Have you ever stopped to think about your breath? We breathe around 25,000 times every day without much thought. Your body just does it for you. At its simplest level, your breath is the air you take in and out of your lungs. But your breath is your life force. To me, it’s a magical power!
I first became interested in breath-work when I was pregnant with my daughter. I learnt how different breathing techniques can help with childbirth; to manage pain and to help stay calm. I was really afraid of giving birth and realised a few months before my due date that my head was so firmly in the sand that I'd not allowed myself to focus on the birth part. As it started to get nearer I felt quite anxious. I came across hypnobirthing and it was exactly what I needed. I learnt so much from it about the body, the brain and the breath and I had a really wonderful, positive birth experience. That was in 2017 and I used the same techniques again with my son in 2019.
I continued to learn about the breath through yoga, mindfulness and meditation.
The benefits of breathing properly
Paying closer attention to the way you breathe can help you on both a physical and emotional level, and doing regular breathing exercises can massively transform your life. Getting more oxygen into your body can:
improve physical performance
help you sleep better
rejuvenate your organs
prevent or heal from illness
prevent the accumulation of stress and anxiety
help you manage emotions (like grief)
improve your mental health.
Your breath is incredibly healing. Most people's breathing is dysfunctional, with shallow breaths, and breath holding. This can have negative consequences.
Now I use breathing techniques almost daily to help me stay calm and grounded. I use it every time I do cold-water therapy to prepare my mind and body for getting into cold water.
In chaos, breathwork can guide you into stillness, so that you become the eye of the storm. And in crisis, it helps you find your way back to your centre. When so much seems to be out of our control, our breath is the one thing that we can rely on. It will never fail us, it will always make us calmer and when we are calm it changes how we perceive the world and how we react to it.
How can I get started with breathwork?
The simplest and most effective way is to consciously slow your rate of breathing. This will help you breathe more deeply. The more you do this and you practice it, it will improve the way you breathe.
James Nestor says the perfect breath is 5.5 seconds in, and 5.5 seconds out. You can practise this pattern for a few minutes or a few hours. Breathing for longer on the out-breath than the in-breath can help stress and anxiety as it slows your heart rate.
There are lots of different breathing techniques you can do, as well as breathing meditations to help guide you for a longer period. Insight Timer is my favourite meditation app and the best part is that it's free.
A quick google search will bring up results on square breathing, circle breathing, star breathing, holotropic breathing and many more. Each one will affect your body in different ways.
Breathing to process challenging emotions
A few months ago, to continue my professional development I did a training course with breathwork guru Max Strom called Breathe to Heal, all about how breathing can help us process and release our emotions like anxiety, stress, grief and trauma.
I learnt that unprocessed emotions don't go anywhere, they stay in the body and they build, draining our energy, leading to burnout and emotional imbalance which undermines our wellbeing and can eventually lead to chronic health problems.
The specific causes of stress and anxiety takes on a different form for everyone. However there is a very clear common denominator. The emotional challenges that lie at the base of anxiety, panic attacks and depression are due to being taught socially from a very young age to suppress and numb our feelings. This leaves us walking around with a freezer in our chest of un-reconciled and unexpressed emotions. The work of Brene Brown teaches us that most people can’t even name our feelings and emotions properly and you have to be able to do this to acknowledge, feel and process them.
The benefits of mindful breathing
Using conscious (or mindful) breathing patterns can bring you back to a peaceful and calm state as well as gift you with insight and knowledge. Journaling or having coaching can pull this insight out of your mind which helps you process it further, creates even more clarity and the ability to move past tricky emotions. With this new insight you can feel empowered to make new and meaningful life decisions. Freeing these emotions can bring positive transformation to our lives.
As part of my coaching programmes I include a breathing exercise at the start to help clients feel calm and grounded ready for the session. And during some of my wellbeing workshops I include breathing exercises, meditation and yoga nidra (conscious sleep).
Breathwork: further reading
If you’d like to find out more about breath-work. Here are some people who have inspired me:
1. James Nestor - Breath book
2. Max Strom - TED Talk
3. Rebecca Dennis - Let It Go book
4. Besel Van Der Kolk - The Body Keeps The Score book
Insight Timer is also a great, free app with lots of breathing based meditations.
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