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The Calming and Liberating Effects of Breath Work

Breath is Life

Most everyone agrees that breath equals life, since taking our first breath signifies the beginning of life. Likewise, taking our last breath signifies the end.

Ancient yogis and Eastern health practitioners believed that breath is the life force. That it carries an energy that can positively or negatively affect our bodies. And they came to believe through observation and practice that when we learn how to focus on our breath and direct it to different parts of the body, we can promote health and vitality within ourselves.

In fact, the Sanskrit word “pranayama” regards the practice of breath work and is understood or used by yoga practitioners today. The word is broken up in this way:

“prana” = breath “yama” = control

Therefore, the word connotes the meaning, “breath control.” On the other hand, the word might be split into “prana” and “ayama,” where the latter part of the word means liberation. So the word is also taken to mean “freeing the breath.”

Now, in Western medicine, the breath is gaining more and more attention. It has been found to be deeply connected to our autonomic nervous system. In other words, stress affects breath and vice versa. When we get majorly or sometimes even minorly stressed, our breath often quickens and becomes more shallow. But when we know how to control it — breathe more deeply, slow down, and practice stillness — our body relaxes. Knowing how to breathe in a moment of crisis can be key in dealing with the stressor in an effective way.

Freeing the breath can help us, in turn, feel a sense of liberation.

How can I learn how to control my breath?

When it comes to breathing exercises and techniques, simplicity is usually best. It’s especially wise to focus on something simple when you’re just starting out. Here is a basic yet effective breath exercise called “square breathing” that you can try right now (and even when you are in a cold shower or plunge!)

Square Breathing

  1. Get comfortable, whether sitting or lying down.

  2. Center yourself - maybe you choose to close your eyes or take a soft gaze.

  3. Begin to observe your breath. Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale. No need to change anything, just notice your natural cadence of breath.

  4. When you feel comfortable and ready, begin to count the length of your next inhale. Count to four as you breathe in, then hold the breath at the top as you count to four again.

  5. Now, exhale for four counts. Then hold the breath at the bottom for four more counts.

  6. Repeat, inhaling for four counts, holding the breath after the inhale for four, then exhaling for four, and holding the breath after the exhale for four.

  7. Feel free to change up the counts — if you feel like you can slow your breath down and hold it for longer, count to five, six, seven, etc. Just stay consistent - in square breathing, the key is to breathe and hold for the same amount of time.

  8. It may be helpful to trace a square on the inside of your palm to match your breathing. Tracing the shape of a square matched with the counts of your breathing can help you to focus and stay in the moment.

  9. As your mind wanders, acknowledge your thoughts, let them slip away, then come back to your breath.

  10. After a few rounds, return to normal breathing. Allow yourself to remain still and then slowly come out of it.


There are countless other breathing techniques you can try, such as Wim Hof’s, Breatheology, or other yogi pranayama practices. Some are more complex than others. The goal isn’t to go as crazy as you can, but rather to find stillness and presence in your breath. Your body and mind (and those you live with) will thank you for taking time to reset and recenter!

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