3 Breath Practices for Beginners

In yoga, Pranayama (breathwork) is the 4th limb of the eight limbs of Raja Yoga. Prana, or vital life force, is what all beings need and create during their lifetime. Without prana, we are without life. One of the ways that prana is brought into the body for nourishment and vitality is through the breath. Eastern and Western cultures alike realize that breath is necessary to stay alive, however, there are many more benefits of pranayama than you may know. The scientific research on breathwork has increased in recent years, and the benefits are noticeable if practiced regularly. Even as a beginning practitioner, you can get ample benefits from doing foundational breathwork, no need to get fancy! Simply taking long, deep, mindful breaths when you’re experiencing an elevated heart rate is going to help the body return to homeostasis—the balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. In this blog, you’ll learn three foundational breathing techniques—box breathing, 4-7-8 breathing, and Kumbhaka—which will have you well on your way to making breathwork a part of your daily ritual.

Box Breathing

FUN FACT: Box Breathing is a technique Navy Seals use to train their nervous systems to remain stable during tense missions. By slowing the pace of breathing and occupying your mind with counting, you’re slowing the heart rate and blocking the mind from continuing to create anxious thoughts. Box breathing is a well-known tool to use when having an anxious moment or panic attack. Stressful situations activate the adrenal glands to release cortisol and adrenaline.

How to Box Breathe

You can practice on your back or in a seated position. If you are seated, you’ll want to sit tall so as to not compromise the space the diaphragm and lungs need to expand and contract. A tall postures also helps to keep the airway unblocked.

  • start by breathing normally for about 30 seconds
  • then begin the technique by inhaling through the nose for a count of 4>>>hold for 4 counts at the top of the breath >>>exhale through the nose or mouth for a count of 4>>>hold for 4 counts at the bottom of the breath
  • do this repeatedly for as long as you’d like. Decide on a time before you start your practice and set a timer for the allotted time. Start small, 2 minutes is a good starting point, then grow the length of your practice when you feel comfortable doing so.

Make sure that as you breathe, your chest and belly are expanding with the inhale, and contracting for the exhale; add in a slight engagement of the low belly at the bottom of the exhale to bring those muscles up and in. It is important to note for all breathwork that you inhale through the nose (for reasons that would take up an entire blog). Long story short…you want the complex filtration system of the nose to bring clean air into the body. Bringing oxygen into the body messages the vagus nerve, which communicates with the stress hormone adrenaline, that tells the heart to slow down and lower blood pressure. Cortisol, another major stress hormone, is told to decrease glucose, the brain-stimulating hormone. It is a magical, complex process!

4-7-8 Breathing

This is another opportunity to count your breath, which means your mind is occupied with something other than stressors, and this is a good thing! 4-7-8 Breathing has numerous benefits, so I’m going to highlight only a few. FUN FACT: 4-7-8 breathing improves memory. To be honest, most controlled breathwork improves memory by activating the hippocampus, which is the area of the brain that creates and keeps memories. The hippocampus also helps with learning new information…hence why breathwork practitioners are so darn smart (wink). One more fun fact about breathwork activating the hippocampus…it produces theta waves (the slow brain waves that are used when we’re calm) that we talked about in our previous blog! 4-7-8 breathing is specifically known to aid in falling asleep and for switching over from the sympathetic nervous system to the parasympathetic nervous system, aka switching from stress to rest.

How to do 4-7-8 Breath

Like the previous exercise, 4-7-8 breathing can be done lying down or seated. If seated, create a tall spine to keep the airways open and abdomen spacious for breathing.

  • begin by orienting yourself to the space by using uncontrolled breath for 30 seconds
  • then begin 4-7-8 breath by inhaling through the nose for a count of 4>>>exhale through the nose or mouth for a count of 7>>>hold the breath at the bottom for a count of 8>>>begin again
  • again, it is suggested that you set a timer. As your practice progresses, you have the option to add length to your breath cycles.

It is wondrous how this exercise increases lung capacity!


Kumbhaka isn’t a breathing technique so much as it is an important part of many breathing techniques, such as Box Breath and  4-7-8 Breath. Kumbhaka is the retention, or holding of the breath, at the top and/or the bottom of each inhale and exhale. Kumbhaka is the sacred pause that is revered in yoga philosophy. The pause represents acceptance and surrender despite the desire to change what is. It is the space between breaths that creates space in the mind, helping it to respond to experiences intentionally instead of reactively.

Scientifically speaking, Kumbhaka activates the medulla oblongata, the respiratory center of the brain, by holding in the carbon dioxide, alerting the brain to tell the lungs to produce and release an increased amount of fresh oxygen into the bloodstream. Oxygen brings more prana, or vitality, into the body.

