“Mindful breathing is your seatbelt in everyday life –
it keeps you safe here in the present moment” – Thich Nhat Hanh
how we breathe matters
‘Yes, breathing in different patterns really can influence our body weight and overall health. Yes, how we breathe really does affect the size and function of our lungs. Yes, breathing allows us to hack into our own nervous system, control our immune response and restore our health. Yes, changing how we breathe will help us live longer.’
James Nestor, ‘Breath, The New Science of a Lost Art’
of toxins are released from the body through the breath
the average number of breaths we take into our lungs every day
the average number of litres of air we breathe in every day
Breathwork is not new
The healing power of the breath has been known for thousands of years. Many traditional cultures created different breathing techniques for therapeutic use, based on an understanding of the interconnection between the breath, mind and body; deliberately using the breath to cause changes in physical, emotional and mental states. They include the Indian tradition of ‘pranayama’ breathing in yoga and mindful breathing in Buddhism.
Western culture was slow to catch on: breathwork as therapy was popularised in the 1960s with the Rebirthing Breathwork movement and Holotropic Breathwork. Since then, the field of breathwork has greatly expanded giving rise to a huge and sometimes confusing range of different techniques and brands.
Benefits of Breathwork
Mental and Emotional Benefits
The frenetic pace of modern living means that our autonomic nervous system is often in the fight or flight state, characterised by high levels of adrenaline in the body, increased heart rate and shallow, upper chest breathing. The brain interprets these physical symptoms as a threat and increases the stress response, creating a cycle of stress and anxiety that is hard to break. Many of us become trapped in our overactive minds, finding it impossible to switch off the mental chatter and relax. It becomes harder to sleep, harder to focus and harder to find pleasure in life. We can become totally disconnected from our bodies. This is where breathwork can help, by deliberately engaging the calming parts of our nervous system and allowing us to regain control of our emotional and mental state.
Conscious Connecting Breathing allows us to reconnect with the body and its innate healing power. Given the opportunity, the body knows how to release the physical tension we all hold. It can also access the emotional tension that we file away every time we suppress our emotions – think of how many times you have held your breath in response to irritation, frustration, anger, hurt or sadness – this emotional energy is stored and, over time, accumulates, often manifesting as mental, emotional or physical pain. Breathwork can take us deeper into ourselves, so that we become aware of limiting beliefs, habits, behaviours and patterns that may not be accessible through conventional talking therapies. The body can then release our emotional blockages, past trauma and negative patterns of thought and behaviour, leaving us feeling lighter and freer.
The mental and emotional benefits include:
- Alleviating stress and anxiety
- Relief from burnout, overwhelm and depression
- Deep relaxation
- Self-acceptance and compassion
- Improved self-esteem
- Sense of peace
- Inner calm
- Increased sense of positivity
Although we have all been breathing since birth, most people are not doing it very well! We develop suboptimal breathing habits in response to many factors, especially the suppression of emotion, societal conditioning and the stress of modern life. Traumatic experiences can also have a long-lasting effect on the way we breathe, constricting our breath and creating tension in our bodies.
A common example of this is restricted use of the diaphragm, a powerful muscle that separates the abdomen from the chest. Although it is our primary breathing muscle, many of us do not use it effectively and breathe mainly with the secondary breathing muscles in the neck, upper chest and back. If this becomes the default breathing pattern, it can create a cycle that keeps the body in a stressed state.
Breathwork can be used to remove restricted breathing patterns and improve the way we breathe, bringing more oxygen into the system and offering a number of physical benefits, including:
- Increased energy
- Increased respiratory capacity
- Improved metabolism
- Improved athletic performance
- Improved digestion
- Enhanced detoxification
- Better posture
- Better sleep
Once you master the deep, slow, diaphragmatic breathing taught by Bristol Breathwork, you will develop a potentially life-changing relationship with your breath. Integrating 10-15 minutes of Conscious Connecting Breathing into your daily routine can bring calm, balance and peace to your life. It is a truly self-empowering practice – once learnt it is always there for you to use when you wish.
Understanding Breathwork tools
If you are new to breathwork, it can be difficult to distinguish between all the available breathwork tools. I find the ‘ART of breathwork’ framework developed by Dr Ela Manga, a South African integrative doctor, very helpful in this regard. She groups breathwork practices in three areas: Breath Awareness, Breath Regulation and Breath Transformation.
Breath awareness is the foundation of all breathwork. To control your breath, you need to become aware of how you breathe and the more conscious you become of your breath, the more conscious you become of your thoughts, feelings and behaviour.
Start by noticing how you breathe in everyday life: when you are happy, relaxed, frustrated, stressed, or angry. Is your breath slow, quick, deep, shallow, smooth, chaotic, forced or effortless? Which parts of your body move when you breathe?
The more aware you become of changes in your breathing in response to triggers, the more in tune you become with yourself and your body.
These are techniques that use the breath to regulate our autonomic nervous system in some way and include:
1. Energising practices: e.g. the yoga Breath of Fire, or the modern Wim Hof Method.
2. Relaxing practices: e.g. Humming Bee Breath, or the 4-7-8 Breathing technique for insomnia.
3. Balancing practices, e.g. Coherent Breathing and Alternate Nostril Breathing, which bring a sense of coherence to the body/mind system.
Regulation techniques are very useful to help us to wake up, fall asleep, focus, or calm anxiety, and they do not require a special time or place so can easily be integrated into a daily routine.
These include Rebirthing, Holotropic Breathwork, Transformational Breath and the Conscious Connected Breathing technique used by Bristol Breathwork.
These are powerful techniques which require a trained facilitator because they can be deeply cathartic and offer access to the subconscious mind and the patterns that exist there. They allow the body to release long-held emotional and physical tension and can create profound shifts in patterns of thought and behaviour.
They also help to free up the breathing mechanism, allowing us to breathe much more effectively and improving physical health.