Why is breathing well so important? How can it improve our health and wellbeing? There are so many different styles and breathing patterns we can practice, so which are the most important, and where do we start when it comes to breathwork? Yoga Collective chief Yogi & breathwork practitioner Laura Pearce helps to break down this vast and complex field.
The ancient Yogis knew it the Buddhist monks know it, and now most of us westerners including countless professional athletes and wellbeing experts now extoll the virtues of breathwork for improving health, vitality, emotional wellbeing and even fitness. Your breath is the one bodily function that taps directly into the nervous system that we have CONSCIOUS control over. We can manipulate it, we can strengthen it and we can as a result manipulate and strengthen our nervous system. Breathwork has the power to create huge shifts in our physiology, from regulation of hormones to triggering tangible changes in your brain chemistry. The research shows us that breathwork can be a potent catalyst for change, and it's something that literally anyone can harness.
It’s thought that many people don’t breathe ‘properly’ – why is this and what impact can it have on our body and mind?
Whilst every body is different, and there is no one size fits all method for 'correct' breathing, yes it is true that a huge number of us have sub-optimal breathing patterns and unhealthy, or un-mobile breathing 'apparatus'. One of the most common ways in which these pathological patterns manifest is simply through high-stress living. When we are stressed, our nervous system tells us to hyperventilate - to get as much air in the body as quickly as possible to prepare us for fight or flight, and this means only using the upper chest to gulp some shorter, faster breaths in, leaving the lower lobes of the lungs, ribcage and diaphragm stagnant.
It's a vicious cycle; the more stressed we are, the more stress breathing we do, and the more stress breathing we do, the more stressed we become! The less we use the lower ribs and diaphragms, the weaker they become. The diaphragm is a huge muscle, and a very important core stabilizer, and the ribs are riddled with muscle too, all of which need to be kept strong and mobile not just to help with stress reduction, but also our general core health and mobility too.
What’s the idea behind breathwork and how can people use it to improve their health and happiness?
Breathwork helps us to break our aforementioned unhealthy breathing patterns, and reset the nervous system. Some breathwork modalities will help look at the physiology of the breath, usually involving a focus on diaphragmatic or belly breathing, to help us break free from the curse of upper chest breathing, and strengthen the diaphragm etc. whilst some breathwork practices focus on tapping into the nervous system and effecting the body on the more chemical/neurological level.
There is more and more research showing how profound the effects of breathwork can be. In the same way that drugs such as anti-depressants are thought to help 're-wire' the brain, certain breathwork modalities are now thought to do the same; creating big shifts across our entire nervous system, helping us to snap out of some persistent mindsets, and trigger neuroplasticity; literally changing the way we think and feel.
How did it help you personally?
I have a congenital heart condition and as a result struggled a lot with Dyspnoea ('air hunger') when I was younger which ultimately lead me down the rabbit hole of breathwork and Yoga. My doctors wanted me on inhalers and steroids but I learnt that the breath, as much as anything else can be trained, and it's an ever present tool that can help you stay calm and collected in almost any situation.
I began training my breath using both gentle daily practices, as well as more extreme work such as altitude training and freediving (long scary breath holds) and I'm grateful to say I no longer suffer with any kind of Dyspnoea whatsoever, and more than that I actually have impressive lung capacity and breath-hold capabilities now. Whilst my heart condition still needs to be observed occasionally, it doesn't need any other management or intervention. I know it's a cliché thing to say but breathwork for me has literally been a lifesaver...
Do you have any quick tips for people to improve their breathing?
One of the simplest ways we can improve our breathing is to take time when we're in stressful situations (ie at work) to breathe deeply and slowly into the belly, using the diaphragm. We breathe around 25000 times per day, you've got a hell of a lot of chances throughout the day to practice this!
Our work life can also affect the breath in other ways; we tend to have poor posture when we sit for long periods of time, the spine slumps forward and the front of the ribcage and diaphragm get a bit squished, meaning we don't fully expand them as we breathe. It's a bit like only doing a squat a few inches down, when we should really be going all the way down to knee height to improve our strength; the muscle isn't being used to it's fullest potential. The converse is actually true when we sit up too tall, or overarch the spine, for example if you have a natural pelvic tilt, or are just too over eager with your posture - we squish and restrict the back ribs and diaphragm.
It's really important to learn how to sit and practice your breathwork with a NEUTRAL spine. Allow the spine to feel long, but retain it's natural curvature, and sit level on the sit bones with a neutral pelvis. If you're not sure how to find this neutral position, google will help you out! It takes a bit of practice but will be worth it in the long run.
Are there specific modalities to help with different issues?
Absolutely! Let me take you through 3 key practices you can easily begin to dive into without too much prior experience, and what specifically they have been shown to help with:
For more energy
Tummo and Wim Hoff styles of breathwork that incorporate controlled and balanced hyperventilation can be great for shifting feelings of lethargy or sadness; they trigger the sympathetic or 'get-up-and-go' nervous system, energising and refreshing us. Try breathing quickly and deeply in for a count of 2, then forcefully and fully out for a count of 2, and repeat for a few rounds to really wake you up in the morning. Just be careful if you have high blood pressure or suffer from migraines or any PTSD type trauma, as this type of breathwork can exacerbate that sort of thing.
To sleep better
If you're a very poor sleeper I would actually keep it simple and remove any kind of overly conscious or forceful breath as we're trying to switch of the mind and relax the body before bed. Instead I would try some very gentle nasal breathing, trying to breath so imperceptibly that the breath becomes silent, and very slow. Keep it really gentle and simple, and if you really need help switching off after a stressful day make your exhales longer than your inhales, in this way we activate the parasympathetic (aka 'rest & recover') branch of the nervous system, helping to balance some of those naughty stress hormones. You can easily practice this lying down in bed as you drift off as a sort of meditative pre-sleep ritual.
To reduce stress
I would opt for a balancing breathwork practice for stress reduction such as box breathing. You Inhale for a count of 4, hold for a count of 4, exhale for 4, then pause for 4. If you can build up to an even slower breath (6,6,6,6 or even 8,8,8,8) this will also help to reduce stress and trigger a calming parasympathetic response in the body.