For many of us, especially in marginalized communities, functioning in a state of chronic stress feels like the norm. Fortunately, there’s a powerful, calming tool within our bodies, one that we often take for granted: breath. Breathwork—an active meditation practice—refers to intentional, deep-breathing techniques that deactivate the body’s fight-or-flight response to stress while stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system, which is associated with the body’s calm “rest-and-digest” response.
According to Jasmine Marie, an Atlanta-based breathwork practitioner and the founder and CEO of black girls breathing—an organization that provides free and accessible breathwork classes to Black women and girls—breathwork is about connecting with your body. In addition to resetting your nervous system, breathwork boosts oxygen supply to the brain, increasing the production of feel-good hormones like serotonin. It can increase self-awareness and self-esteem, regulate moods, and relieve stress-induced chronic pain, among many other benefits. And once you learn a breathwork technique, Marie says, “you can take it with you throughout the day and become your own healer.” Here, she shares beginner tips and breathwork exercises you can try yourself.
Be open-minded. When you start, as you’re increasing your brain’s oxygen supply, you may feel a little lightheaded or dizzy. But don’t worry—Marie says that’s common. “As you work with your nervous system, it can have various responses to trauma that’s trapped in your body,” she explains. “Be open to the physical sensations, and know that nothing is wrong with you.”
Do what feels good for you. “You don’t have to do an hour-long breathwork session,” Marie says. It can be a few minutes of intentional breathing during a quick work break, while taking a walk outside, or before bed. You can use breathwork exercises whenever and however long you need them.
Listen to your body. “I think what prevents people from allowing themselves to really let go and breathe is [the thought]: ‘Oh my gosh, am I doing this right?’” she says. When you practice self-care through breathwork, you’re tuning in to your somatic needs. “How is your body feeling? What is it saying?” Marie says. “Use breathwork as a tool to lean back into your body’s intuitive wisdom.”
Two easy exercises to get you started
Exercise 1: Inhale fully through your nose, and then exhale out of your mouth with a sigh. While inhaling, you’ll feel your chest and diaphragm rise. While exhaling, deplete your lungs as much as possible. Do this three times in a row, or for as long as it feels comfortable for you.
Exercise 2: Use the pointer finger of your right hand to put pressure on your left nostril and inhale through the right nostril, then put pressure on your right nostril with your thumb and exhale out of your left. Repeat that process beginning with the left nostril. Do this for as many repetitions as you’d like. (This alternating nostril breathing exercise is good for folks with an overly active mind.)
*Check in with your doctor before starting a breathwork exercise.
Illustration: Maria Petrishina / Shutterstock; Photo by Gerald Carter
This article originally appeared in BUST's Winter 2021/2022 print edition. Subscribe today!
Safire R. Sostre is a freelance journalist with experience in print and digital media. She writes reported profiles and covers news and culture, usually through the lenses of identity and wellness. Their main goal as a writer is to amplify the stories of marginalized voices.