Breathing Exercises to Reduce Stress

Breathing is our fundamental life force. It is what keeps us alive and is vitally important to our wellbeing and general health.

Breathing is an automatic function of the body that is controlled by the respiratory centre of the brain. Even though it is automatic we can learn to use the breath to calm our nervous system and bring balance and equilibrium to the brain.

Our breath reflects our internal state. When we feel stressed, our breathing rate and pattern changes as part of the ‘fight-or-flight response’. When we’re relaxed, we breathe through our nose in a slow, even and gentle way. Thereby deliberately copying a relaxed breathing pattern we are able to calm the nervous system that controls the body’s involuntary functions, reducing stress and anxiety.

Research identifies that controlled breathing can cause physiological changes that include:

  • lowered blood pressure and heart rate

  • reduced levels of stress hormones in the blood

  • reduced lactic acid build-up in muscle tissue

  • balanced levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood

  • improved immune system functioning

  • increased physical energy

  • increased feelings of calm and wellbeing.

As a result, focused and controlled breathing has a powerful effect on stress, helps fight depression, improves sleep and overall wellbeing, supports immune function and supports rapid recovery from illness.

“If you stay calm and breathe peacefully and easily through challenge, the layer of resistance, the armour separating us from the present, separating us from others, dissolves. Then we feel more alive, more connected. Richer.” Tamara Graham


All breathing exercises can be done in any comfortable position in which you maintain the neutral curves of the spine and your abdomen is not compressed. Some options include:

  • An upright seated position, such as Easy Pose (Sukhasana)

  • A seated position on a chair with your feet flat on the floor.

  • Lying down fully extended in Corpse Pose, or in modified or Supported Corpse Pose with your knees bent or with a bolster under your knees.


Three Part Breathing


  1. Close your eyes. Relax your face and body, and breathe naturally through your nose.

  2. Place your left hand on your low abdomen, a few inches below your belly button, and place your right hand on the outer right edge of your rib cage.

  3. Begin to focus your awareness on your breath as it moves in and out of your body through your nose.

  4. On your inhalations, feel the natural lift of your belly, followed by the expansion of your ribs.

  5. On your exhalations, feel the slight compression of your ribs, followed by the drop of your belly. Exhale completely, pressing very gently on your abdomen to help expel air.

  6. Next, bring your left hand to your chest, placing it in the center, just below your collarbone.

  7. As you inhale, breathe all the way into this area and allow your chest to rise slightly. Then, exhale completely.

  8. As you continue to breathe, keep your awareness on this three-part movement. As you inhale, your belly lifts, your ribs expand, and your chest rises. As you exhale, your chest drops, your ribs contract, and your belly softens and lowers.

  9. Continue at your own pace, gradually letting the three parts of the breath flow smoothly without pausing.

  10. Release your arms and focus your mind on your breath, continuing the three-part breath with full and complete inhalations and exhalations.

  11. Continue for up to five minutes, or for as long as you feel comfortable.


Three Part Breathing calms the mind and soothes the muscles. This slow, smooth process enhances relaxation and is fantastic for insomnia, anxiety and stress.

By cultivating a regular breathing practice, your body and mind become more conscious of the present moment. Once you are very comfortable with this practice, you can slowly begin to modify it.


2. Box Breathing


  1. Close your eyes. Breathe in through your nose, slowly counting to 4. Feel the air filling your lungs.

  2. Hold your breath here and slowly count to 4 again. Try not to clamp your airways shut. Simply avoid inhaling or exhaling for 4 counts.

  3. Slowly exhale to the count of 4.

  4. Hold the exhale for another 4 counts.

  5. Repeat steps 1–4 for 4 minutes or until you feel calm and centered.


Box breathing, also known as Sama Vritti Pranayama, can reduce stress, anxiety and improve your mood.




  1. Begin by placing your right middle and pointer fingers in the palm of your hand leaving just your pinkie and ring fingers and your thumb free.

  2. Take your right thumb over your right nostril and inhale through the left nostril.

  3. Place your ring finger over your left nostril and exhale through the right nostril.

  4. Leave your hand as it is and inhale through the left nostril

  5. Place your thumb over your right nostril and exhale through the left nostril

  6. Repeat this up to 6 times. Your breath should start to soften and your awareness turn inwards.


Alternate nostril breathing, otherwise known as Nadi Shodhana Pranayama, is soothing and calming. It’s said to balance the hemispheres of the brain and bring balance to the central nervous system, balancing the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system, reducing stress and anxiety.

With all breathing exercises, the benefits come from consistent effort and daily practice. Use as often as you like, wherever you like, and notice the profound shift in your inner state and peace of mind.

steph johnson