What is breathwork and why is it so important?
Most of our knowledge about the benefits of conscious breathing comes from the ancient Eastern philosophies and has been used as a vehicle for spiritual enlightenment, mental and physical performance for many centuries. Only recently has research on the mind-body connection with the breath been proven and science is agreeing. Oxygen is the most essential natural resource required by our cells. We can go without food for up to 40 days and without water for three days yet we get into trouble after just a few minutes of not breathing. From a purely physical point of view, breath equals life. Breathing is automatic in the way that our heart beats and our eyes blink and often we take that for granted. However, when we learn to consciously breathe and become more aware and present with our breath it has a multitude of benefits on a mental, emotional and physical and spiritual level. We can change the way we feel and think and change our states from feeling anxious to calm, tired to energised or scattered to focused. On a deeper level with breathwork we are able to get to the roots of stress, chronic pain, fatigue, gut issues, anxiety and nervous system imbalances.
Put simply, learning how to use the full capacity of our natural breathing system is comparable to giving our body and mind a recalibration and reset. Due to modern lifestyles and pressures research shows that nine out of ten teenagers and adults are not using their respiratory system to its’ full capacity and using a little as a third and nervous systems are fragile.
We can consciously change our physiology and mindset by changing the depth, rhythm and rate of our breathing. Stimulation, activity and demands are all around us – and our responsibilities, commitments and worries prevent us from feeling calm and staying in the moment.
How did you first discover breathwork?
I have been studying and practicing holistic therapies for over twenty years and came across breathwork twelve years ago and it changed my life in many ways. It helped me to understand my own root cause to anxiety and depression and have a deeper understanding of my patterns in life and progress way beyond my expectations. I have always had a passion for somatic work, physiology and natural healing. The mind and body are intrinsically linked. I have worked with 1000’s of people all over the world and I am always inspired as to how powerful the breath can be when we learn to harness it. The breath is a multi-faceted tool that we can use for all challenges and experiences we have in life.
Who can benefit from breathwork?
Whether you’re feeling the pressure from work deadlines or struggling to process the latest headlines, conscious breathing can help to reduce your stress levels in less than five minutes. At a time when so many of us young and old are struggling to keep our stress levels under control, we’re always on the lookout for a new self-care activity or relaxation practice to help us keep things in balance. Bringing awareness to your breath brings us to a space of presence which helps massively with focus and concentration. We are not stuck in the past or future or a spiral of ruminating thoughts.
It also helps to support good physical, mental and emotional health, because taking control of your breathing can influence the way you respond, act, operate and perform. We teach our children to eat, communicate, walk and cleanse yet the benefits of conscious breathing is not high on the curriculum. I have seen incredible transformations in people experiencing breathwork from reducing pain, relieving asthma, combatting poor sleep patterns and improving autoimmune disease symptoms. In short breathwork has benefits for everyone.
What are the key benefits of breathwork?
Breathing detoxifies and strengthens our immune system. Around 70% of our toxins are released from our body through our breath. Healthy breathing can improve sleeping patterns, respiratory issues and improve our immune and digestive system. By releasing tension from the diaphragm and our primary breathing muscles we can enhance our physical performance in practices such as running, singing, yoga or sports.
On a mental level, we have something like 50,000 thoughts a day and not all of them are very useful. The quality of our breath helps to relax the mind and enhance the ability to learn, focus, concentrate and memorise. Breathwork helps us to become conscious of our thoughts, feel more confident, increase our energy levels and be more mindful of what we are putting into our bodies. The brain requires a great deal of oxygen to function and breathwork helps us to achieve clarity and be more productive. It also relieves anxiety, depression and negative thought patterns. Breathing properly can help us overcome addictive patterns of behaviour and eating disorders as well as igniting our creativity once we get out of the way of ourselves.
By reducing stress, it improves our mood, elevating the levels of serotonin and endorphins. A 2013 study by Harvard Medical School’s psychiatry department showed that people who meditated daily for four years have longer telomeres – the protective caps found on the end of chromosomes – than those who do not. Short telomeres have been linked to premature cellular ageing.
The breath is the bridge linking our mind and body. The practice of conscious breathing techniques helps to stimulate our parasympathetic nervous system, bringing us to a calm state. Diaphragmatic breathing stimulates the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) which allows the body to rest and digest, slowing the heart rate, lowering blood pressure and respiratory rate and diverting blood supply towards the digestive and reproductive systems.
When the Parasympthetic Nervous System is active, the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) becomes less active - they counteract each other. The SNS raises heart rate, blood pressure and respiratory rate, diverting blood to the brain and skeletal muscle in readiness for fight or flight. By deactivating or overriding the SNS, we can interrupt the vicious cycle of adrenaline and cortisol which contribute to chronic stress levels and predispose us to panic attacks and anxiety.
