Inhale to Heal Pain (5 Breathing Techniques to Get You Started)

Knowing these simple breathing techniques can be key in helping you to manage and reduce the effects of persistent pain.

To breathe is to be alive, an autonomic bodily function that we hardly pay attention to. It is the first thing we do upon birth, and the last thing we do before death. You could say that all life revolves around this simple act.

And yet, so many of us are not breathing the way we should, what with the demands and stress in modern society. Many of us take shallow breaths trapped within our chests, when directing our breath into our diaphragms is more beneficial for our wellbeing. This accumulates and often leads to aches and pains that go on to become chronic.

The Science Behind Breathing

Breathing, called ventilation, comprises of two phases – inspiration and expiration. The diaphragm, thoracic (chest) cavity, muscles, lungs and blood all interact during this process. The respiratory center in the brainstem controls the breathing rate, while the medulla directs the spinal cord to maintain breathing. Pons – a part of the brain near the medulla – help to smoothen the breathing pattern further. What’s interesting to note is that while breathing is an autonomic activity as compared to other visceral functions (e.g. digestion and cardiovascular) you can also regulate it at will.

Stress manifests in a wide range of health problems such as obesity, depression, infertility, hypertension, chronic back pain, a weakened immune system, and so much more. Diaphragmatic breathing – also known as abdominal, belly or deep breathing – manipulates our breath movement and causes a positive physiological response within our bodies. It decreases oxygen consumption, thus decreasing heart rate and blood pressure. It increases the amplitude of theta waves, which are brain waves that occur during deep sleep or meditation. This leads to an increase in parasympathetic activity – the ‘rest and digest’ state, which is necessary for healing.


Types of Breathing Techniques

Breathing techniques are used for many purposes and in many settings. Pranayama is all about controlling the breath using various techniques, and is an important aspect of any yoga practice. The breath is also an important part of any mind-body practice such as tai chi, qigong, mindfulness meditation, visualization, and body scans. Breathing exercises are also commonly used in psychiatric clinics and psychological sessions. Some of these exercises are simple enough to do on your own, but having a health professional as a guide can be beneficial, especially if you are a beginner.

Here are some of the breathing techniques used in yoga, which itself comprises of a few styles – ashtanga, vinyasa, bikram, etc. Some of the techniques enhance a particular style. The variety is amazing, and the breath control ability ranges from beginner to advanced:

  • Sama Vritti or “Equal Breathing”
  • Nadi Shodhana or “Alternate Nostril Breathing”
  • Kapalabhati or “Skull Shining Breath”
  • Dirga or “Three Path Breath”
  • Ujjayi Pranayama
  • Sithali
  • Lion’s Breath
  • Breath of Fire
  • Bhastrika or “Bellows Breath”
  • Kumbhaka

Other types of popular breathing techniques include the “4-7-8”, which was developed by Andrew Weil, MD, an integrative medicine guru. Resonant breathing – also known as coherent breathing – comes from the term ‘resonance frequency’ in physics, and is based on the concept of oscillation. Diaphragm breathing overlaps in many practices, and I would say that it is the most basic exercise that we should all start with.

We will take a brief look at some basic breathing techniques you can get started with next. Use them to reduce stressful moments and soothe painful ones. It is also good to choose or alternative between a few breathing exercises on a daily basis, so as to gain maximum benefit. Make sure that you are in a soothing environment, are comfortably clothed, and free from distraction as you do these breathing exercises.

