Breathing is the most natural thing in the world: from their very first gasp, babies respire as nature intended, ribs expanding, torso rising and falling – and we continue to breathe without thinking, some 20,000 times a day. Yet while breathing remains instinctive, our ability to take our best breaths decreases as we age, and high-pressure careers, emotional turmoil, poor posture and restrictive clothing (yes, really) all take their toll.
Practitioners of a therapy known as breathwork believe that such poor breathing techniques adopted over time are responsible for increasing stress and anxiety, lowering energy levels and even affecting cardiovascular health. The good news, however, is that we can reverse these effects simply by relearning how to breathe properly – so they say.
What is breathwork?
“The way we inhale and exhale is intimately linked to every system and function in the body,” explains Richie Bostock, the founder of Xhale Breathwork. “When you understand how to use it properly, you can shift your quality of life in many areas.”
People practise breathwork for various reasons, Jennifer Eason, breathwork and meditation practitioner, explains. “For some people it’s purely for relaxation; taking time for themselves to switch off from their external world, quietening the internal chatter and connecting within.” Yet many of her clients use breathwork as a tool to manage and decrease anxiety, she adds. “Finding an awareness of the breath and using it as an anchor can activate the body’s relaxation response, regulate the nervous system and alleviate stress that is weighing heavy on their shoulders – all while strengthening the mind-body connection.”
Indeed, Stuart Sandeman, author of Sunday Times best-seller Breathe In. Breathe Out. and the founder of Breathpod, explains that the brain’s stress response system can be ‘hacked’ simply by changing the breathing pattern. “In a stressful situation, the heart rate increases, causing shorter, faster intakes,” he says. “When we exhale for longer than we inhale, it activates the vagus nerve and slows the heart rate. In this calmer state, we are able to respond better to those situations.”
“Breathwork can also be beneficial for people dealing with grief, trauma and emotional issues because certain breath techniques induce altered states of consciousness and cause an emotional release that people find both cathartic and comforting,” Eason adds. In addition, “it can also be used for people suffering with chronic pain and respiratory issues”.
It's well known that many athletes use breathwork for sports performance too, and – increasingly – it's harnessed by those preparing for cold-water immersion. Cold-water instructor and breathwork coach Lindsay Aubrey explains that she teaches techniques to help participants ease into the water feeling calm and centred. “As the body responds to the cold, triggering a physiological shock, I coach with gentle guidance to focus on their breathing, so it supports the transition into a more settled state, activating the parasympathetic nervous system.”
Different breathwork techniques
“‘Breathwork’ is a real buzzword right now and there are new and evolving approaches all the time – but despite its growing popularity, breathwork is an ancient practice that has been used for many centuries,” Eason explains. Beyond a fad, she believes the power of breath “can help people physically, emotionally and spiritually”, whether it be using the 'Wim Hof Method', 'holotropic breathing' 'Transformational Breath', 'conscious connected breathing' or the 'Buteyko breathing technique'. “All breathwork techniques have their place, and all have their purpose, whether it be for emotional release, enhanced physical and mental performance or personal growth and healing.”
'Diaphragmatic breathing' is perhaps the best-known and simplest practice. “This is also known as 'belly breathing',” Eason says, “and is a fundamental technique that I teach in all my classes and with private clients.” Too often we breathe through our chest, she explains, but this technique involves actively engaging the diaphragm, promoting efficient breathing and wellbeing.
To try this, follow her lead: “Place one hand on your belly and one hand on your heart. Inhale deeply through the nose, feeling the belly rise and the ribs expand laterally. Focus on the belly rising first, then a natural movement in the chest. Then exhale completely out of the nose or mouth, feeling the belly deflate as the air is released. There is a natural pause between the inhale and exhale; pay attention to the movement of the breath and repeat for a few minutes.”
Other popular techniques include 'box breath' – where you visualise a box and inhale, hold, and exhale the breath for equal amounts of time (such as four seconds); and the 'long exhale' – a slow, controlled breathing technique where the exhale is longer than the inhale (with no breath-holding in-between).
How to learn breathwork
To learn the breathwork basics, Sandeman’s Breathpod business offers a five-day mini-series course via his website, where you can also access virtual events centred on breathwork. He’s not alone – breathwork is a bourgeoning business, and lessons, workshops and retreats centred on teaching breathing techniques are cropping up all over.
We also recommend Breathguru Alan Dolan’s services – which include group workshops and private sessions in London and online, as well as rejuvenating retreats in Lanzarote; and if you’re interested in combing breathwork with cold-water immersion look to the Ice Bath Retreat at Homewood in Somerset. Guided by Aubrey in plush spa suites, your breathing workshop takes place to prepare you for a plunge in your private ice bath.
More accessible, but less hands-on, is an app like Breathwrk, which guides users through 'calming', 'sleep', 'energising' and 'perform'-focused breathing techniques. Similarly accessible, books such as ‘Just Breathe: Mastering Breathwork for Success in Life, Love, Business, and Beyond’ by Dan Brulé teaches you how to harness your breath to reduce stress, increase productivity and balance your health.
Risks associated with breathwork
It’s important to note that not everyone is a suitable candidate for all breathwork practices. As Eason says, “breathwork has so many benefits, however, there are certain considerations to be mindful about before attending a practice”.
For example, “emotional-release breathwork can create strong and, often, suppressed emotions to surface,” she adds. “For people who may have unresolved trauma it may feel overwhelming at the time.” Breathwork practitioners should flag any emotional and physical effects that can occur during and after a session – depending on the focus – “so ensure you do your homework beforehand,” Eason advises.
In addition, “certain rapid breathwork patterns can lead to hyperventilation and cause dizziness, light-headedness or muscle cramping (known as tetany),” she says. These kinds of practices should always be taught under the guidance of a certified breathwork practitioner, “who can hold space for you should this happen”. And individuals with respiratory conditions such as COPD and asthma should approach breathwork with care, “as some practices can exacerbate symptoms and should be discussed with a doctor,” Eason cautions.
In addition, certain breathwork patterns such as 'conscious connected breathing' or 'holotropic breathing', are not advised for those who are pregnant, have epilepsy, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease or severe mental health conditions. “I would always advise consulting a doctor, psychotherapist or psychiatrist before engaging in activating breathwork if you have any of these conditions.”
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