Whether your aim is improved health, mental calm or achieving transcendence, breathing techniques can help you get there.
You never know when you’re going to meet someone who will change the course of your life. For me, it happened about five years ago when, without knowing what I was getting myself into, I signed up to a course in the Netherlands run by Wim Hof – the legendary master of cold exposure.
Hof is an extraordinary teacher, best known for his world records and other endurance feats, such as previously holding the title for completing the longest-ever ice bath, running a barefoot half-marathon in the Arctic Circle and climbing most of Mount Everest dressed in shorts.
One of the most important elements of his method for making people fall in love with low temperatures is what he calls ‘conscious breathing’. By controlling the breath, he turns the experience of being in freezing water, which would normally be a fight for survival, into something profoundly meditative.
Back when I met Hof, my life was a constant struggle – I was always getting ill, feeling depressed and generally unhappy. I was looking for ways to improve my immune system and increase my energy levels. I didn’t know then that the answer to many of my questions would be this obvious: just breathe.
Respiration influences many of the processes in our body that have a direct impact on our physical and mental health. Each day, we take around 20,000 breaths, so over the years it adds up. With every inhalation, our heart rate speeds up and with every exhalation, it slows down.
The nervous system is especially sensitive to changes in breathing rate. Through our breath, we can change our state from stress to relaxation, or from feeling dull to being energised. Longer term, through being more attentive to the way we breathe, we can benefit our health and longevity. In short, we can change our breathing on demand, which can be a hack to accessing the rest of our physiology.
I was so inspired and transformed by what I learned from Hof and others that I felt I had no choice but to pass it on to others and, today, I work as a breathwork coach. What is breathwork? It can be described as ‘breath consciousness’ and ‘conscious breathing’. Every time we notice our breath or change our breathing pattern to achieve a specific outcome, we are practising breathwork.
Today, breathwork is the new yoga. It can be found everywhere from therapy sessions to gym classes, but, while it’s currently in vogue, it’s far from new. It’s hard to pinpoint the first moment when humans decided to use breathing intentionally, but you can find early indications of conscious breathing in Hindu scriptures dating back hundreds of years, for instance in the Bhagavadgita, composed sometime between the 2nd century BCE and the 2nd century CE:
Still others, who are inclined to the process of breath restraint to remain in trance, practise by offering the movement of the outgoing breath into the incoming, and the incoming breath into the outgoing, and thus at last remain in trance, stopping all breathing. Others, curtailing the eating process, offer the outgoing breath into itself as a sacrifice.
The Tibetan teachings of Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche that form the basis of the Bon tradition, which considers the breath to be important, are even older, dating back 18,000 years. Breathing techniques have also been used in yoga for more than 2,000 years. In fact, breathwork has been present in nearly all traditions and cultures: in mythology, philosophy, various rituals, rites of passage, healing methods, spiritual and religious practices, martial arts and meditation.
For many people, the breath is something much more than just the purely physical movement of air. It is often described as the energy, life force, cosmic essence, the vital principle that permeates reality on all levels including inanimate objects. It is the spirit or the soul. Different cultures refer to the same phenomenon but by different names, such as: prana, qi, ki, lung, ruach, spiritus, mana, rouh and pneuma.
In yoga, the breath is considered not only the path of spiritual development, but also as a simple way of staying in good health. In the yogic breathing pranayama, the practices are well described, each with its own purpose – including energising, cleansing or relaxing.
For a long time, most mainstream medical practitioners had no interest in breathwork, but that began to change in the 1950s. For instance, following his research into the ways that breathing rate impacts health, Konstantin Buteyko, a Ukrainian-born doctor, created a technique for dealing with breathing disorders such as asthma, general breathlessness and rhinitis, and also as a treatment for hypertension.
