Deep Breathing & the Parasympathetic Nervous System: The Connection

Practice
February 3, 2022

Breathwork practice has been on the rise in recent years due to its many benefits. Yet, people still wonder about the science behind why it works. As it turns out, the breath has more of an influence over the body’s autonomic nervous system than some might realize.

If you want to know more about how deep breathing affects the parasympathetic nervous system, we’ll explore this topic by discussing the following:

  • What is parasympathetic breathing?
  • What is the connection between breathing and the parasympathetic nervous system?
  • Deep breathing and the parasympathetic nervous system: how to reset with your breath
  • Try it now: 10-minute controlled relaxation guided breathwork video
  • 10 breathing exercises to activate your parasympathetic nervous system
  • 6 resources to learn more about the effect of deep breathing on the parasympathetic nervous system

Let’s take a look at the connection between breathing and the parasympathetic nervous system, and then we’ll cover ways you can make use of this.

Also, if you’re looking for some other apps that can help with this, check out our recommendations for deep breathing apps.

What is parasympathetic breathing?

A man standing outdoors with his hands on his chest and stomach

So what is parasympathetic breathing? More commonly known as deep breathing, parasympathetic breathing refers to breathwork exercises that can be used to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. This includes a wide range of techniques, from beginner's breathwork exercises to Pranayama exercises.

What is the connection between breathing and the parasympathetic nervous system?

The parasympathetic nervous system and breathing are connected through the body's vagus nerve and fight-or-flight response. When someone is under stress, their autonomic (i.e. sympathetic) nervous system activates itself to help them escape danger. This causes functions like shallow breathing, rapid heartbeat, and anxious feelings.

Practicing slow, deep breathing informs the body that it’s safe now. This activates the parasympathetic nervous system and returns the body to a relaxed state of functioning. This helps to slow one’s heart rate, reduce their anxiety, and even lower their blood pressure.

Deep breathing and the parasympathetic nervous system: how to reset with your breath

A group of people practicing breathwork

So, if you were wondering how to activate the parasympathetic nervous system with breathing, now you have your answer. As we just explained, diaphragmatic breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, so this is all you need to do. 

If you’re new to deep breathing exercises, you’ll benefit from learning breathwork techniques for beginners and exploring guided resources, such as videos or workshops. These exercises will help guide you through slow, deep breathing that will send signals to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which will allow your body’s systems to reset.

Try it now: 10-minute controlled relaxation guided breathwork video 

Following along with guided breathwork videos is a great way to practice parasympathetic nervous system breathing exercises. Try following along with this 10-minute parasympathetic breathing technique for controlled relaxation:

If you want more guided parasympathetic breathing exercises, discover the Othership app now.

10 breathing exercises to activate your parasympathetic nervous system

There are plenty of breathing techniques for the parasympathetic nervous system that are easy to learn. These are our suggestions for breathing exercises to activate the parasympathetic nervous system.

1. Diaphragmatic breathing

A man practicing breathwork while lying on a yoga mat

Diaphragmatic breathing, also called belly breathing or abdominal breathing, is the simplest form of breathing to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. It involves breathing using the abdominal muscles to make full use of the respiratory system. Diaphragmatic breathing for the parasympathetic nervous system is incredibly easy to do, and can be done anywhere at any time.

How to do it:

  1. Get into a comfortable position, either sitting up or lying down.
  2. Place one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach.
  3. Take a deep breath in through your nose, feeling your stomach expand as the air enters your body.
  4. Slowly exhale through your nose, feeling your stomach lower as the air leaves your body.
  5. Repeat these steps as many times as desired.

2. Box breathing

Box breathing (also known as square breathing, 4-4-4-4 breathing, or ‘sama vritti’) is another easy method of deep breathing that activates the parasympathetic nervous system. Considered a step up from the equal breathing exercise, this technique involves breathing at equal intervals. Like diaphragmatic breathing, this is also a form of parasympathetic nervous system breathing that is easy to do at any time and in any location.

