How Optimal Breathing Can Enhance Your Health, Endurance And Well-being!
By Liza Rosén - 14 September 2020
Just Breathe. Seems simple right? Yet the majority of us are getting it all wrong! Have you ever stopped and actually focused on your breath and on the way you are breathing day after day? Did you know that the breath can help address your stress & anxiety levels, physical endurance, digestive issues, poor sleep or even shoulder stiffness? However, these health benefits are only attainable when you breathe correctly and optimally - in an anatomically congruous and biomechanically sound way. Meaning the way your body was designed to breathe, wants to breathe and used to breathe.
Discover the immense power of the breathe in healing and dealing with a variety of health conditions – in particular addressing stress & anxiety.
The Art of Breathwork
Breathwork is the practice of intentional and conscious breathing for improved health, physical endurance, and wellbeing. An ancient practice which has become growingly popular, breathwork helps people increase their own breath awareness and re-learn to breath correctly and optimally again. The terms re-learn and again are used deliberately here, because we are all born as naturally good breathers. Watch any newborn baby or toddler, or even your beloved pet, and you will note they all breathe with correct functional breathing habits. Then life happens with its ups and downs, and most of us transition from the healthy breathing of a child to the dysfunctional breathing of an adult. As mentioned by US clinical psychologist and breathwork expert Dr Belisa Vranich in her TEDx Talk How to Breathe: the majority of people, like 9 out of 10 adults, breathe incorrectly today with dysfunctional breathing patterns. Creating immense consequences on our overall health.
Benefits of Optimal Breathing
The benefits of breathwork and correct functional breathing are tremendous. Optimal breathing can help address, fix and prevent various physical and mental health conditions like stress and anxiety, neck and shoulder stiffness, breathlessness, digestive issues (e.g. acid reflux, constipation and irritable bowel syndrome), lower back pain, poor sleeping, physical endurance, heart rate, blood pressure – and the list goes on.
The Scientific American published a 2019 article on how Proper Breathing Brings Better Health, outlining the impact of certain breathing techniques on stress reduction, anxiety, insomnia prevention, emotion control, and improved attention. Another 2017 study published by Frontiers in Psychology on The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults, found that participants who completed 20 breathwork training sessions over 8 weeks had significantly lower cortisol levels (stress hormone) compared with those who did not receive the training.
So thanks to Breathwork we are able to achieve this optimal breathing in 2 steps: Firstly, by increasing our own breath awareness and becoming more conscious of how we are breathing and how this is affecting our health. And secondly, by practicing breathing exercises specifically aimed at fixing the mechanics of our breathing and strengthening the breathing muscles.
Dysfunctional Breathing Patterns
Nine out of ten adults (!) breathe incorrectly with dysfunctional breathing patterns. What does this mean? Well, most people breathe with a Vertical Breathing style - meaning the neck, shoulders and upper thoracic chest move up and down (vertically) for each inhale and exhale throughout the day. This corresponds to an anatomically incongruous and biomechanically unsound way of breathing: it is not the way our body was designed to breathe, wants to breathe, or even used to breathe! The average (untrained) adult breathes approximately 23.000 times per day, so just imagine the impact on your body when you are using, and over-using, the wrong muscles to breathe every day, year after year. No wonder so many people complain about neck and shoulder stiffness!
Other dysfunctional breathing habits consist of breath holding, paradoxical breathing, over-breathing, or even chronic mouth breathing - just to name a few. By practicing conscious breath awareness and re-learning to breathe correctly, you can address such incorrect breathing patterns and their associated health issues.
Take a Good Healthy Breath!
A good healthy breath is one where you are using the correct breathing muscles for your inhales and exhales. We have a set of breathing muscles in our body, with the primary breathing muscle being the diaphragm and the others being the core, the intercostal, the obliques and the pelvic floor. With breathwork, you learn to bring awareness and engage all these primary breathing muscles for an optimal practice.
When breathing throughout your day, you want to make sure to be using your diaphragm as much as possible. You want to be practicing diaphragmatic breathing as a daily unconscious breathing habit. This means expanding your belly on the inhale – like if you are blowing up a balloon – and narrowing back your belly on the exhale – like if you are taking air out of the balloon. Just remember: inhale and expand the belly, exhale and narrow the belly. Inhale, expand belly. Exhale, narrow belly. We call this a Horizontal breath, or a lower-body diaphragmatic breath, because you are horizontally expanding and narrowing your lower rib cage thanks to the movement of your diaphragm. If you need more convicing, then The Harvard Medical School details the benefits of Learning diaphragmatic breathing for increased oxygen exchange in the body, lowered heartbeat and blood pressure, and helping people with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) breathe more effortlessly.
