Breathing is not simply a physiological function. It is inherently linked to our physical, mental and emotional state. Using breathwork correctly can be one of the most efficient ways of reducing stress and bringing health and wellness to your life. The main reason that makes breathing and health so strongly interconnected is that breath can influence the autonomic (or involuntary) nervous system and, if used correctly, help to reduce stress. Breath can also be used as a meditation focus point by simply observing it or by linking it to more complex visualizations. It is easy to use, even when you are commuting, and requires no special equipment.
In yoga, as in tai chi and qigong, much attention is given in synchronizing the breath with the movement between postures. Furthermore, in yoga, breathwork is also used as a distinct tool (called Pranayama), and it plays a central role in the practice of yoga. Even though the healing potential of breathwork is often unknown or underestimated, some practitioners have begun to grasp the therapeutic power of breath. For example, osteopaths may use gentle manipulations to correct breathing and cure many health issues.
Learning some basic breathing techniques can provide great results, especially for stress reduction, improving digestion and circulation, and dealing with insomnia. I have personally found that breathing exercises can help enormously when facing challenging, stressful situations in your life. It has the ability to calm one’s physiology and mind, giving the necessary space not to react impulsively but to respond mindfully.
Breath as a pathway to control the autonomic nervous system
Breathing is the only function that we can do both consciously or unconsciously. Physiologically this can be explained by the fact that breath is controlled by two different systems, the voluntary nervous system, and the autonomic nervous system, along with their associated muscles. We can choose to breathe or we can breathe without thinking about it. The fact that these two systems are related to the same function, the breath, makes breathing a great tool we can use to affect the autonomic nervous system.
In our modern lifestyle, we find ourselves sitting or leaning for many hours in front of a screen, having poor posture throughout the day, dealing with emotionally stressful situations at work, or in our private life, eating unhealthy and breathing pollution. This unhealthy lifestyle often leads to an imbalance of the autonomic nervous system. We increasingly observe chronic overactivation of the sympathetic system (also known as sympathetic dominance). The sympathetic system is the fight or flight component of the autonomic system that helps us react promptly when in danger.
On the other hand, its counterpart, the parasympathetic nervous system, drives the body to digest, rest, and heal, functions that, even though essential, are not vital when facing an emergency. The parasympathetic system is often in a state of under-activity. While acute stress is a healthy reaction to a stressor, chronic stress can cause or aggravate many diseases. Breathwork can increase parasympathetic activity and restore the balance of the autonomic nervous system and reduce stress. Therefore, almost everyone can benefit by using breathing exercises to improve the body’s healing system and other significant functions of the body, like digestion and blood circulation. It is, of course, essential to identify any potential stressors that have caused overactivity of the sympathetic system in the first place. Potential stressors are external, like unhealthy nutrition, nutrition intolerances or allergies, unhealthy work environment or relations, or internal, like chronic pain related to poor posture or toxic habits and thought patterns.
Breathwork for mindfulness
Practicing breathwork or meditating using your breath is a great way to bring some awareness into your life and to become more in touch with your body, mind, and emotions. During our daily lives, we have constructed many automated responses and patterns of thinking. Even though this is helpful and practical in some situations, like when crossing a road or finding the metro platform, it may be harmful in other cases. False habits of standing or moving may be stressful for your physical health. In the Alexander technique, bringing awareness and reprogramming these patterns can play a vital role in regaining proper posture and physical health. Similarly, unhealthy habits of thought may be harming your mental and emotional integrity. Focusing on your breath can help to take a step back and observe your patterns of thinking, giving you the necessary space for responsibility and choice.
Diaphragmatic breathing or chest breathing?
Chest breathing is best suited for situations of great effort, like when sprinting. In stressful situations, you may involuntarily resort to chest breathing. Chest breathing may cause tightness of shoulder and neck muscles and possibly headaches.
On the other hand, diaphragmatic breathing uses the diaphragm, the body’s dominant breathing muscle. It is a more efficient way of breathing and can bring relaxation and reduce muscular and mental stress.
Some breathing exercises
The techniques that we will present bellow should be safe for most people. If you have a specific condition that may impede your breathing capability, you may want to consult with your doctor first. If you feel any dizziness or lightheadedness during the exercises, you should reduce the intensity or return to your natural breathing. Before starting, sit comfortably with the spine erect or lie if you prefer, wearing comfortable clothes.
The Three-Part Breath exercise
The Three-Part Breath (a yoga breath called Dirga Pranayama) is one of the most effective stress-reducing breathing exercises you can do. As it actively decomposes the inhalation and exhalation into three steps, it differentiates with your habitual breathing pattern and can have a very calming and grounding effect. Another added benefit of this exercise is that it can increase the oxygen flow to your body and brain. Our breath is often quick and shallow due to anxiety, and breathing deeply can help to nourish the body and obtain mental clarity. You can use this technique daily or whenever you are feeling stressed.
During the exercise, the breath should be continuous, gentle and through the nose. You can use a count of two for each step of inhalation and exhalation. When you become familiar with the exercise, you may experiment with inserting small pauses in between the inhalation or exhalation steps to increase the contrast with your breathing impulsions.
- After a couple of calm respirations, exhale completely through the nose.
- On the next inhale, firstly, fill the lower belly (around the belly button) up with air. Secondly, take in more air filling the lower chest (the beginning of the rib cage), feeling the ribcage expanding. Thirdly, continue the inhalation filling up the upper chest (just below the neck), causing the area around the heart to expand.
- On the exhale, allow the air to leave starting from the upper chest. Then from the rib cage, allowing the ribs to come closer together. Finally, let the air go from the belly, drawing the navel back towards the spine. You can repeat for up to ten breaths.
Dr. Andrew Weil’s 4-7-8 breathing exercise
This exercise, also known as “relaxing breath,” aims to reduce stress and can also be used to prepare for sleep.
- After a couple of calm respirations, exhale completely through the nose.
- Breathe in quietly through the nose for a count of 4
- hold the breath for a count of 7
- exhale through the mouth, pursing the lips and making a “whoosh” sound, for a count of 8, with the tip of the tongue placed right behind the top front teeth. Repeat the cycle up to 4 times
Breath counting meditative exercise
Breath counting is a simple but surprisingly challenging breathing technique used in Zen practice. It brings awareness of the mind’s tendency to jump from one thought to another.
- Close your eyes and take a couple of deep breaths. Then let the inspirations and expirations occur naturally without trying to influence them. The breath should be quiet and slow, but depth and rhythm may vary.
- As you exhale for the first time, count “one” mentally.
- During the second exhale, count “two,”
- Continue in the same way on up to “five.” Then start a new cycle, starting to count again from “one.” If you find yourself counting more than “five,” observe it gently and start from “one.” You can progressively increase the duration of this exercise to about 10 minutes.