Breathing might seem simple. After all, we do it constantly, all day, every day. But manipulating your breath to maximize health benefits or promote certain feelings is a whole other ballgame. Often, doctors or therapists will prescribe breathing exercises to help reduce blood pressure and stress, among other things. Most of us, however, need actual education to help us figure out how to breathe without flipping to autopilot. That’s where breathing apps, which claim to transform the way oxygen enters your lungs and carbon dioxide comes out of it, come in.
There are dozens of options, ranging from popular options you’ve heard of (like Headspace and Calm) to under-the-radar favorites (like Breathwrk). We spent two weeks testing the most popular breathing apps to parse out which ones actually helped us improve breathing, lower stress, and create better habits.
Here’s the TL;DR on how the best breathwork apps stack up:
The Best Breathwork App
- One of the only apps with an exclusive focus on breathwork
- 4.8-star rating out of 16,500 ratings on the App Store
- 3.7-star rating out of 628 reviews on Google Play
- Simple interface
- Good variety of exercises
- Interactive and habit-building
- No meditation accompaniment
It was hard to find much we didn’t like about the Breathwrk app. It’s solely focused on breathing, unlike some other apps we tested. It also offers a larger variety of exercises for everything from “rescue” breathing under stress (which entails taking deeper, slower, purposeful breaths), to bedtime wind-downs. The user experience is streamlined, visually appealing, and ad-free.
Our favorite quick (one-to-two minute) exercises included a visualization component. If you choose “calm,” for example, there are both auditory and circle-shaped visual cues that remind you to breathe in and out at a certain time. There’s also a timer at the bottom of the screen to help you track where you’re at in the exercise process. In contrast, you can also take longer (10- or 15-minute) courses that educate you on the basics of breathing, why it matters, and effective strategies for working toward different goals, like endurance, lung capacity, and focus. All Breathwrk’s courses and exercises are led by certified professionals (though there’s no specific certification for this process, so it’s tough to vet), whose voices are soothing and easy to follow.
If you choose to receive notifications, this app can help you develop a habit of spending 10-ish minutes working on your breathing every day. And if you’re the competitive type, you can easily navigate to the community tab to choose to participate in challenges, which often involve doing breathing exercises for certain lengths of time, and share your “wins “with others who are on the same journey.
Try the week-long free trial to get access to Breathwrk Pro, which contains all of the features mentioned above. (The free version is limited to a few basic, short exercises.)
What Is Breathwork?
Breathwork is a process defined as teaching people to “breathe well.” This means adjusting your breath so it takes a horizontal form in the chest—diaphragmatic or “belly” breathing—rather than a vertical form, known as shallow or chest breathing. It may transform breathing in day-to-day life or provide assistance during periods of stress or anxiety. It takes many forms, including holotropic breathing, rebirth, and conscious connected breathing.
Learning to enhance your breathing could be a sneaky health hack, according to Dr. Belisa Vranich, a clinical psychologist, author and the founder of The Breathing Class. “If you have acid reflux, Annals of Palliative Medicine “The effect of breathing exercises on patients with GERD: a meta-analysis” View Source ,” she says. “If you can’t sleep at night, WebMD “Breathing Techniques for Sleep” View Source . And if you’re an athlete who wants to improve endurance, it can help with that!”
Diaphragmatic breathing has been Frontiers in Psychology “The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults” View Source to help improve attention, physical, and mental health. Short sessions of slow, regular breathing (10 minutes daily) may help effectively Journal of Human Hypertension “Breathing-control lowers blood pressure” View Source . “Screens have made our breath smaller,” Vranich says. “We sit in front of screens so often and the size of our breath is dictated by the screen, by small and fast movements, which puts us in a heightened state of stress. Our eyes are on a short, predatory wavelength. Breathwork can help get us out of this stress pattern.”
This is often referred to as “screen apnea,” a somewhat pop psychology-esque term that hasn’t been studied in official literature.