Another important aspect to consider is nose versus mouth breathing. You should focus on breathing through your nose as much as possible throughout the day, as opposed to mouth breathing. The tremendous benefits of nasal breathing on our emotional state, exercise performance and recovery, and immune system are discussed in a 2019 article published by The Washington Post on Could nasal breathing improve athletic performance?
The Power of the Breath for Stress & Anxiety Management
The Covid-19 crisis - which is in fact a respiratory crisis - has brought an additional layer of stress, anxiety and overwhelm for most of us, in our already hectic lives. As a result, we need more than ever today to bring respiratory awareness and health to the front line. Especially in dealing with this increased sense of emotional tension.
The starting point is to understand that the way we breathe activates an important cranial nerve called the Vagus nerve, which in turn stimulates our Autonomic Nervous System.
So depending on how you are breathing and where your are breathing from in your body (upper chest, diaphragm, mouth, nose) you can stimulate either the Sympathetic nervous system – the fight & flight or stress-response in your body – or the Parasympathetic nervous system – the rest & digest, restore & repair response in your body. Breathwork is about giving you choices as to your states of arousal and offering you a range of options in between these two extremes, the sympathetic versus the parasympathetic state. Breathwork allows you to train your breath awareness and breathing muscles needed to get access to this range of choice.
When you are feeling stressed and anxious, the sympathetic nervous system is being activated in your body. At that moment you want to counteract it by stimulating the parasympathetic response, allowing you to reach that desired state of calmness and relaxation. And how do you achieve this inner peacefulness in the most natural, cheapest, and medication-free way? By breathing correctly with specific breathing techniques!
Using Controlled Breathing, you engage in slow deep lower-body diaphragmatic breaths - ideally inhaling and exhaling through the nose, and making sure your exhales are longer than your inhales. You can also use Breath Counting, meaning you breathe using specific counts to your inhales, exhales and (conscious) breath holds.
The advantages of Breath Control and deep diaphragmatic breathing on the body’s stress response were documented in two articles published by the Harvard Medical School [Relaxation techniques: Breath control helps quell errant stress response] and the New York Times [Breathe. Exhale. Repeat: The Benefits of Controlled Breathing].
Practice a Breathing Exercise for Immediate Stress-Reduction
There are many breathing exercises that can help address stress, anxiety and panic within minutes. Some examples of these are Box breathing, the 4-7-8 Breath, Tactical breathing, Coherent breathing... Like with everything, it’s about trying and testing different techniques and finding the practice most suitable for oneself.
Here is one exercise I teach my clients, taken from Dr Belisa Vranich’s The Breathing Class methodology. It’s a calming technique called Tactical breathing or the 4-4-6-2 Method, which Dr Belisa herself has trained US Military and Navy Seals to practice as a powerful stress-reduction self-care tool. It goes like this:
- Start by placing your hands on your belly to bring focus and awareness to your diaphragm moving during inhales and exhales (Remember: Inhale & expand belly, Exhale & narrow bellow);
- Make sure your jaw, neck and shoulders remain relaxed and free of any tension;
- Start breathing, ideally through your nose, taking slow deep diaphragmatic breaths in the following cycle:
INHALE for a count of 4
HOLD your breath for a count of 4
EXHALE for a count of 6
HOLD your breath for a count of 2
Then you repeat the cycle again for 1-2 minutes (or more!): Inhale 4, Hold 4, Exhale 6, Hold 2.
I invite you to start practicing this Tactical breathing exercise whenever you feel stress, anxiety, panic or tension arising in your body. Make it into a daily conscious breathing habit of practicing for 2 minutes 3 times a day (like morning, lunch and evening) and you will see the positive effects on your stress levels and even improved sleep at night! I recommend teams setting a regular breathwork practice at work, by repeating this exercise 1-2 minutes before every team meeting. A good way to transition into your new meeting in a calm and focused state. Get creative and set your own daily breathing practice for optimal mental and physical health!
About Liza Rosén, the Author
Swedish native and multicultural enthusiast having lived in Sweden, Italy, Belgium and now Hong Kong - Liza Rosén is a qualified Certified Professional Coach (ICF & EMCC standards) and Certified Breathwork BREATHE™ trainer (the first in Hong Kong!) building on 15y Multinational Corporate experience working in Finance (Big4) and Human Resources, fluency in 4 languages (English, French, Swedish, Italian) and a true passion for empowering people to grow and achieve their best-selves - personally, professionally and through optimal breathing.
Liza Rosén provides Breathwork training to individuals, groups and organisations, both in-person and online. Contact her to discover how she can help you, your teams and your organisations embark on a uniquely instructive, practical and dynamic breathwork journey!
More info: https://www.lizarosencoaching.com