His method was used in hospitals across Russia. Now the ‘Buteyko method’, although it’s considered a form of alternative medicine, is used across the globe to treat breathing-pattern disorders. Overall, I believe our modern understanding of the nervous system and scientific studies are confirming that the yogic breathing practices have their intended effect. We’re rediscovering what the yogis knew a long time ago.
These days, athletes are also taking an interest in breathwork. In sports, it’s always an arms race. Whoever finds a new way of improving by a minuscule margin can have a huge advantage over their competition. Athletes are turning to traditional yogic breath-control practices as a means for conditioning the body and strengthening the respiratory system – certain breathing exercises can improve how efficiently the body uses oxygen. Breathwork is especially pertinent to endurance sports.
The Buteyko method suggests that nasal breathing and breath-flow restriction can help to raise the body’s tolerance to carbon dioxide (CO2). Breath-holding methods have also been tested widely as a way of increasing the load on the body and creating beneficial long-term adaptations similar to altitude training.
Yet, despite the importance of the breath and the rising popularity of breathwork, so many people never give any consideration to this fundamental aspect of life. If it weren’t for our autonomic nervous system, I bet many of us would probably die by just forgetting to breathe while reading an email. In this Guide, I will show you some basic breathwork techniques.
Whether you’re an Olympic-level athlete looking to gain an edge, you’re struggling to cope with chronic anxiety or you’re just curious, you’re breathing anyway, so why not start to use your breath to your benefit? Even after having worked with so many people, the potential of breathwork – a tool that’s available to all of us – still blows my mind. It could be as simple as learning a three-minute relaxation routine, or it could be the start of a lifetime journey into self-development – either way, welcome to breathwork.
Practise nasal breathing
If you’re extremely busy and don’t feel that you have much time for breathwork, but you’d like to work on your breathing to improve health and wellbeing, I suggest that you try implementing one of the most basic of principles: practise breathing through your nose rather than through your mouth. This is something that you can do throughout the whole day… and night.
Here are some benefits of nasal breathing:
It slows the incoming airflow, which has a calming effect on the nervous system (specifically, it activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps promote calm and relaxation).
The air is traveling slower and stays longer in the alveoli, where gas exchange happens. This gives oxygen more time to diffuse in the bloodstream, which can result in 10-20 per cent greater oxygen uptake.
Your nose acts as a filter for pathogens, such as bacteria and viruses.
The air going into the lungs is conditioned to better suit the body – warmed up or cooled down, depending on the external environment.
By breathing through your nose, you expel up to 40 per cent less water (meaning you’re less prone to dehydration).
It avoids the problems associated with long-term excessive mouth breathing, such as dental problems, inflammation of the upper airways, forward head posture and even changes in the shape of the jaw.
What if your nose is blocked? You should try to do everything you can to unblock it. Sometimes it’s just a case of overcoming the discomfort of the feeling of a shortness of breath. You might be so used to mouth breathing that nasal breathing will feel unnatural at first. But the more you breathe through your nose, the easier it’s going to be.
If you’re really struggling, nose dilators, plasters or sprays (to clear the nostrils) will help you in the early days and weeks. If you have a deviated septum (a misalignment of the bone and cartilage that separates the nostrils), which interferes with nasal breathing, you might consider speaking to your doctor about having a corrective operation.
If your nasal passages are just lightly blocked, you can help to clear them using a simple exercise: perform a small exhale, pinch your nose and hold your breath. During the peak of your breath-hold, CO2 and nitric oxide will accumulate, both of which are vasodilators, which will help the passages to unblock.
When should you be breathing through your nose? A good instruction is to think about it in three phases:
-Total nose breathing
-Inhale nose, exhale mouth
-Total mouth breathing
At rest and low intensity, you can be in phase 1 the entire time. When you start moving or even lifting heavy things, you can try to stay in this phase as long as possible. At a point where the effort becomes too hard, then move to phase 2. If you increase the load even more, getting closer to your maximum capacity, then phase 3 will be necessary. Once the effort decreases, you can go back to phase 2 and 1, respectively.