Your breath can do so much more than keep you alive – it can transform your health! Here’s how to breathe consciously today
Breathing – it’s something not many of us give much thought to and, thankfully, we don’t have to in order to stay alive. The respiratory control centre at the base of your brain does it for you automatically – but there ends the science lesson for today. The spiritual yogis of ancient times have long known the power of breath control, and their wisdom is slowly making its way into the modern psyche.
Breathwork is hailed by many as a fixall for health – it is said the right kind of breathing can boost your energy, focus and mood, help you sleep, calm you down and even balance hormones. So how does it work? “The breath is our interface between the mind and body,” says yoga teacher Dan Peppiat. “It is affected by, and in turn can affect, both the physical body and our mental state. Understanding how to breathe most efficiently and effectively can allow us to work on everything ranging from optimum physical performance through to poor posture.
“Likewise with the mind, the breath is very closely connected to our autonomic nervous system, which controls our involuntary processes such as digestion. Factors such as our breathing volume, rate and the muscles that we are using to breathe send a constant stream of information to the brain about our current environment. Our brain interprets this and makes an informed judgement about whether we should be ready for action (fight or flight) or chilling and relaxing (rest and digest). By understanding the breath and how we can modify our breathing patterns we are able to influence what state of the autonomic nervous system is dominant, or we can balance them out.”
Here’s how to breathe right to get the best results for your needs:
Who hasn’t wanted to feel more alert when there is a busy day ahead and all you want to do is curl up and take a long nap? Try this next time you’re feeling sluggish: “This technique comes from the Sufi tradition and is very helpful if you are feeling sleepy or groggy and in need a quick boost of energy,” says Richie Bostock, a teacher known as The Breath Guy who is about to launch his groundbreaking classes onto interactive fitness platform fiit.tv. “Take four quick and powerful inhales through the nose, progressively filling up your lungs more and more. Exhale out through pursed lips.
“So it goes something like this: sniff… sniff… sniff… sniff… pfffffffff. Repeat this pattern for two or three minutes and notice the difference in how you feel.”
Your heart is thumping and you’re gripped by panic – we’ve all been there, and the fightor- flight response was useful in the days when we needed to escape predators. Nowadays, very often it just puts us in a state in which we can’t think straight. Try this Navy SEALapproved breathing exercise next time you’re feeling anxious: “This technique was originally developed by Japanese zen masters but gained popularity in the west when it was discovered that Navy SEALS were using it before they went into battle to try and calm their nerves,” says Richie. “It’s called box breathing and it can be really useful to use if you feel nervous before a meeting, a presentation or a performance. It’s called box breathing because the breath is broken down into four equal parts, like the sides of a square. The length of each part should be whatever feels comfortable to you. A good starting length is five seconds but you could make it even longer if you like!
Our delicate endocrine system can so easily be knocked out of whack. Breathing right can help get things back on track. “It was once believed that we didn’t have any conscious control over our hormone system,” says
Richie. “But science has now proved that by using our breath we can alter the function of certain glands. The Wim Hof Method is a fantastic place to start to learn how to do this:
We’ve all been there – tossing and turning, unable to nod off, dreading the impending day of tiredness ahead. Next time, try these exercises: “To encourage a state conducive to sleep we would generally want to move ourselves into the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest mode),” says Dan. “The simplest way to calm the mind is by working on developing a slower exhalation with a natural pause at the end of that exhalation. I often talk about ‘allowing the breath to trickle away’ on the exhale, with no effort and then pausing it momentarily until the inhalation occurs naturally and exactly when it needs to. Follow every step of the breath with your attention, allow your body to be totally soft and relaxed and before you know it you’ll be out like a light.”
“I personally use a counting breathing exercise to help me to calm and get ready to sleep,” says Kat Farrants, founder of Movement for Modern Life (movementformodernlife.com) “I inhale for three counts, then I retain the breath for four counts, and then use a long, full exhale for seven counts and then count for three before my next inhale. This is a pattern which I personally find useful, but the most important thing is to exhale for longer than you inhale. I also love the breath retentions at the top and bottom of the breath, but again, this is something that comes with practice. So for beginners to breathwork, just start by counting the breath and exhaling consciously for longer than the inhale.”
Need to crack on with life but struggling to find the motivation? You guessed it, breathwork’s got your back! “First you need to become aware of your breathing patterns and notice what they do when you feel most mentally strained,” says Dan. “To get motivated, you need to raise your mental and physical energy levels to feel inspired and energised. For this, I would firstly make sure that you are breathing physically with efficiency, driving the breath with the belly to bring oxygen deep down into the lower part of the lungs. You might then look at levelling the mind by working on a pattern of mindful ‘square breathing’ – with equal length inhale, exhale, and pauses in between the two.
You might also want to explore the opposite of ‘sleep time breath’ (where we lengthened the exhale). To increase energy and alertness, you might lengthen the inhale slightly with a pause at the top of the in-breath, followed by a natural exhalation without significant pause at its end.
Sign up for Dan’s 10 day breath challenge, where you’ll learn techniques to maximise the benefits of your breath for better health at movementformodernlife.com/challengebreath- challenge
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