How to do it:

  1. Get into a position you find comfortable, either sitting up or lying down.
  2. Breathe in through your nose for a count of 4 seconds.
  3. Hold your breath for another count of 4 seconds.
  4. Exhale through your nose for a count of 4 seconds.
  5. Hold your breath again for a count of 4 seconds.
  6. Repeat this cycle as many times as desired.

3. 4-7-8 breathing

4-7-8 breathing is another popular breathwork exercise for breathing for the parasympathetic nervous system. It’s a modern technique that involves breathing using the intervals listed in its name. This technique is widely used for its ability to relieve stress and anxiety, as well as help people relax and fall asleep.

How to do it:

  1. Make yourself comfortable, either sitting up or lying down.
  2. Inhale through your nose for a count of 4 seconds.
  3. Hold your breath for a count of 7 seconds.
  4. Exhale through your nose for a count of 8 seconds.
  5. Repeat this cycle as many times as desired.

4. Alternate nostril breathing

Two women practicing alternate nostril breathing

Alternate nostril breathing, known in Pranayama as ‘nadi shodhana’ or ‘anulom vilom’, is a breathwork exercise that involves alternating inhales and exhales between the two nostrils of the nose. Although popular as a method of improving breathing, it is widely used for stress relief due to its relaxing qualities. It’s best performed in a safe space that allows for focusing on the exercise.

How to do it:

  1. Find a quiet space and sit down in a comfortable position.
  2. Take your right hand and place your right thumb on your right nostril.
  3. Inhale through your left nostril.
  4. Place your right ring finger on your left nostril, and lift your thumb from your right nostril.
  5. Exhale through your right nostril.
  6. Inhale through your right nostril.
  7. Place your right thumb back on your right nostril and lift your ring finger from your left nostril.
  8. Exhale through your left nostril.
  9. Repeat this cycle as many times as desired.

5. Breath focus technique

The breath focus technique is a parasympathetic breathing meditation that can be used whenever you need to practice mindfulness or calm yourself down. It involves thinking of a relaxing image, word, or phrase of your choice that will become your main focus. This exercise is also great if you need to clear your mind or improve your breathing patterns.

How to do it:

  1. Find a comfortable position, either sitting or lying down.
  2. Notice the way you’re breathing, but try to avoid changing it.
  3. Switch between your normal way of breathing and deep breaths, noticing the differences between the two styles.
  4. Continue to breathe deeply for a few minutes.
  5. When you’re ready, place one hand on your belly, noticing how it moves as you breathe.
  6. Exhale through your mouth, sighing loudly as you do so.
  7. As you continue to breathe, begin to think of your chosen image, word, or phrase.
  8. Picture waves bringing peace into your body as you inhale.
  9. Picture tension and anxiety being washed away as you exhale.
  10. Continue to do this until you feel fully relaxed.

6. Resonant breathing

Resonant breathing, also called coherent breathing, is a breathwork exercise that affects the parasympathetic nervous system and breathing rate. The goal of the exercise is to keep your breaths per minute between 5 and 7, which results in an ideal breathing rate. While nearly identical to the diaphragmatic breathing exercise, this technique has the added task of timing your breathing intervals.

How to do it:

  1. Get into a comfortable position.
  2. Inhale for a count of 5 seconds.
  3. Exhale for a count of 5 seconds.
  4. Repeat these steps as many times as desired.

7. Pursed lip breathing

A woman lying on a yoga mat

Pursed lip breathing is a breathing exercise designed to help strengthen lungs and improve breathing. It is widely recommended by medical professionals for those looking to establish a normal breathing rate. However, it also works great as a form of parasympathetic breathing for promoting relaxation.

How to do it:

  1. Sit up in a comfortable position, and relax your neck and shoulders.
  2. Inhale through your nose for a count of 2 seconds, keeping your mouth closed.
  3. Purse your lips like you’re about to blow air.
  4. Breathe out through your lips for a count of 4 seconds.
  5. Repeat these steps as many times as desired.