  1. Diaphragmatic Breathing

This type of breathing slows your heartbeat and can also lower your blood pressure. It reduces the ‘fight or flight’ response, and researchers have found that it stimulates the vagal nerve as well. This helps to further reduce stress. Here’s how to do it:

  • Lie on your back with your knees bent. If needed, place a pillow under your knees for support.
  • Put one hand on your upper chest, and the other below your rib cage. This is where  your diaphragm is.
  • Inhale slowly through your nose and into your diaphragm, pushing against the hand placed there. Exhale through your mouth, and tighten your stomach muscles to expel the air as you do so.
  • Repeat for 5 – 10 minutes, 3 –  4 times a day. As you become more adept at doing this, you can challenge yourself by placing a book on your stomach instead of your hand.
  1. Alternate Nostril Breathing

This is a yogic breath control practice where you rotate inhalation and exhalation through your nostrils. It is thought to harmonize the two spheres of the brain, leading to a balance in physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. It enhances cardiovascular function and lowers heart rate as well. Avoid this practice if you feel sick or congested, and it is best practiced on an empty stomach. How to do it:

  • Sit upright, with one palm in your lap. Close your eyes.
  • Close your right nostril with your right thumb, while slowly inhaling through your left nostril.
  • Close your left nostril with your ring finger so that both nostrils are now shut. Hold for a moment.
  • Release your thumb and exhale through your right nostril slowly. 
  • Hold for a moment.
  • Now inhale through your right nostril, hold it shut, and pause for a moment again.
  • Release your ring finger and exhale through your left nostril slowly, then hold your breath for a moment.
  • This is one cycle. Continue breathing like this for up to five minutes.
  • Finish your session with an exhalation on the left side.
  1. 4-7-8 Breathing

This technique was developed by Andrew Weil, MD, with a foundation in yogic pranayama. He describes this technique as a ‘natural tranquilizer for the nervous system’. How to do it:

  • Sit upright, with one palm in your lap. Close your eyes.
  • Sit upright. Place the tip of your tongue behind your upper front teeth. Keep it there throughout this exercise.
  • Exhale through your mouth, making a whooshing sound.
  • Close your mouth and inhale through your nose to the silent count of four.
  • Hold your breath for a count for seven.
  • Open your mouth and exhale through it, making a whooshing sound to a count of eight.
  • Repeat three times, twice a day.
  1. Equal Breathing

A real simple technique that’s great anywhere, anytime, and especially before bedtime. A little like counting sheep to help relax and fall asleep. How to do it:

  • Sit upright, with one palm in your lap. Close your eyes.
  • Inhale through the nose to a silent count of four.
  • Exhale through the nose to a silent count of four.
  • Repeat as needed.
  1. Resonant Breathing

Resonant breathing is linked to our heart rate variability (HRV), which is something that we can train and increase. An instrument is needed to calculate your resonant breathing time and HRV, through a breathing exercise. Your HRV gives some insight into the state of your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. The aim of resonant breathing is to tip it back towards the ‘rest and digest’ state.

Breathing is one of the few oscillating systems in our body that we can control voluntarily. Using this, we can help other oscillating systems in our body – such as our respiratory, cardiovascular and autonomic nervous system – to oscillate at their optimal frequency. This keeps our body in a state of balance, thus reducing stress and pain, whilst improving our mood and wellbeing. How to practice resonant breathing on your own:

  • Inhale for four seconds through your nose, then exhale for six seconds.
  • Inhale for five seconds through your nose, then exhale for five seconds.
  • Inhale for six seconds through your nose, then exhale for six seconds. (This is also known as true resonance.)
  • Inhale for five seconds through your nose, then exhale for seven seconds.
  • All inhalations should be through your nose, and exhalations should be through your mouth with pursed lips.
  • Breathe from deep within your gut, feeling your stomach expand and contract with each breath.

In Conclusion

As you can see, there are many health benefits to breathing and techniques to choose from! We have only included five basic ones here, but you can explore the more advanced techniques as you progress. There are many professional YouTube videos and apps to learn from out there (see download links to our own app below!) (update Aug 2023: Pathways is now a web app! Start our program here). In this case, it isn’t so much about ‘practice makes perfect’, but ‘practice builds positive pathways for healing in your brain’. It’s important that you take some time out every day to form this healthy habit, and breathe wellness back into you.

At Pathways, we know how powerful breathing and visualization practices can be. Download our app (links below) (update Aug 2023: Pathways is now a web app! Start our program here) and discover breathing, visualization, and many other pain relieving exercises.

Please note: This article is made available for educational purposes only, not to provide personal medical advice.

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