“Improper breathing is a common cause of ill health. If I had to limit my advice on healthier living to just one tip, it would be simply to learn how to breathe correctly. There is no single more powerful -or more simple- daily practice to further your health and well being than breathwork.” – Dr. Andrew Weil is an American doctor and advocate for alternative medicine.
For any sceptics, Dr. Weil has a medical degree from Harvard, has written many scientific and popular articles and 15 books, is the founder and Director of the Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona, where he also holds the Lovell-Jones Endowed Chair in Integrative Medicine and is Clinical Professor of Medicine and Professor of Public Health. The Center is the leading effort in the world to develop a comprehensive curriculum in integrative medicine.
Breathing is essential for living. In fact, while every person and situation is different, on average we could go three days without water, three weeks without food, but only three minutes without oxygen. It is essential and yet most of us spend little time thinking about it. But research shows that paying more attention to breathing can improve your overall well-being and breathing practices are becoming increasingly recommended by psychologists and wellness experts.
According to mental health specialist Dr Anna Haigh, “The rise of breathwork coincides with the recognition that people within urban communities are often living in a constant state of stress, with high levels of adrenaline and cortisol coursing through our bodies. Rebalancing our levels of dopamine and oxytocin provide lots of health benefit, including reduced blood pressure and better immune health.”
Overall, breathwork is thought to bring about improvements in emotional state and to decrease levels of stress and more:
regulate stress response
manage chronic pain
stabilise blood pressure.
aid positive self-development
process emotions, heal emotional pain and trauma
develop life skills
develop or increase self-awareness
improve personal and professional relationships
increase confidence, self-image, and self-esteem
increase joy and happiness
reduce stress and anxiety levels
release negative thoughts
Breathwork is also used to help to improve a range of issues including:
emotional effects of illness
trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
What is mindful breathing?
Mindful breathing encourages a state of relaxation. It allows you to focus and improve your emotional state. The calmness in mindful breathing is reflected in physiological changes, such as the decrease of muscle tensions. It is optimal because it pulls oxygen in every area of the lungs, and is more active in pumping lymph fluid that eliminates toxins in your body.
Dutch endurance athlete, Wim Hof, is a leader in mindful breathing and has developed breathing methods that revitalise the nervous system. He says that you can accomplish great feats by initiating command and control over your body through breathing. Hof’s breathing methods have been backed by scientific studies, which showed that by using his method, Wim was able to voluntarily influence his autonomic nervous system – something which until then was thought impossible. Richie Bostock or better known as The Breath Guy, personally trained with Hof’s techniques. In an effort to help his father who had recently been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease, he came across Wim Hof’s podcast. In it he talked about a method he developed through his own experiences which is fantastic for everyone’s physical and mental health, and he mentioned the method seemed to be really effective in helping people with autoimmune diseases, including MS.
The method has two main components: cold exposure activities like cold showers and breathing techniques. Inspired, Richie travelled to Poland to attend a week-long training in Wim’s method and found the effects to be so profound, and on return taught his dad the technique. Fast forward a few years, and his dad breathes and takes cold showers every morning and his MS has not progressed at all! After this he was obsessed with finding out what else people were doing with the breath, which led him to travel the world witnessing the transformative effects of Breathwork.
The list of benefits goes on. According to The Mayo Clinic, researchers have found the regular practice of mindful breathing, including decreased symptoms in anxiety and depression. Based on a 2010 randomised controlled trial for patients with coronary heart disease, home-based conscious breathing techniques were found effective in reducing depressive symptoms. More recently, a 2018 study on the effects of diaphragmatic breathing in patients with bipolar disorder demonstrated that mindful breathing has significantly reduced anxiety levels. 92% of patients were successful in practicing the breathing protocol in which they were highly satisfied with the intervention. It showed that it has no negative side effects, and is reliable in applying to reduce these symptoms.
Shallow breathing and stress
Shallow upper-chest breathing is the normal way of breathing for a lot of people, but the impact can be negative. It reduces blood flow and prevents distribution of the lymph fluid. Health practitioners have also claimed that it causes poor digestion, poor sleep and loss of focus. Moreover, taking short and shallow breaths from the chest can induce a state of anxiety and panic.
In a state of anxiety, the body’s natural response triggers the sympathetic nervous system which causes an involuntary reaction to stressful situations – or more known as the fight or flight response. This instantaneous sequence of hormonal and physiological changes causes breathing that makes you even more anxious. Your body’s stress hormones or cortisol levels increase, which causes blood pressure and pulse rate to raise.
Research from Harvard Medical School suggests that the repeated activation of this response to stress can heavily affect the body. Chronic stress has a lot of harmful effects including the formation of artery-clogging deposits that causes brain changes contributing to depression, anxiety and impulsive behaviours. Furthermore, stress creates the underlying mechanisms in obesity including overeating and lack of sleep which is also dangerous.
Deep and mindful breathing on the other hand, is a proactive and helpful response to stress. It creates less reactivity to negative thoughts in anxiety, in which more energy is conserved in slow breathing because the parasympathetic nervous system is activated instead. It reverses the response by slowing your body down that in turn restores you to a calm and composed state.
