9 mins. read

Four simple breathing exercises and relaxation techniques for coping with cancer

Yoga breathing exercises can help with anxiety and overwhelm. Watch how to do this effectively, here

A close-up image of grasses blowing in the wind to visually imply breath moving in and out

Key takeaways

  • The breath has an impact on how we feel. In times of anxiety and overwhelm, breath practices can be used to calm the body and mind and bring us into the present moment.
  • There are lots of different breathing practises, all will have a positive impact. Below you will find four, including diaphragmatic, hum, alternate nostril and straw breathing. Continue with the one you feel most comfortable doing.
  • All of the breathing exercises below can be tried by people with lung cancer.

Here, Vicky Fox, a Perci Health yoga instructor, outlines four simple and effective breathing exercises which you can try at any time – whether living with cancer or living beyond cancer. The following exercises encourage deep breathing and relaxation to help you in moments when you may feel anxious or overwhelmed.

Read on to find out how the breath calms the body and watch as Vicky gives step-by-step guidance on how-to do the exercises yourself.

The way we breathe can change how we feel. If you find your pulse you can explore this for yourself. When you breathe in feel how your pulse quickens (stimulating the sympathetic or fight of flight part of the nervous system) when you breathe out feel how it slows, this soothes the parasympathetic nervous system.

What are the benefits of breathing exercises?

They optimise our body for healing

For our body to be in the best place to repair and nurture itself we must stimulate the parasympathetic side of the nervous system, a part of the body which aids our bodies to rest and digest. However, when we are scared and anxious we don’t breathe fully, meaning we are in fight or flight mode. This leads to increased heart rate, blood pressure and a reduced immune and digestive system.

They bring us into the present moment

When we consciously breathe not only does it help these systems start functioning fully, but it also brings us into the present moment. When we worry, we fearfully project an imaginary future that has not happened and may not happen. As this doesn’t exist, it is very hard to cope with. Giving our mind a tool – something else to focus on – like the breath, gives us a break from thoughts and calms the mind. This in turn helps to reduce anxiety and insomnia.

They’re free and simple

The great thing with breath is that it is free and you take it everywhere you go so you can use these breathing techniques at anytime. For instance if you are waiting for a scan and feel consumed by scan anxiety, undergoing a treatment, recovering from surgery, feeling anxious or struggling to sleep. 

Any of the following breathing techniques will calm the nervous system and make you feel more grounded in the moment. You might find that one resonates with you or feels more comfortable than another breathing technique, so explore them all and keep practising the one you like best.

1. Diaphragmatic breathing

What is diaphragmatic breathing?

A simple place to start is first to observe if you are breathing fully using your diaphragm (the main breathing muscle). In the book Science of Breath: A Practical Guide by Swami Rama, Rudolph Ballentine and Alan Hymes (1999), they say that the best breathing practice for everyday relaxed functioning is diaphragmatic breathing. “Here lung expansion is focused on the lower, gravity dependent areas of the lungs where oxygen exchange can proceed more efficiently.” By which they mean more oxygen moves from the lungs into the bloodstream, which is a positive thing.

How to do diaphragmatic breathing

Often it is easier to do this exercise lying down, where gravity will help you feel the movement of breath into your belly.

The diaphragm runs all the way around the rib cage and draws down as you breathe in. This presses onto the abdominal cavity and in turn the organs have nowhere to go but to press out. So, when we are breathing fully our belly should respond, moving out on the inhale and back towards the spine on the exhale.

Sometimes we can reverse breath so notice as you follow this exercise if you are doing the opposite. Awareness is the first step to change so you can start to bring your breathing back to a more natural breathing pattern.

Diaphragmatic breathing is one of the simplest exercises you can start with:

  1. Place your hands onto your belly and notice if you can feel your breath move into your hands when you breathe in? Can you feel your belly soften as you breathe out? 
  2. Relax your shoulders and notice if you are moving your shoulders up and down as you breathe in and breathe out.
  3. Focus on the movement of the breath into your belly for a few more rounds before moving onto one of the other breathing techniques.

