Updated: Oct 6, 2022
Conscious breathing is by far the most power technique I have ever learned for improving mental and physical health. We breathe around 23 000 times per day. Most of this is unconscious. The amazing thing about breath is that it is one of the few aspects of our nervous system that can be consciously controlled to help regulate unconscious parts of our body. This has been known and practiced for 1000's of years, originating in modern day India, China and Tibet.
So, Breathing, What is it Good For?
The science of breathwork is frankly, remarkable. Study, after study has demonstrated it's profound effects on the mind & body. Here is a brief summary of the what breathwork can help: stress, anxiety, depression, PTSD, trauma, sleep, energy, endurance, detoxification, blood flow, blood pressure, heart health, immune function, focus and muscle tension. Most of the time, when you practice breathwork, multiple areas of your health are improved simultaneously but different practices can be utilized for different purposes. I explore this a lot with my clients with my breathwork training and breathwork coaching. Later in this article I am going to introduce 3 breathign techniques which you can use right away to start changing your overall physical and mental states. First, however, I want to take a deeper dive into some of the ways breathwork helps us feel better.
Our autonomic nervous system can be separated into two parts which help govern our bodily functions. First, is the sympathetic nervous system which controls and stimulates the 'fight or flight' response which increases heart rate, respiration and the release of adrenaline, epinephrine and cortisol. The second part, or branch is known as the parasympathetic nervous system. This regulates the 'rest and relax' response in your body which soothes, calms and relaxes your body and mind. Breathing is a unique exception to the autonomic nervous system in that it functions automatically and you can voluntarily regulate it. In addition to managing stress, conscious breathing can also help obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention deficit disorder and schizophrenia.
There is a nerve in our bodies called the vagus nerve. It is the largest cranial nerve and runs from the head all the way down to the stomach. It helps control heart-beat, breathing and digestion. It is a two-way street so signals can go from the brain, and be recieved by the brain. This makes it an interested nerve which can be stimulate to produce additional relaxation responses through breathwork. As we cannot control, our heart-beat or digestion we can utilize conscious breathing to enact changes in our mind-body.
Specifically, when we lengthen the exhale, we stimulate the parasympathetic branch of the ANS which creates a relaxation response in our body. This is often why, if you are experiencing a panic attack, you are asked to breathe into a paper bag. By slowing our breathing, we build up carbon dioxide in the blood which can stop our amygdala from reacting so strongly.
Yes, breathwork also helps treat minor and major depression. There are many different kinds of breathing that have been shown to help. This study in particular shows that a particular kind of yogic breathing can be of great benefit. The capacity for our body to increase our carbon dioxide levels has been long known to relax the nervous system and help regulate moods much better.
This is one of my personal favorite benefits of conscious breathing. We can improve our attention, focus and energy by stimulating our nervous system through different physiological pathways, some we are aware of and some we have yet to discover.
Studies show that by incorporating high frequency breathing, people can increase their ability to sustain and direct attention, which indicates an improved feeling of wakefulness. It is thought that this state is created by stimulating the sympathetic nervous system and reducing vagal activity nerve activity (which normally relaxes us).
Sleep & Insomnia
Many people in today's business world have trouble with sleeping. Both the quality & quantity of sleep has been heavil impacted by stress and multiple distractions. This is correlated with autonomic nervous system dysfunction, specifically how it relates to vagal activity and the vagal nerve. Various breathing practices modulate vagal activity and can help us sleep. Elongated breathing and humming have been shown to greatly impact our vagal nerve and induce sympathetic nervous system suppression and parasympathetic nervous system activation.
One of my favorite breathwork benefits is heart health. Nitric Oxide is a vasodilator gas that is produced in the paranasal sinuses and when we breathe through our nose, it gets produced and excreted throug our nasal airways. This gas works by opening our blood vessels which improves blood flow to various areas of the body.
One study, suggested that slow, yogic breathing techniques produce a beneficial effect on the cardiovascular system by effecting autonomic variables. This plays a role in cardiac function such as blood pressure and heart rate.
How to Practice Conscious Breathing
With that in mind, I’d like to outline a few exercises you can try next time you're feeling anxious, stressed or your reaction to a phobia is getting out of control.
This is one of my favorites as a breathwork coach because it is SO effective and simple. All you need to do is inhale through the nose for 3 seconds, pause, then exhale through the mouth for 9 full seconds. That’s it! The key here is to take long inhales and extended exhales and repeat this for at least 6 times. Ideally, if your body and mind is in quite a stressed state, you can do this up to 20 times. This can be done anywhere, anytime and is also useful to help us sleep.
Belly Breathing or Diaphragmatic Breathing
When we are stressed, we breathe in a shallow way and through the chest. Shallow breathing can limit the diaphragm’s range of motion, which can make you feel short of breath or anxious. Shallow breathing can also push your nervous system into a “fight or flight” response, making you feel tense and anxious which will further compound any negative feelings or reactions you are having.
Diaphragmatic breathing is easy to practice:
Place one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach. Begin by breathing in through the nose. The point is to make sure your stomach (diaphragm) is expanding first as opposed to your chest.
Your inhale should be easy and light. There should be a natural rise upwards in the chest, all the way up to the clavicle bones as you continue to bring in the air into your lungs.
Once your chest is ‘full’ slowly breathe out, exhaling from the diaphragm again. You should be feeling minimal movement in the chest and deliberately using your diaphragm to exhale the air from your body.
Yogic breathing is also referred to as pranayama breathing. This is a powerful & ancient breathing technique which is best practiced over time. Similar to the 1-3 breath, pranayama is a consciously controlled breath cycle which increases the time between inhalation and exhalation. A great beginner sequence for pranayama is:
Breathe in for 4 seconds
Pause for 4 seconds
Breathe out for 6 seconds
Pause for 2 seconds
Repeat this daily for 15-20 minutes and as often as you can throughout the day. It’s a great way to improve physical and mental health and help your body learn to be in a more relaxed state more often.
Breathwork is a fantastic modality to integrate into your regular health & wellness routines. The benefits are felt both gradually and immediatley. I highly recommend anyone who is looking to improve their physical and mental well-being to learn more about breathwork. As always, feel free to contact me with any questions or suggestions on how I can help you live a more meaningful, purpose driven and emotionally fulfilled life.