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The remarkable impact of breathwork on wellbeing

‘From first cry to last sigh’: The remarkable impact of breathwork on wellbeing

‘We assume, at our peril, that breathing is a passive action, just something that we do: breathe, live; stop breathing, die. But breathing is not binary,’ says pulmonaut James Nestor. Since the pandemic, however, the world seems to be waking up to the immense healing power of conscious breathwork.

A Google Trends analysis recently revealed that people did more searches for ‘deep breathing’ to combat anxiety when the pandemic arrived in mid-March. While this reflects an appreciation of how breathing can positively impact our mental health, its effects extend to all realms of wellbeing.

This is perhaps why the Greek word pneuma, the Sanskrit prana, the Chinese qi, the Hebrew nefes and the Polynesian mana don’t just mean ‘breath’; they also mean ‘spirit’. And so, although in our recent Lessons on Literature post, we briefly touched on Nestor’s book Breath: The new science of a lost art, this fundamental, yet often-acknowledged process deserves greater attention.

Nasal breathing: the respiratory system’s support

Research old and new highlights the value of nasal breathing. Not only did our noses evolve to efficiently filter, moisten and warm the air before entering the lungs, but they also release far more nitrous oxide than breathing through the mouth. Why does nitrous oxide matter? Well, according to LVI Global, it plays a role in every organ of our bodies, including but not limited to:

  • Enhancing memory and learning
  • Promoting a healthy digestive tract
  • Anti-inflammatory action in the arteries
  • Regulating bladder function 

On the other hand, low nitrous oxide levels, which result from mouthbreathing, have been linked to an array of diseases from Irritable Bowel Disease to Alzheimer’s. This is also why you may feel tired a lot of the time. If you breathe through your mouth, you lose carbon dioxide which prevents the release of oxygen to your organs and tissues. In this way, contrary to popular belief, carbon dioxide is actually more fundamental than oxygen.

Unfortunately, mouth breathing also makes inhaling more difficult over time because it loosens the soft tissues at the back of the mouth, thereby reducing the overall space. So, if you want some simple advice on how to transform your wellbeing, the first step is to breathe through your nose.

Exhaling: the root of relaxation

Deep, slow, controlled, conscious, yogic, abdominal. These are all words associated with the enormous power of the exhale. Most of us live in a state of fast, shallow breathing known as hyperventilation which shuts down the diaphragm and engages our smaller upper ribs. Over time, this leads to negative physiological and musculoskeletal changes.

So, how does exhaling improve our wellbeing? Author Matt Owen notes that when we exhale fully, we’re asking our body to relax. Specifically, a deep, slow breath stimulates the vagus nerve - the longest nerve in the autonomic nervous system. In turn, this switches on the parasympathetic nervous system, which allows crucial processes to occur, such as sleep, immune activities, and digestion.

For centuries, this practice has been lauded by healers of all cultures. Indeed, the Taoist text, the Zhuangzi, says that ordinary men “breathe from their throats” but the sage “breathes from his heels”. Having laid the foundations of breathwork, let’s take a deeper look into different breathing techniques.

Transformational breathing techniques

Diaphragmatic (belly) breath – According to Nestor, “there is no more essential technique, and none more basic” than this practice.

  • Find a comfortable place to sit or lie down.
  • Place one hand on your chest and one hand on your stomach. The aim of this practice is to keep the chest hand still and lift the stomach hand.
  • Breathe in for 5 seconds through your nose and feel the air inflate your stomach. You should feel a stretch sensation deep inside your chest, which is the diaphragm firing.
  • Then gently exhale for 7 seconds using your stomach muscles to push out the last of the air. Pause. Repeat 10 times, 3 times a day. Osteopath Nick Potter notes that if you feel light-headed, this is due to the change in gaseous exchange in your lungs and shows how much your body is used to dysfunctional breathing!

Resonant (HRV) breathing – A calming practice that helps bring our heart, lungs and circulation into a state of coherence. It is similar to diaphragmatic breathing, except the inhale and exhale both last for 5.5 seconds without a pause.

Nadi Shodhana - Improves lung function, lowers heart rate, blood pressure and sympathetic stress. It is best practiced on an empty stomach.

  • Place the thumb of your right hand over your right nostril and the ring finger over the left nostril. The forefinger and middle finger should rest between the eyebrows.
  • Gently close your right nostril with your thumb and inhale through your left nostril.
  • At the top of the breath, close the left nostril with your ring finger. Pause briefly with both nostrils closed.
  • Lift the thumb to exhale through the right nostril.
  • Keep the right nostril open, inhale, then close it, and exhale through the left.
  • Repeat this cycle 5 to 10 times. 

There are a plethora of further techniques such as the infamous ‘Iceman’ Wim Hof who popularised Tummo breathwork. This involves 30-40 short, deep breaths, and activates the sympathetic nervous system as a way of decreasing inflammation. Then we have Kapalabhati, or “skull-shining”, practice which consists of alternating short, explosive exhales and longer exhales to cleanse the throat, lungs and nasal passages and supply the brain with oxygen.

Each practice has its own purpose, but they all have the same overarching result: improved wellbeing. And so, we close with Owen’s beautiful reminder of the breath’s inextricable relationship with good health:

“Whenever my mind starts to trample me, whenever I feel my perception turning skittish and clawing, I go to the base of my stomach, and I make it the limit of my thought. It is always there, this respite, this remembrance that everything layered on top cannot possibly be as important as the miracle of my body keeping me from death.”