Still, breathwork is often introduced into Journal of Mental Health Counseling “A Practitioner's Guide to Breathwork in Clinical Mental Health Counseling” View Source because it brings the body out of sympathetic (fight or flight) mode and into a more calm state. Journal of Psychadelic Studies “An experience with Holotropic Breathwork is associated with improvement in non-judgement and satisfaction with life while reducing symptoms of stress in a Czech-speaking population” View Source can also promote non-judgement, reduce stress, and help people become more satisfied with their lives. And Journal of Spirituality in Mental Health “Identifying alternative mental health interventions: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials of chanting and breathwork” View Source combined with chanting things like American Journal of Psychiatry “Individual Treatment of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Using Mantram Repetition: A Randomized Clinical Trial” View Source (or simply the word “ ResearchGate “Chanting Meditation Improves Mood and Social Cohesion” View Source ”) may help alleviate depression, stress, and symptoms of PTSD.
The Ness Well Rating: Healthy
How To Start Breathwork
Improving your breath is akin to going to the gym to train your muscles. First, you’ll need to look at ideal form (Vranich’s Breathing IQ assessment may help) to understand how you’re breathing now. Then, after you’ve measured your horizontal, vertical, or combo-breathing (a mix of shallow and deep breathing) habits, you can practice improving, slowing down, or redirecting your breathing to help you focus, maintain calm, or even get amped up before an event. (Breath manipulation mostly occurs during finite sessions because it requires a lot of focus, but the effects can carry over into everyday life.) This breathing education happens under the care of an educator or practitioner who has trained in breathwork (usually through a yoga school or a program certified with the Global Breathwork Alliance), but the apps we researched for this guide can serve as an accompaniment to this process.
Most of the breathing apps in this guide use a set of standard breathing patterns that are well-documented in research and offer benefits ranging from reduced anxiety, to better sleep, to improved digestion.
- Cleveland Clinic “How Box Breathing Can Help You Destress” View Source : A breathing exercise that refers to the four sides of a box. It involves breathing in for four seconds, holding your breath for four seconds, exhaling for four seconds, and holding it for four more seconds.
- WebMD “What Is Pranayama?” View Source : This is a method of controlling your breath. It is also used in yoga and is often referred to as the fourth “limb” of the practice—the word can be used in conjunction with the word “asana,” or pose, which signifies that there are many different forms it can take. Sometimes, it involves inhaling, exhaling, and holding breath in certain intervals. Sometimes, it involves kundalini breathing (or “breaths of fire”), which is faster. It may be done in conjunction with yoga pose (asanas) or during meditation (dhyana).
- Yoga Journal “What is Ujjayi?” View Source : A component of pranayama breathwork that focuses on controlling your breath using inhales and exhales through your nose. It is mostly used in yoga, and involves making a forceful sound like that of an ocean wave when you breathe out.
- Arizona Center for Integrative Health “4 -7- 8 Breath Relaxation Exercise” View Source : A process that involves breathing in through your nose for four seconds, holding for seven seconds, then breathing out through your mouth (with pursed lips) for eight seconds. It’s meant to release stress.
How is Breathwork Different From Meditation?
Breathwork and meditation may be used together, but they aren’t interchangeable. Meditation takes many forms, but it’s often intended to quiet the mind and allow the practitioner to focus on a certain subject, feeling, or sensation and allow different thoughts to come and go without judgment. You may be asked to become aware of your breath in some forms of meditation, but you won’t be asked to change it.
Breathwork, on the other hand, takes a more active form. It’s the act of focusing on how you breathe in and out and making an effort to change it in some way. It may activate the body more as a whole, where most forms of meditation involve sitting in a still, quiet place.
That said, the two practices often complement each other, and it’s common to find methods (and apps!) that utilize both breathwork and meditation. If you’d like to combine the two, you can seek out breathwork meditation, which integrates breathing practices into meditation.
How We Got Here
Who Did This Work
I’m Jenni Gritters, a journalist with 10 years of experience covering science, health and psychology. I’ve written product reviews for publications like Reviewed, Wirecutter and Slate. You can also find my essays and reported stories in the New York Times and the Guardian. I was previously an editor at Wirecutter where I covered parenting gear, outdoor gear, and travel apparel.
