, and exposure to cold. It was determined “that a short-term training program and practicing breathing techniques learned during this training program results in release of epinephrine, induction of early anti-inflammatory IL-10 production, and consequently attenuation of the proinflammatory innate immune response during experimental human endotoxemia.”

In layman’s terms, what happened was that the intervention group had fewer illness-related symptoms as compared to the control group, which confirms that the Wim Hof technique can positively influence the autonomic nervous system and improve the effectiveness of our immune response.

Amazing, isn’t it?!

Knowing that you can modulate your bodily responses through breathwork, meditation, and regular cold-water exposure (more on this in the Hormesis chapter) could mean a healthier future for all who practice his technique.


  1. Sit with your eyes closed in a comfortable position with a straight back.

  2. Breath in slowly while expanding the diaphragm. Exhale as much air out of your lungs as possible – repeat 15 times.

  3. Perform power breathing exercises by breathing in through the nose and then forcibly out through the mouth with short but powerful bursts of air – repeat this 30 times (you’ll likely feel a bit dizzy at this point).

  4. Scan through your body during the power breathing by mentally evaluating which areas of the body need energy and which have an abundance of it. Use your thoughts to send warmth and energy to the areas that need it, then feel the negative energy leave your body.

  5. After the 30 breathing cycles, inhale until your lungs are full and then deflate them as much as possible. Now hold your breath until you need to gasp for air.

  6. Next, perform restorative breathing by taking full breaths (feeling your diaphragm expand) and then relax the abdominal area and hold the air in for 15 seconds while you draw your chin close to your chest. Once again scan your body to identify blockages, then use your mind to direct energy to these areas.

This represents one complete cycle. Perform this 2 – 3 times when first beginning and eventually up to 6 cycles. End with 5 minutes of passive relaxation while you scan your body for blockages.

Note: certain medical conditions (such as asthma, COPD, cardiovascular disease, among others) may be exacerbated with this breathing technique. Consult with your medical doctor before attempting.


Intermittent Hypoxia Training (IHT)

Hypoxia means there is a reduced oxygen supply to the body; it’s the main reason some athletes choose to live at a higher altitude since the lower percentage of oxygen in the air means they have to adapt by creating more red blood cells (which carry the oxygen throughout the body). But you don’t have to live at altitude to experience the hypoxic benefits. You can purchase a hypoxia mask that lowers the oxygen saturation of the airflow, or you can perform a regular IHT routine.


  1. Hold your breath while keeping your face emerged in cold water for as long as you can. Repeat this process 5 times – perform 3 stabilizing breaths between each round.

  2. Hyperventilate your breath and then hold the air for as long as possible – repeat this 5 times

  3. Swim (approximately 25 meters) in cool water while holding your breath. Repeat this interval 10 times.


One-Minute Breathing (Kundalini Yoga)

This type of breathing exercise is thought to develop intuition while exercising the mind. According to Marie Banich and her article Integration of information between the cerebral hemispheres, this breathing technique (as well as the associated meditation) may have hemisphere-integrating effects.


  1. Sit or stand with a straight back and your chest out.

  2. For a few minutes, slowly breath in for 5 seconds and out for 5 seconds.

  3. Inhale slowly for 20 seconds, drawing air in until your lungs are nearly full.

  4. Hold your breath for 20 seconds.

  5. Exhale for 20 seconds, attempting to release the air from the top of the lungs, followed by the middle and lower parts.

  6. Repeat 3 times when you first begin. Gradually increase the number of cycles you do (up to 30 times)

Note: if 20 seconds feel too long, start with less time and gradually build up to 20 seconds.

Joseph Gibbons Discovering Optimal Health


Author, Speaker, Professor, Mental Health First Aid Instructor

Helping individuals & organizations overcome the life obstacles that impede their journey towards optimal physical, mental, and spiritual health.


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