Why Breathwork is the best medicine
Have you ever been flustered, and heard the advice: “Take a deep breath”?
It’s something many of us are told from a young age. Now that very concept has become a wellbeing movement.
But if breathing is something we do automatically, why must we work on it? Well, it can yield significant, positive changes in temperament while reducing stress levels in a matter of seconds. The relationship between breath and mood is strong. When we become panicky or anxious, breath tends to become shallow and rapid. Consciously changing our rate of inhalation / exhalation can induce relaxation and calm the nervous system.
Deep breathing exercises have been shown to improve mood and reduce anxiety while lowering heart rate, and levels of cortisol as measured by blood and saliva (1). The practice of deep breathing also promotes the ability of the mind, fosters more positive regulation of emotions and allows for conditions in which physical and spiritual healing can become present (2). Another study found that breathing exercises benefitted temperament, built positive character traits and dissolved hostility (3).
In a Yoga Journal article on ‘The Science of Breathing’, writer Jessica Levine cites clinical professor Patricia Gerbarg, who says most people tend to breath quite quickly, between 14 and 20 times per minute, which is significantly higher than the 5 or 6 times per minute proven to help you feel your best. Breathing practice, however, is only effective when it becomes a daily ritual, “like showering or brushing your teeth” (4). Breath holding, in particular, can help with PTSD, f ear, anxiety and doubt. Negative / limiting thoughts can come up and be released during these phases. Voluntarily bringing up these feelings, and working through them, helps us to handle them when they come up in everyday life.
But what exactly constitutes breath work? According to acclaimed practitioner Dan Brule, author of Just Breathe, it is “the use of breath awareness and conscious breathing for healing and growth, personal awakening, and transformation in spirit, mind and body”. It is now being taught and applied in (among many other fields) anger management, athletic coaching, childbirth, corporate training, counseling, dentistry, drug abuse prevention / rehabilitation, education, military training, nursing, pain management, performing arts, psychology, public speaking, social work, speech therapy, stress management and PTSD treatment. Brule adds that breath awareness is a form of mindfulness practice. It is not a thinking process, but a feeling process.If you need to control yourself (mind, body, emotions, posture or behavior) then “start by getting control of your breathing”.
As a general rule, visualize breathing deeply down into your belly, feel your ribs expand as the air fills your lungs from the bottom upwards, with your chest being the final body part to ‘fill’. To exhale, allow everything to relax while very gently engaging the lower abdomen to push the air gradually out.
Below are 5 breathwork techniques that you can try today …
1 – Box Breathing
Box Breathing involves light breath holds at the top and bottom of the inhale and exhale.
Each element of the breathing lasts for the same amount of time, hence the use of the word ‘box’. For example, if you inhale for 4 seconds, hold at the top for 4 seconds, then exhale for 4 seconds and hold at the bottom for 4 seconds. It’s that simple. It is good to begin with 4 seconds and work your way up from there as you feel comfortable.
2 – Sleep Breathing (aka the 4-7-8 technique)
The 4-7-8 technique is a breathing pattern developed by Dr Andrew Weill, based on the ancient pranayama yogic technique. This method, when practiced regularly, helps us to drop off more easily thanks to the calming effect it has on the nervous system, while allowing thoughts to dissolve thanks to the innate focus on the rhythm and feeling of the breath itself.
To use this method, lie on your back, exhale all the air from your mouth with a slight ‘whoosh’ sound. Close your mouth and inhale through your nose for 4 seconds, hold for 7 seconds, then release – totally relaxed – for 8 seconds, with the same ‘whoosh’ sound as before.
3 – Wim Hof Method
Wim Hof, aka ‘The Ice Man’ is a Dutch pioneer of human potential, famed for breaking numerous world records, including climbing mount Everest in his boxer shorts, and being submerged in ice for over 20 minutes, managing to increase his internal body temperature in the process – using the power of his mind.
The Wim Hof Method (WHM) essentially involves taking 30 deep breaths, followed by one particularly full breath in and a full exhale, where you then hold at the bottom for as long as you can (just past your comfort zone) before taking a deep breath in and holding at the top for 15 seconds. Allow a few breaths to return to a feeling of normality and repeat this process 3 or 4 times. It is worth exercising caution when attempting any practice that includes breath holds. If you feel uncomfortable at any point, simply relax and breath normally.
4 – Heart Coherence
Heart coherence refers to the continuous fluctuations of the heart. It is associated with a positive state or mood, a feeling of inner balance and centered-ness, alert yet relaxed, energized yet calm. Inhale for 5 seconds and out for 5 seconds. Try doing this for 1 minute per day, working up to 5 minutes, 3 times per day.
5 – Recovery Breathing
This style is possibly the most simple of this selection. It is very useful for during exercises sessions, in between sets, or if you’ve just had a particularly stressful encounter. Essentially, you exhale for twice as long as you inhale. If you feel short of breath, try to inhale for 2, and exhale for 4. For a more relaxing recovery feeling, breath in for 4 and out for 8. You can even try breathing in for 8 and out for 16. Again, please exercise caution if attempting any particularly lengthy breaths.
(1) Pericavalle et al, 2016 (2) Scott Young et al, 2010 (3) Miller and Neilson, 2015 (4) Brule, 2017