We also spoke with expert Dr. Belisa Vranich, a well-known clinical psychologist, author, public speaker, and the founder of The Breathing Class. At present, she spends most of her time training breathwork teachers.
Our Testing Process
First, we spent time reading about all kinds of breathing education options, from classes, to apps, to assessments. We dove into the research on how breathing improves health and made a long list of the most popular educational options on the market. Then we narrowed that list down to five apps that had the highest ratings and most downloads on both the iTunes store and the Google App store.
We downloaded each of the five options and set up free trials for premium features when applicable, then spent two days with each app. Then, we used the apps for guided wind-downs before bed, opened up focus-oriented exercises in the middle of the workday, and navigated our way through the educational components each offered. We also asked coworkers, partners, and friends to participate when they happened to be nearby. After about 10 days, we picked our favorite options, which you’ll find in this guide.
To learn more about how we picked the best breathwork apps, read the test notes.
How to Pick a Breathwork App
Who Should Download and Use a Breathwork App?
You should use a breathing app if you’re looking to reduce stress and anxiety or want an extra method to help treat a mental health condition (in combination with any therapy or medication you may already be taking). It may also be helpful for people to lower blood pressure and reduce chronic pain. Many people will begin breathwork on recommendation from a doctor or therapist. If you’re unsure if the practice is right for you, talk about it with a medical or mental health professional.
Which Features Matter Most When Picking a Breathwork App?
When you’re choosing a breathing app to download, consider if the app is:
- Easy to use: Is the app designed well? Does it make breathing practices easy to engage with? When you turn on the app, can you engage with it right away?
- Educational: Improving your breath is like improving any other skill. It requires education! Thus, a good app will make efforts to teach you about breathing basics, in addition to guiding you through exercises.
- Habit-building: A good breathing app will help you develop a daily practice of breathing in an intentional way.
- Expert-led: Breathing apps get bonus points when the exercises are led by informed, expert practitioners.
Other Breathwork Apps Worth Considering
- Award-winning meditation app that’s been around for 10 years
- 4.8-star rating out of 1.4 million reviews in the App Store
- 4.3-star rating out of 480,000 reviews on Google Play
- Access to both breathing and meditation exercises
- Helps to curb stress
- Interactive and habit-building
- Breathing exercises only available on Premium
- Limited library of breathing exercises
If you’ve ever tried to curb stress with an app, chances are good you’ve heard of Calm. (It happens to be our favorite meditation app.)The Calm app includes mostly meditation and anti-stress exercises, but you can find breathing components by searching for “breath” or “breathing.” Calm’s breathing exercises are organized into “feelings” you might aim to achieve, like balance, energy, or focus. And those exercises are fairly limited, compared to the Breathwrk app, with about 10 options total. That said, many of the app’s general meditation exercises also include a breathing component.
If you choose the balance, energy, or focus exercises, the app offers a timer with a visualization for breathing in and out. These exercises are short with less of an educational component, but they served to bring our heart rates down (or up, in the case of “energy”) and all exercises are read by trained voice actors. Note: the breathing exercises are limited to Calm Premium; try the free week-long trial before you buy.
- Top-rated meditation app that’s been around for 10 years
- 4.9-star rating out of 888,000 reviews on the App Store
- 4.4-star rating out of 269,000 reviews on Google Play
- Easy to use
- Access to both breathing and meditation exercises
- Limited breathing-specific exercises and tools
- No visualizations
Headspace is easy to download, but you’ll need to sign up for a trial membership to get access to breathing content. Like Calm, Headspace is primarily a meditation app, but you can find breathing exercises within the meditation exercises. There are a few standalone options as well—about 15, which is more than Calm. Headspace’s breathing options focus on the action you’d like to target, and most are related to calming down: deep breathing, wind-down breathing, and breathing techniques. Most involve 4-7-8 or box breathing and focus on stress relief and winding down energy. Breathwrk, on the other hand, offers more sessions aimed at bringing energy up.