We cannot necessarily control what is going on around us and just by opening our inbox, having to hit deadlines and commitments or reading the news can send us into flight or flight activating our Sympathetic Nervous System. By being aware of our breathing we can take care of how it affects us on the inside. Being present and practicing these breathing techniques every day helps us feel more in control of our multi-tasking.
Do surroundings make a difference?
Breathwork is something you can practice anywhere, on the train, in the queue when you are getting a coffee, when you are walking or before a presentation. There are 1000’s of techniques and some are more suitable for when you are on the go or trying to get to sleep whereas others are more therapeutic and would be best practiced in a space where you feel comfortable and will not be interrupted.
Whether your mind is in another place, in a conversation that hasn’t happened, stuck in stories, or feeling overwhelmed or anxious about the future, your breath has the power to pull you gently back to the present. In times of uncertainty nothing is more empowering than our own breath. By becoming aware of your breath and how you are breathing in each moment there is an opportunity to change your states and grow.
By allowing our body to relax each time we inhale and exhale, we unwind stored tension. We create space for the lungs and by reducing stress in the body, aid our digestive system and thinking more clearly. By helping to connect to the breath in your body and encouraging the breath into your belly, these exercises can be easy to do any time you feel a little anxious or need to become calm and focussed.
So wherever you are right now get comfortable and become aware of your breathing and notice how the breath is moving in your body. Be aware of your surroundings, the ground beneath your feet and the temperature and then bring your awareness to your breath. Stay focussed on the inhale and the exhale and bring all your focus to your breath. Feel your feet on the ground and allow your shoulders to relax and your jaw to relax. Spine is straight and just keep present and focused on the inhale and exhale and just stay with your breath. Breathe in through your nose and out through your nose, as you inhale allow the shoulders to stay down and bring the movement of the breath into your belly and less in the upper chest. As you inhale your belly contracts out, as you exhale you belly comes in.
What’s the best way to introduce yourself to breathwork?
Here is a simple exercise for beginners to practice on your own:
Prop yourself up on the bed at a semi-reclined angle with cushions or pillows behind you so your chest is higher than your legs. Make sure you are warm and comfortable, and that your head and neck are supported. Place your hands on your lower abdomen - a few inches below the navel. Take a deep inhalation through the nose, belly should rise like a balloon, leave a tiny pause and then exhale gently out through the mouth. Stay present with the inhale and the exhale. Repeat up to 1-2 minutes and notice any physical sensations in the body. Rest for one minute as you return to a normal breathing pattern – breathing through the nose.
Another wonderful little breathing exercise that you could slot into any time of the day to give you peace, relaxation and some moments of calm:
Sit comfortably in an upright position and close your eyes. Draw in a very slow, long inhale through both nostrils for as long as comfortable. Relax your shoulders and encourage the movement of the breath to be in your lower abdominals and ribcage. Relax your jaw. Hold the breath for as long as comfortable. Relax in the hold, at no point should this feel hard. Exhale through both nostrils for as long as is comfortable. Repeat five rounds of this exercise and then pause and observe how you feel.
I use this exercise on a regular basis. It relaxes the muscles, calms the mind, promotes circulation and creates a sense of peace. It’s an effective way to ground yourself and check how you are feeling at the start of the day. It promotes mental stillness while encouraging a deeper, more mindful breath.
This exercise can be done seated or lying down in bed in the morning to wake yourself up, make yourself more alert and connect to how you’re feeling at the beginning of the day. You can also practice this exercise at work, when you’re on your phone, when someone is speaking, while studying to recharge and find fresh energy, or to help you sleep.
Like any practice, the most challenging part of this exercise is to make space to do it. Start small and simple with five rounds. As it gets easier to sit for longer, add a few rounds on and begin to build a broader and more expansive breath. Notice where you feel more space, more length and more strength, and acknowledge where you feel more energy and alertness.
The inhale and exhale don’t need to be a particular length, nor do you need to observe the ratio between the inhale and exhale. Make sure that the inhale and exhale are deep and full and practised without struggle.
In the moment where you are holding the breath, consciously relax your jaw, throat, neck, shoulders, diaphragm and abdominal muscles. The more relaxed you are, the easier it will be to hold the breath for longer.
For beginner’s and advanced retreats, workshops, one on ones and courses you can find more details on www.breathingtree.co.uk
There are free audios to breathe with on her podcast And Breathe. Rebecca has written and published three books with Penguin. Her latest books are on audible and in print, Breathe – A Practical Guide To Breathwork and Let It Go. Both offer easy to use steps to understanding the full power of your breath.
Copyright Rebecca Dennis @Breathing Tree