Most of us don’t think much about breathing throughout our daily lives. We never really consider the fact that we are breathing, let alone how we are breathing. But the truth is, how we breathe is an important part of our physical health that we should always aim to be aware of. It’s likely you’re already familiar with breathwork for relaxation, rest, or sleep; these exercises are common in practices like meditation or yoga. However, there are also a number of breathwork exercises that aim to make you feel more energised. These types of breathwork include the Wim Hof Method, the 5-3-3 technique, and ‘Breath of Fire’, all of which have different applications and benefits (we’ll get into the details later). Energising breathwork practice is far more healthy than using caffeine or sugar to liven yourself up – so put down that cup of coffee, and let’s talk about the incredible power of breathwork for energy.
What is breathwork?
One term that is essential to the study of breathwork is Pranayama. This is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘breath control’ or ‘control over prana’. Prana is believed to be a life force that can be harnessed through the breath. When we practise deep breathing during yoga, meditation, or just in our daily lives, we fill ourselves with this ‘life force energy’ from the air around us. While this idea has spiritual roots derived from Eastern practices, even from a biological standpoint, the breath is far more influential over your emotional wellbeing than you might have imagined. Your breath is an incredibly effective tool when it comes to controlling your emotions; breathing practices can help calm you down, balance your mind, increase focus, or affect your heart rate and blood pressure.
Breathwork techniques take advantage of the link between your breath and your autonomic nervous system. This bodily system is split into the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems, which work primarily in opposition to each other. While the sympathetic system can be linked to our fight or flight reaction, kicking in when the mind senses a threat, the parasympathetic system is our ‘rest and digest’ state, responsible for controlling involuntary actions in our body, like digestion and healing. For more on the importance of the autonomic nervous system, check out our article on how breathwork can supercharge your meditation practice.
These two systems cannot be in operation at the same time, so it’s only natural to assume that the parasympathetic system is the only one we should be encouraging. In fact, the sympathetic nervous system is useful to us in many ways. The breathwork exercises we are going to discuss today will lead your body into its reactionary fight or flight state and underline the positive effects breathwork can have on your energy levels. Because of the impact that this kind of breathwork session can have on your sympathetic nervous system, please practise caution, and don’t use these exercises too frequently or without proper study. Handled correctly, these exercises are an extremely powerful method of making us feel more energised and focused. So, let’s get stuck into the detail.
When should you use breathwork exercises?
Breathwork exercises can be integrated into different parts of your day depending on what you hope to gain from them. As you might expect, energising breathwork should be practised at times when your energy levels are low; this will often be right after you wake up, or during the body’s natural lull around mid to late afternoon. Think of anytime that you would have normally reached for a cup of coffee to supply a burst of energy, and replace that with one of the exercises we will cover in this article.
How does breathwork give you energy?
As we’ve mentioned, breathwork practise takes advantage of the sympathetic nervous system’s fight or flight reactions. By deliberately practising specific styles like deep breathing or alternate nostril breathing, we can influence the ways in which our body functions. Essentially, what you will be doing is tricking your mind into feeling a controlled level of stress that will allow it to focus and get prepared for a quick reaction.
At MindOwl, we have a mini-course available on breathwork, with a section dedicated to energising breath. If you’re interested in learning more about how breathwork can make you more energetic or reduce your anxiety levels, check out our online course material.
Energising breathwork techniques produce quick results by playing with the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide (CO2) in the body, and so they should always be practised with caution. Naturally, we all have quite a high level of oxygen already in our bodies, and it is actually CO2 that we are lacking. Among other benefits, CO2 helps to dilate our blood vessels and increase oxygen absorption in the body, therefore it’s important to maintain an appropriate level of carbon dioxide. However, energetic breathing actually seeks to lower your CO2 levels even more. In short, you will exhale more CO2 than you normally would, meaning that less blood will be flowing around your body, and your body’s natural fear and panic reactions will be triggered.
Cautions for using energising breathwork
Exhaling CO2 at a very high rate can cause you to experience some symptoms of hyperventilation, including tingling in the fingers and toes, slight dizziness, and a rise in your body temperature. If this is the case, make sure you are aware of these sensations and stop your practice by returning to normal breathing. It is also essential that you practise while sitting down, as there is a slight risk of fainting if you practise quite intensely. This is why it’s vital that you do sufficient research before trying these techniques, and where possible practise under the supervision of someone else like a breathwork teacher.