The wind-down exercise, for example, is three minutes long and allows you to choose the speaker you want to listen to. There is no visualization, but the exercise helped us sleep better and its focus on box breathing felt very tactical. It’s not 100% focused on breath. But Headspace is a solid option for those who want to combine their meditation and breathing work in one place on an easy-to-use interface that promotes stress relief as a conscious habit.
Breathwork Apps You Can Skip
- Free, fairly basic breathing app that’s overrun with ads
- 4.9 stars out of 10,900 reviews on the App Store
- Not available on Android
The Evidence Test Score: Unknown
- Budget friendly
- Contains visualization tools
- No educational information
- Too many ads
- Limited exercises
This is the one of the cheapest breathing apps we tested—all of its features are free. But its interface is cluttered with ads. You can pay $1.99 to remove them, but even if you do that, the exercises are startlingly basic. You can set what is, in essence, just a timer, to operate under 4 different “conditions.” Each option offers a different breathing cadence and length of time to help you visualize breathing in and out. Overall, this is much less about education and much more about having a visual aid to use while you practice inhales and exhales. Because education is so key to relearning your breath, we’d skip iBreathe altogether.
Universal Breathing Pranayama
- Free breathing app with a clunky design
- 3.5 stars out of 30 reviews on the App Store
- 4.2 stars out of 252 reviews on Google Play
The Evidence Test Score: Unknown
- Contains educational information
- Contains visualization tools
- Budget friendly
- Poor design
- Does not build habits
- Limited exercise options
The Universal Breathing app’s downfall was its design. Compared to Breathwrk, Headspace, and Calm, it looked low-budget and offered little beyond a visual way to track your breathing. (This was in the form of a round dial.) The graphics were very ‘90s clip-art, and the sections of educational information in the drop-down menu on the home page (which was initially tough to find) were simple blocks of text that explained best practices and common breath ratios. The information was generally fine, but it wouldn’t be surprising if its presentation prevented most users from reading it altogether. When you set up an exercise, you can choose from different levels—beginner, intermediate and advanced—which dictate the pacing of breath and the timeframe. (Beginner is shorter, advanced is longer.) This app could be a set of training wheels for someone who wants a way to visualize their breath. But it’s not very sophisticated and doesn’t do much to promote habits.
- Aideyan, B. et al. 2020. A practitioner’s guide to breathwork in clinical mental health counseling. Neuroscience-Informed Counseling. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Babatunde-Aideyan/publication/338569215_A_Practitioner%27s_Guide_to_Breathwork_in_Clinical_Mental_Health_Counseling/links/5eecf9ab299bf1faac643722/A-Practitioners-Guide-to-Breathwork-in-Clinical-Mental-Health-Counseling.pdf
- Cleveland Clinic. 2021. How Box Breathing Can Help You Destress. Health Essentials.
- Coady, Serena. 2022. Can 4-7-8 Breathing Really Help You Fall Asleep Faster? Glamour.
- Grossman, E., et. al. 2001. Breathing-control lowers blood pressure. Journal of Human Hypertension. https://www.nature.com/articles/1001147
- Johnson, Joe. 2020. What to know about diaphragmatic breathing. Medical News Today.
- Ma, Xiao, et. al. 2017. The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults. Frontiers Psychology. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00874/full?fbclid=IwAR2Yzjbt9glZxPoMDRnRf4MkzvFXHhspagUowQFODilbJlyNhI1gdw8DSAM
- Malviya, S. et al. 2022. Identifying alternative mental health interventions: a systematic review of randomized controlled trial chanting and breathwork. Journal of Spirituality in Mental Health. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/19349637.2021.2010631
- Miller, Tim. 2007. What is Ujjayi? Yoga Journal.
- Uthaug, M. et al. 2021. An experience with Holotropic Breathwork is associated with improvement in non-judgement and satisfaction with life while reducing symptoms of stress in a Czech-speaking population. Journal of Psychedelic Studies. https://akjournals.com/view/journals/2054/5/3/article-p176.xml
- Varvogli, Liza, et. al. 2011. Stress management techniques: evidence-based procedures that reduce stress and promote health. Health Science Journal. http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.851.7680&rep=rep1&type=pdf
- Vranich, Belisa. Phone conversation. April 26, 2022.
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