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The Importance of Breath
Our breath is what gives us life and is held as sacred in many traditions. In Yogic and Hindu beliefs, the breath is Prana, in Chinese medicine it is known as Chi and breathing techniques and rituals are also used in Buddhism and many indigenous cultures. The breath represents more than its physiological function of oxygenating the body and removing carbon dioxide, it is connected to our sense of spirit, our sense of self. In fact, the term spirit is derived from the Latin spiritus, which is translated as “breath” or “breath of life.” Although breathing exercises have deep roots in spiritual practices, in recent years breath-work has expanded from the realm of yoga and religion and into many modern modalities. As the scientific data stacks in its favour, breath-work is now used by doctors, psychologists, scientists, elite athletes, coaches and anyone who is looking to unlock greater potential and wellness for body, mind and spirit.
Wim Hof, a well-known breath-work guru explains some of the science behind breathing exercises.
“The amount of oxygen that we inhale through our breathing, influences the amount of energy that is released into our body cells. On a molecular level, this progresses via various chemical and physiological processes. Breathing is the easiest and most instrumental part of the autonomic nervous system to control and navigate. In fact, the way you breathe strongly affects the chemical and physiological activities in your body.”
Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist at Stanford University explains that the relationship between breathing and the brain is anchored through the diaphragm. The diaphragm is the only organ in the body that is skeletal muscle designed for voluntary movement. You can immediately take control of the diaphragm -so breathing represents a bridge between the conscious and unconscious control of the body.
“When you inhale, the diaphragm moves down, and the heart gets a little bigger because it has more space. Blood flows a little more slowly through the heart under that condition. So the heart then signals to the brain, and the brain says, “Oh, we’d better speed up the heart.” So if you want to increase your heart rate, you inhale more than you exhale. The opposite is also true. Every time you exhale, you’re slowing down the heart rate”
Studies have shown how applying breathing therapies can help to calm anxiety, reduce stress, improve sleep, decrease allergies, boost physical performance and cardiovascular health, improve recovery, build immunity and even create a greater sense of purpose and fulfilment in life.
Types of Breathwork
There are so many different breathwork practices and each style is distinct in how it is applied and in the specific respiratory patterns that are used to promote healing on four levels of human functioning: the cognitive, the emotional, the physical, and the spiritual. Although we cannot cover them all, here is a summary of some styles and techniques that you may come across or like to try.
Breath awareness - Great for mindfulness and to reduce stress. Although small amounts of stress can be useful in situations requiring us to act quickly, there are many negative effects of long term stress on behaviour, mood, energy, digestion and concentration. If you find yourself feeling stressed or overwhelmed in a non-emergency situation, breath awareness is a useful tool to bring your thoughts back into the body and the present moment. You don’t need to alter or change your length or pattern of breathing, simply close your eyes and mindfully follow every inhale and exhale and it enters and leaves the body. Using the breath as an anchor for the mind can help to reduce anxiety and eventually calm the nervous system.
Extended exhale – This breath will help to switch your nervous system from sympathetic (flight or fight mode) to parasympathetic (rest and restore mode). Studies show that during prolonged expiratory breathing, parasympathetic nervous function is significantly activated, in comparison to rapid breathing, where it is fully suppressed. If you are beginning from a calm space you may like to start with breath awareness and then start to count each inhale and each exhale to the same number. For example, inhale 1, 2 ,3 ,4: exhale, 1, 2, 3, 4. After a few rounds you can begin to extend the count on the exhale by one or two. Inhale 1, 2, 3, 4 and exhale 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.
Your body instinctively realises that if you were in physical danger, that you wouldn’t be able to have an extended exhale, therefore it is a biological response to recognise that the danger has passed when you begin to breathe like this. This is a helpful daily practice if you feel overwhelmed or unbalanced by everyday stress, such as too many work emails or being stuck in traffic.
If you are feeling stressed and not beginning this technique from a calm breath, then it can help to regain control over the exhale with a forceful exhale making a “shhhhhhhhh” sound. This way, there is no focus on the inhale (as it can be interrupted or short during times of high stress) but extending the exhale by breathing out ‘shhhhhh’ can help to make the shift and eventually allow the breath to steady enough to follow with the extended exhale mentioned above.
Wim Hof - A style of breath-work that also includes ice baths or cold exposure to promote additional health benefits, such as reducing inflammation, balancing hormone levels, improving sleep quality and production of endorphins to elevate your mood. This breathing technique is done sitting in a meditation position or lying down, any position where you can expand your lungs freely without feeling any constriction. Inhale deeply through the nose or mouth and exhale unforced through the mouth. Fully inhale through the belly, then chest and then let go unforced. Repeat this 30 to 40 times in short, powerful bursts. After the last exhalation, inhale one final time, as deeply as you can. Then let the air out and stop breathing. Hold until you feel the urge to breathe again. When you feel the urge to breathe again, draw one big breath to fill your lungs. Feel your belly and chest expanding. When you are at full capacity, hold the breath for around 15 seconds, then let go. That is one round. This cycle is recommended to be completed 3-4 times. You may experience light-headedness, and tingling sensations in your fingers and feet. These side effects are completely harmless, although as it is a strong breath technique with holds, if you have underlying health concerns or anxiety then always consult your doctor before commencing a strong breath-work practice.
Yogic 3 part breath - This is a wonderfully calming breath that uses visualisation to expand the breath through the body. It is best done lying down, somewhere you feel relaxed and comfortable. As you begin to inhale, visualise the breath filling your belly and feel the belly rise, then the inhale moves to the side of the ribs, expanding the sides of the body and the last part of the inhale fills up the chest and heart space and you can feel it physically rise. The exhale is released from the chest (feeling it soften) then the sides, then finally the belly releases and returns to its regular state. This breath is smooth and slow, and helps to expand the diaphragm and increase lung capacity over time.
Physiological sighs -Data show that during sleep and claustrophobic states, people and animals generate what are called physiological sighs—double inhalations followed by exhalations. Andrew Huberman studies to understand how this breathing pattern can affect feelings of stress and tranquility. He talks about this as a tool that people can use anytime, anywhere to reduce stress by breathing in two inhales through the nose and taking an extended exhale through the mouth. Huberman explains that carbon dioxide is the trigger for breathing: We don’t breathe because we need oxygen. We breathe because carbon dioxide levels get too high and these physiological sighs offload the maximum amount of carbon dioxide. Our lungs consist of tons of tiny little sacs of air called alveoli. As we get stressed, these little sacs collapse (imagine a balloon deflating). The double inhale of the physiological sigh ‘pops’ the alveoli open, allowing oxygen in and enabling you to offload carbon dioxide in the long exhaled sigh out.
There are so many beneficial and diverse ways to use the breath for wellbeing but the first step is to become aware of this important mind-body connection and to recognise it’s significance beyond the subconscious mechanism. Even just 5-10 minutes a day of focused breathing can have a positive impact on mental health and physical performance. To support your mental wellbeing and compliment your breath-work practice, try our guided visualisations.