How to Practice Kumbhaka 

It’s safe to assume you know how to hold your breath. However, there is a way to hold the breath so that it brings softness and ease to the body, versus a state of panic because you’re, well, holding your breath. When you retain your breath, whether it be at the top or bottom of the breathing cycle, think of relaxing the body around the breath. Bring your awareness to the physical sensations: where is there tension?  is your jaw clenched? what can become at-ease?

Drop the shoulders away from the ears and relax the fingers and toes. These actions (or non-actions) will let the body know it is safe, and that there is no need to raise the heart rate by pumping adrenaline. Below are pro-tips for Kumbhaka:

Inhale retention

  • For beginners, it is easier to begin your breath retention practice at the top of the inhale. This seems to be less stress-invoking for beginners, because your body is full of breath and is absorbing the oxygen from the breath inside of the lungs.
  • Take an inhale, and once you feel full of breath, retain the breath. Try to retain the breath by holding the diaphragm still versus closing the base of your throat. This will strenghthen and stretch your diaphragm.
  • Hold for no more than 5 seconds to begin. As your practice becomes regular, you can increase the amount of time you retain the breath.
  • When you release the hold of the inhale, do so with some control. Try to avoid billowing out the breath.

Exhale retention

  • Once you’re comfortable retaining inhales, practice Kumbhaka at the bottom of your exhales. Again, this is more challenging because your diaphragm is a vacuum and it naturally will want to inhale. Therefore, begin with short amounts of time.
  • Exhale completely and once you feel empty of breath, hold the breath out. Try to hold the breath out by toning the abdomen and not the chest.
  • Hold for no more than 5 seconds. As your practice becomes regular, you can increase the amounto f time. Never hold to the point of panic.
  • When you release the retention with an inhale, do so with control of the breath. Enjoy the fresh oxygen as it floods into your system.

Stay soft, and keep it easeful. There isn’t much more to it when it comes to Kumbhaka or breath retention. Remember, the point of the pause is to be aware of the pause…observe it, and soften around it. Just like you aim to do in life…pause, observe, and soften.

Getting your Practice Started:

Now that you’ve been tantalized by the magic of breathwork, you’ll want to get started with your practice! If you’re a student at Ignite Yoga, you may notice many of the teachers incorporate breathwork into their regularly-scheduled classes. Win! In addition to that, Ignite Yoga offers two Meditate classes per week—Mondays at 5:15p and Thursdays at 8:00a. For home practitioners, Ignite’s virtual studio can get you practicing with the live studio classes or take advantage of the large on-demand library that offers a selection of meditation classes to choose from. If you haven’t tried Ignite’s Virtual Studio, take advantage of the 2-week free trial!

You can also use meditation apps like Calm, Insight Timer, and Ten Percent Happier, all of which offer a variety of breathwork sessions and tutorials. If you’re a reader and you’d like to learn more about the importance of proper breathing, James Nestor wrote Breath, a highly informative book that will likely motivate you to adjust your breathing technique, as you will read how proper breath impacts all body systems.

We hope you’ve enjoyed these nuggets of wisdom about the amazing power of pranayama. The science of breathing is burgeoning with facts and statistics that support what yogis have been doing for thousands of years. Breathwork is extremely accessible, almost all the time. It is something you can do at home, in the car, at bedtime, or in a crowded room. You can calm your anxiety, aid yourself in falling asleep, or clear old energy by using the power of breath. The more you practice, the more fruitful the benefits will be. Remember, in order for your breathwork to be impactful, it doesn’t have to be a long practice nor does it need to be perfect. Simply commit to yourself and benefit from renewed prana circulating through the body. If you already have a breathwork practice present in your life, share in the comments the changes that have come your way!

About the Author

Anna Furderer

Anna Furderer

Anna is a 500-Hour Yoga and Meditation teacher, specializing in integrating yoga philosophy with addiction recovery and mental health. In 2017 she got her 200-hour yoga teaching certification primarily focusing on Power Yoga. Within a short amount of time, Anna’s deep connection to philosophy led her to a 300-hour yoga certification with special focus on yoga philosophy and trauma-informed yoga. Anna is a licensed CDCA in the state of Ohio and is currently a student at the University of Cincinnati, studying Substance Abuse Counseling. She plans to go on to receive her master's in Clinical Psychology so she can treat multi-cultural women with Co-Occurring Disorders. Anna is a wife to Brian, and a mother to her two sons, Owen and Eli. The four of them are mountain-lovers and adventure out west as often as possible

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