Breathwork: The power of the breath
Breath work is an incredibly potent tool. Oxygen is, literally, the breath of life. It is what powers us so that we can do everything asked of us, including staying alive minute to minute.
In fact, breathing is so fundamental to our existence that many people overlook it. However, the way in which you breathe (and train yourself to breathe) is impacted by, and can impact, your physical and emotional state in a very profound way.
You can calm yourself using breath work. It can help you to balance your body and mind.
There is nothing new about breath work. Although it does seem to be increasingly in vogue as the mindfulness community grows. Mindfulness is a fantastic yet simple tool to improve our overall wellbeing. People have been practicing it for thousands of years, with many rooting their practice firmly in various ancient yoga or chi gong traditions.
The basic theory underpinning breath work is simple. You can nourish your body and mind through proper, full inhalations, releasing stress and tension as you exhale. There are many more spiritual or alternative views as to what can be achieved through breath work. However, these ideas run through all styles more or less universally.
Why practice breath work?
Tentative research on breath work has proven promising. This backs up thousands of years’ worth of anecdotal evidence and practitioner experience. From a scientific standpoint, there are three main areas in which breath work can affect the body:
- alkalising your blood pH
- eliciting an anti-inflammatory response
- elevating your mood
Stress and duress typically cause us to adopt shallower, faster breathing patterns. This is due to our fight or flight response unleashing huge amounts of stress hormones. This then robs us of oxygen, depleting the amount in our bloodstreams.
However, when you slow your breath down, taking the time to breath more deeply at a more sedate, restful pace, this is reversed. You are telling your mind and body that you are OK. This, in turn, helps you to relax, diminishing the fight or flight response. Your body and mind function normally once more, optimally in fact, with far more oxygen coming in.
How can breath work help you?
As above, there are many health benefits to breath work practice. In its most basic form, everybody can benefit from practicing it regularly. This practice helps to overcome feelings of stress or lack of control. Mindfully focussing on the breath can help you recover and reset from the day-to-day stress that we all feel.
The physical, mental and emotional benefits of breath work include:
- Deeper sleep
- Balanced blood pressure
- Improved respiratory function
- Stronger immune health
- Reduction of trauma symptoms, including from PTSD
- Reduction of stress hormones like cortisol in the body
- Relieved symptoms of stress and anxiety
- Reduced feelings of depression
- More energy and better mental acuity
- Improved focus
- Relieved stress from addictive behaviours
- Heightened mood, including a more positive mental outlook
- Release tension throughout the entire body
- Improved regulation of heating and cooling of the body
Side effects and downsides to breath work
There are a few side effects to be wary of when practising breath work, especially at the beginning when you are still learning.
The main issue to look out for is hyperventilation. This may be particularly acute to those newer to breath work practice. Those that suffer from panic or anxiety disorder may be familiar with the effects of hyperventilating.
Hyperventilation is dangerous as it can cause the following effects:
- dizziness and fainting
- irregularity to your heart beat
- tingling in your extremities, such as your hands, arms, feet, or legs
- muscle spasms
- changes in vision from mild oxygen deprivation
- ringing in your ears
Severe cases of oxygen deprivation can cause permanent brain damage. This shouldn’t happen through regular breath work.
Efficacy can be an issue, particularly in beginners. There is nothing wrong with this. We all struggle with new skills when we first. However, you should be mindful of the fact that it may time. Perfecting any new practice takes time, patience and effort. Distraction during practice can make breath work less effective.
Therefore, try to practice in as calm and quiet a place as possible.
Common conditions helped by breath work
With the above benefits, there are several medical conditions that really stand to gain from regular breath work.
For instance, this practice can be very beneficial for those going through cancer treatment. Yoga breathing techniques have been found to improve sleep, anxiety, and quality of life for those undertaking chemotherapy.
Symptoms of hypothyroidism can also be mitigated by breath work. This is due to the beneficial effect on their pulmonary functions it elicits. In fact, yogis hold that ujjayi breathing in particular can bring balance to the endocrine system. This is very beneficial to those with thyroid concerns or looking to boost their immune function.