8. Lion’s Breath

Lion’s Breath, known in Pranayama as ‘simhasana’, is a breathwork technique that can be practiced on its own or paired with the Lion’s Pose in yoga. This exercise is widely practiced for its ability to relieve stress and help improve mental health. It’s also great for those wanting to make use of deep breathing and the parasympathetic nervous system.

How to do it:

  1. Sit up in a comfortable position.
  2. Lean forward slightly, placing your hands on your knees or the floor.
  3. Spread your fingers out as wide as possible.
  4. Breathe in through your nose.
  5. Open your mouth wide, sticking your tongue out and down towards your chin.
  6. Breathe out forcefully through your mouth while making a “ha” sound as the breath travels across your tongue.
  7. Spend a few minutes breathing as you normally would.
  8. Repeat these steps up to 7 times.
  9. End your session with a few minutes of deep breathing.

9. Humming bee breath

Humming bee breath, known as ‘bhramari’ in Pranayama, is a breathing technique that makes use of humming. It's a great exercise for those looking to relax and relieve the stresses of the day. The technique can also help to soothe pain and lower blood pressure due to its effect on the parasympathetic nervous system.

How to do it:

  1. Sit or lie down with your eyes closed.
  2. Place your index fingers inside your ears.
  3. Breathe in deeply through your nose.
  4. As you exhale, press down on the insides of your ears and hum. You may choose to keep your fingers pressed down, or continuously move them in and out of your ears.
  5. Inhale again.
  6. Repeat these steps as many times as desired.

10. Ujjayi Breath

A man sitting with headphones on, practicing breathwork

Ujjayi Breath, also known as Victorious Breath, is a Pranayama breathwork exercise that can be used to enter a meditative state. Many have used this technique to combat anxiety or relax in general. It’s also great at helping calm thoughts and even improve body temperature.

How to do it:

  1. Sit up in a comfortable position and relax your shoulders.
  2. Close your mouth while attempting to constrict the muscles in your throat.
  3. Breathe in while allowing the air to pass through your constricted throat. This may cause a friction sound.
  4. Inhale until your chest feels full.
  5. Hold your breath for 6 seconds.
  6. Breathe out as naturally as possible. Try to keep your face and nose relaxed as you do this.
  7. Allow yourself to relax. Spend a few minutes breathing as you normally would.
  8. Repeat these steps as many times as desired. You can do this up to 5 times per day.

6 resources to learn more about the effect of deep breathing on the parasympathetic nervous system 

If you’re interested in learning more about the connection between breathing and the parasympathetic nervous system, here are some resources with more information about the parasympathetic nervous system and deep breathing:

  1. Proper Breathing Brings Better Health – A 2019 article from Scientific American that discusses how deep breathing leads to stress reduction, better sleep, and other benefits.

  2. Self-Regulation of Breathing as an Adjunctive Treatment of Insomnia – This 2019 research study explores the effect conscious breathing has as an aid for insomnia.

  3. This Is Why Deep Breathing Makes You Feel So Chill – A 2021 article from the University of Washington Medicine that explains how deep breathing is able to promote relaxation.

  4. Breath of Life: The Respiratory Vagal Stimulation Model of Contemplative Activity – A 2018 scientific study on the ways that mindful breathing affects the parasympathetic nervous system and the body.

  5. Slow deep breathing modulates cardiac vagal activity but does not affect peripheral glucose metabolism in healthy men – A 2021 study that explores how deep breathing affects the parasympathetic nervous system, and the ability to relax, of healthy participants. .
     
  6. How the Parasympathetic Nervous System Can Lower Stress – This 2021 article from the Hospital for Special Surgery discusses the impact the parasympathetic nervous system has on stress, and how it can be used to reduce stress.



If you’re ready to see how deep breathing affects your parasympathetic nervous system, explore our available class styles on the Othership app.