2. Hum breathing or Buzzing Bee Bhramari

What is hum breathing?

The advantages to breathing with a hum are threefold. Firstly the exhale is lengthened when we hum and we know that lengthening our exhale is more calming for our nervous system which puts the body in the best place to repair and heal. Secondly the humming creates a vibration in the body and, as we are mostly water, the sound waves which travel through water move throughout the body and massage and stimulate internally. Finally, when we hum it draws our awareness inwards and away from our natural focus that is outwards.

How to do hum breathing

  1. Find a comfortable seated position with your spine long and weight equal in your sitting bones. Bring your right hand to your throat and rest your left hand on top of your right hand. Take a breath in and as you exhale hum, Mmm. Observe what you feel under your hands and through your hands. Can you feel the vibration that the sound creates?
  2. Now try some different sounds like the vowel sounds a, e, i, o and u. Do these sounds create different vibrations and where do you feel these sounds resonate in your body?
  3. Then stop and observe. Notice if the humming made the exhale longer. Did it make you focus more on the breath and draw your awareness inwards? Did it bring you more into the present moment?  Continue for a few more rounds.

3. Alternate nostril breathing

What is alternate nostril breathing?

This is a breathing practice to help find balance while giving our mind a focus so we can have a break from our thoughts. It is a relaxation technique which can help to calm our overactive minds. Here, I outline alternate nostril breathing through using your hands. It can be an easy way to start the practice especially if you are at all congested. 

How to do alternate nostril breathing

  1. Find a comfortable seated position on a chair or on the floor with pelvis elevated onto yoga bricks or a bolster. Check you are sitting on your sitting bones and that the spine feels long. Close your fingers into the palm of your hands.
  2. Open up your right hand and visualise breathing in through the right nostril. At the top of your inhale close the right hand. Open up the left hand and visualise breathing out through the left nostril. Keeping your left hand open inhale through your left nostril. Close the left hand and open up the right hand and breathe out through the right nostril. 
  3. You have completed one round. Can you repeat for a few more rounds and then observe how you feel. Did focusing on the hands, breath and nostrils give you a break from your mind?

4. Straw breathing or Pursed lips breathing

What is straw breathing?

This is a calming breathing technique which can cool the body if you’re feeling anxious or experiencing hot flushes. This exercise is useful because it can give you a sense of taking back some control which if you are experiencing hot flushes may help with the frequency of the hot flushes and help you feel less stressed by them.

Cool breathing technique can be done easily by circling the mouth as if you were sipping up through a straw and then breathing in through that imaginary straw. As you exhale close the mouth, taking the tongue to the roof of the mouth and breathe out through the nose. 

How to do straw breathing

  1. Start to feel the cool air firstly in the mouth and throat. Breathe out through the nose and visualise warmth from inside the body releasing out through the nose. 
  2. Now, breathing in through a circled mouth, visualise or sense cool air travelling down into the chest. Imagine the chest cooling as you breathe out, as warmth from inside the chest comes out through the nose. Breathe in through the circled mouth again, this time feeling cool air travelling down into your abdomen and as you exhale send any heat and warmth out through your nose.
  3. You can stay with this breath for a few minutes and observe any cooling sensations in the body.

Breathing exercises for lung cancer patients

All of these techniques are suitable for anyone undergoing lung cancer treatment or has mets to the lungs. If it feels hard to breathe, focus more on your exhale rather than your inhale; exhaling fully and letting the inhale just happen.

For exercises which suggest a lying down position you might find it easier to be propped up so the chest is elevated rather than lying flat. Alternatively, you may prefer to do the practices seated.

Find out more about the benefits of yoga therapy for cancer or book an appointment with yoga instructor Vicky Fox.

While we have ensured that every article is medically reviewed and approved, information presented here is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to one of our healthcare professionals or your primary healthcare team.