Those suffering with depression should also seriously consider including breath work in their everyday lives. Regular breath work has been shown to ease depressive symptoms. It achieves this by boosting levels of contentedness and by improving energy levels and outlook.
Mental health benefits of breath work are not limited to depression though. Breath work and meditation are considered key to improving mental and emotional health. Breath work also works to diminish the effects of stress and anxiety. It can aid positive development, helping you to process emotions and heal emotional pain and trauma. It can also assist in aiding mourning and loss.
As a mindfulness practice, it can improve self-awareness, creativity and increase confidence and self-esteem. This can also lead to greatly improved interpersonal relationships.
Press the re-set button with breath work practices
Because of all of its benefits, breath work can be very useful to those suffering from addiction. It helps to deal with the stress which can be a key trigger for relapse.
Breath work also helps to alleviate depression, anxiety, and cravings, all of which are commonly associated with addiction and recovery. Breath work is an amazing tool for releasing negative thoughts. This practice can help to rebalance your emotional, mental and physical wellbeing. It is available at any time when you need it. What is more, it is also free and easy to practice.
Common breath-work techniques
There are countless breath work techniques available to learn. However, there are a few common examples that are simple and can help you from your very first breath. Here are six of them, all of them are proven to work.
4-7-8 breathing involves adding counted beats as you inhale and exhale. It works as a meditation, allowing you to quieten your thoughts and focus your mind. Simply breath in deeply for four beats, hold your breath for seven beats, then exhale for eight. Each beat should last roughly one second. This longer exhalation enables you to empty your lungs more fully.
Deep abdominal breath work
Deep abdominal breath work is a mindfulness technique. To perform it, use long, deep breaths. Visualise your body filling with air, all the way from your abdomen upwards. Your chest, upper back and stomach should expand with each inhalation. Aim to broaden your collarbone and elongate your posture. Then, allow your chest then relax as you exhale, with your stomach coming back towards your spine.
Alternating nostril breathing
Alternating nostril breathing is another meditation, common to yoga. You begin by placing your right forefinger and middle finger to your temple. Use your thumb to block off your right nostril and inhale, using only the left nostril. Hold your breath as you take the pressure off your right nostril and use your finger to close off your left nostril. Exhale, using only your right nostril. Then breathe in using your left nostril, and repeat, alternating. Alternating nostril breathing encourages balance and calm.
Holotropic breath work
Holotropic breath work is quite an advanced technique. You would be best practicing with an experienced instructor. Also called circular breathing, the aim is to maintain a continuous inhale and exhale pattern. There should be no pause between breathes. It brings in as much oxygen as possible, giving you energy and rejuvenation.
Breath of fire
Breath of fire is another slightly more advanced technique. It aims to give you a sense of stability, grounding, and power. Keep your abdominal muscles relaxed as you breathe in. Then engage them through your exhalation, using your core to push as much air out of your lungs as possible.
Ujjayi breathing is a yogic technique for staying calm through stressful situations. This can apply to the yoga practice itself. It helps you to synchronise your movements with your breath, or to any broader demanding scenario. Ujjayi breathing helps you to override anxious thoughts, keep your heart rate low. Thus, keeping you present in the moment. Often called ocean, snake, or whispering breathing, or victorious breath. It is one of the more common aspects of yoga breathing.
You keep your mouth closed during ujjayi breathing. Lightly constrict your throat so that your breathing sounds almost like snoring. Controlling your diaphragm, you keep your tongue touching the roof of your mouth as you breath.
Learn breath work with Recoverlution
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Author - James
- Yoga breathing for cancer chemotherapy-associated symptoms and quality of life: results of a pilot randomised controlled trial https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22525009
- Treatment of Major Depressive Disorder with Iyengar Yoga and Coherent Breathing: A Randomised Controlled Dosing Study https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5359682/
- Effect of yoga on pulmonary function tests of hypothyroid patients https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21046920/