Breathing to increase energy
The Wim Hof method
Wim Hof is a motivational speaker and extreme athlete known for being the creator of the Wim Hof breathing technique. This method involves the participant taking a series of controlled breaths, followed by a period of breath retention. Here, we’ll walk you through the main steps:
- Lie down or sit in a comfortable position. Make sure you have open posture so that there are no restrictions to your ability to draw in full breaths.
- Become conscious and aware of your breath, and try to clear out your mind in the same way you would when meditating.
- Inhale through either your nose or mouth, and exhale unforced.
- Repeat this 30-40 times, inhaling deep in your stomach and into your chest. Each breath should feel short and powerful.
- After repeating this kind of deep breathing the desired amount of times, take one last deep inhale and release fully. Once you have released your breath, try to hold on without inhaling again until you feel the urge to breathe again.
- At this stage, take one deep breath in and hold for 15 seconds.
- You can repeat this whole process 3-4 times.
According to Wim Hof, the benefits of this method include stress reduction, improved sleep, enhanced creativity, faster recovery from physical exertion, improved sports performance and more focus and mental clarity.
The 5-3-3 breathing technique
The 5-3-3 breathing technique was first conceptualised by basketball coach Dominique Williams. This technique utilises short inhales and long, deep exhales, and it’s ideally practised first thing in the morning to get you energised and focused for the day ahead. Here’s what the technique involves:
- Start by taking five DEEP breaths, in through the nose and out through the mouth. These should be breaths that fill up your entire lung capacity. Exhale entirely.
- Next, take three very QUICK breaths, inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth.
- Finally, take a further three LOUD breaths.
This type of breathwork technique can be practised sitting or standing, as long as the feet are firmly planted on the ground and your spine is straight. The mental and physical benefits of this practice include increased energy and focus and reduced feelings of anxiety and discomfort.
Breath of fire
This exercise probably sounds the most daring of them all. Allow me to quell your concern and assure you that no real fire is used in this technique. Again, this exercise requires a mindful approach to the breath. More specifically, you must pay attention to the depth of your inhales and exhales.
- Take a seated position, with a straight spine and open posture.
- Inhale normally, then exhale forcefully. Yours inhales and exhales should be around the same length.
- You can practise for up to ten minutes, depending on your experience level.
This exercise works the abdominal muscles when you exhale, as well as the diaphragm. This breathwork experience has varied benefits; it can improve focus, increase energy and make you more mindful of your physical body. You will also be strengthening the muscles used to breathe, which can have positive effects on your breathing throughout your daily life.
Is Breathwork better than meditation?
It’s important to state that there is a difference between breathwork and meditation. While the two practices are closely linked, techniques such as shallow breathing, circular breathing, or the Wim Hof method are guided by different aims and focuses than other forms of mindfulness meditation. Our article on the difference between breathwork and meditation goes into this subject in even more depth, exploring the benefits and emotional effects of both practices, as well as telling you about various forms of breathwork therapy and exercise which aren’t included in this article. More extreme techniques such as Holotropic Breathwork (developed by Stan Grof and Christina Grof), which usually requires a breathwork facilitator or instructor, are also touched on, so if you’re interested in this topic, there’s plenty more content available.
As we’ve explored in this blog post, the best way to increase your energy levels is actually the option that requires very little effort. By practising rhythmic breathing techniques and controlled breathwork methods, we can increase our oxygen levels and lowering our CO2 levels for a short time, thus enhancing our focus and giving ourselves a jolt of energy that even a cup of coffee couldn’t match. While the relaxing effects of certain breathwork techniques are well-known, it’s important that we also take note of how a good breathwork session can energise us, increase our blood flow, and enhance our level of consciousness. Aside from these short-term experiences, the long-term benefits of breathwork practice are also highly appealing. So, try to meld breathing techniques into your everyday meditation routine, and remain mindful and aware of how you are breathing as much as possible. When you feel they are needed, take advantage of the specific breathing exercises discussed today, and if you want to learn even more secrets about the energising and healing power of the breath, don’t forget to check out our Breathwork mini-course.
MindOwl Founder – My own struggles in life have led me to this path of understanding the human condition. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy before completing a master’s degree in psychology at Regent’s University London. I then completed a postgraduate diploma in philosophical counselling before being trained in ACT (Acceptance and commitment therapy).
I’ve spent the last eight years studying the encounter of meditative practices with modern psychology.