A 2017 study on diaphragmatic breathing for stress in healthy adults showed that intervention groups showed a decreased negative affect in emotions, as well as consequential low levels of cortisol. For stabilising blood pressure, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital initiated breathing techniques for patients with hypertension by which more than half of those who received breathing training showed a reduction of blood pressure of more than 5mm Hg. This led to eliminating at least one blood pressure medication for more than 55% of the hypertension patients who practiced controlled breathing.
Breathing origin and techniques
While the popularity of mindful breathing is more recent in the West, diaphragmatic breathing roots from Eastern spiritual practices and is nothing new. In Hinduism and Buddhism, breath symbolises life, purity, energy, divinity, and power. It is considered the source of life in the body. Hindus and Buddhists believe that the breath and body are connected, demonstrated by the fact that the body is calm when the breath is calm, and agitated when the breath is agitated. By practicing meditation, they let the body become absorbed into observing the movements of breathing thus allowing them to enter into a state of self-awareness. This yields peace and self-satisfaction.
In order to attain long-term health and well-being advantages, it is best to build up on practicing mindful breathing ideally once a day whilst you are in a comfortable position. Here are some techniques to try:
4-7-8 Breathing – helps you relax, reduce anxiety and get to sleep
Here’s how to do it:
1 – Empty the lungs of air
2 – Breathe in quietly through the nose for 4 seconds
3 – Hold the breath for a count of 7 seconds
4 – Exhale forcefully through the mouth, pursing the lips and making a “whoosh” sound, for 8 seconds
5 – Repeat the cycle up to 4 times
Resonant or coherent breathing – helps to maximise your heart rate variability (measure of your autonomic nervous system that is widely considered one of the best objective metrics for physical fitness and determining your body’s readiness to perform) and reduce stress
Here’s how to do it:
1 – Inhale for a count of 5.
2 – Exhale for a count of 5.
3 – Continue this breathing pattern for a few minutes.
Alternate Nostril Breathing – recommended to make you calm quickly
Here’s how to do it:
1 – Place your right thumb over the right nostril and inhale deeply through the left nostril.
2 – At the peak of inhalation, close off your left nostril with your ring finger and lift your right thumb to exhale through the right.
3 – After exhalation, inhale using the right nostril, repeating the step by exhaling through the left.
4 – Continue the process by alternating between your nostrils. Repeat this practice for 10 to 20 breaths or until your body is relaxed.
Ocean’s Breath (Ujjayi Pranayama) – recommended for when you need to soothe and clear your mind
This technique can be challenging but is popular because multiple studies suggest it can be effective in working with anxiety, insomnia, and PTSD. It also calms your body’s flight or flight response. In yoga, your body is often telling you that it wants to get out of a pose as soon a possible, but with this deep breathing technique you are responding by saying that everything is OK and you can hold for longer.
Here’s how to do it:
1 – Sit comfortably and with the back upright.
2 – Take a deep breath in through your nose for 5 counts by expanding your lower belly as your lungs fill with air. (Keep your chest and upper body still.)
3 – Hold the air in for a count of 3.
4 – Slowly exhale all the air out through your nose for 7 counts (your lower belly will now contract inwardly towards your spine as your lungs empty of air. Do your best to keep your chest and upper body still.)
5 – Breathe normally.
6 – Relax your shoulders, neck, jaw, mouth, eyes, face.
7 – Place the tip of your tongue at the roof of your mouth and keep it there for the remainder of this pranayama. (*There are nerve endings in the roof of your mouth that can activate the calming side of your nervous system.)
8 – Close your eyes.
9 – Inhale through your nose for a count of 5 and tighten the back of your throat to produce the sound of an ocean wave (remember to engage your lower belly and keep your upper body still.)
10 – Exhale through your nose for a count of 7 while tightening the back of your throat to produce the sound of an ocean wave (remember to engage your lower belly and keep your upper body still.)
11 – Keep inhaling and exhaling just like this and bring your awareness to the sound of the waves emanating from within you. Keep your awareness on the ocean sound and feel the waves of vital energy ebbing and flowing inside you.
12 – If a thought comes, let it come… feel it fade as you return your awareness to your inner waves.
13 – Keep this breathing pace of inhaling for 5 and exhaling for 7 for at least 10 rounds (2 minutes.)
Energising Breath – recommended for conserving your energy; however, this practice can be intense and is not advised for those who are pregnant, or with epilepsy, hypertension, glaucoma and gastric ulcer
Here’s how to do it:
1 – With a completely relaxed body, take deep full breaths from your diaphragm.
2 – Now exhale through the nose, followed by really deep inhalations at a rate of one second per cycle. Observe how your belly moves.
3 – Taking a break in between rounds, try 10 lots of breathing and then gradually increase this to 20 rounds, up to 30.
A Word of Caution
If you have any medical conditions or take medications, talk to a healthcare provider before doing any breathwork therapies. Once you decide that you’d like to move forward with breathwork, look for a practitioner with whom you feel a rapport with and has relevant credentials.
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