A beginner’s guide to breathwork

Have you ever had someone tell you, “just breathe”, when you’re going through a particularly difficult moment?

Just as exercise can be a powerful way to release tension and stress in your body, focussed breathing is another tool you can add to your self-care kit that could help you de-stress, calm your mind, and boost your mood.

Not only that, but making time for breathwork means you’re supporting your own mental wellbeing to live a happier and healthier life.

Why is breathwork so important?

Fini Cooper is a breathwork coach and facilitator, with a background in psychology. For a number of reasons, says Fini, our breathing isn’t actually as optimal as it would have been many centuries ago. “Variables such as high, prolonged stress have caused this,” she says.

How? Well, our bodies are only designed to be stressed for short periods of time. We’re meant to go in a stressful state and move out of it quickly. “But in the modern day, stresses are prolonged,” she says, “and in this state, your breath changes and becomes fast and shallow. Over a period of time, the way you breathe starts to become less functional.”

In scientific terms, this means we aren’t getting the right level of oxygen delivery to the cells that we need to. Every cell in our body needs oxygen to survive – so it really helps to consciously change the way we breathe.

“When you’re being intentional with your breath, and slowing your breathing down, you start to regulate your autonomic nervous system,” says Fini. This is important, because our nervous systems play a huge role in how we behave and feel. If you can regulate your nervous system, it can have a big effect on anxiety, depression, and even helps to boost your immune system and balance your hormonal system.

So, what happens in the body when we breathe deeply?

We know deep breathing is good for us, but what’s happening in the moment when we take a deep breath – and how does it benefit us? We asked Fini to walk us through the steps.

Step 1: When you take a deep breath, your lungs are bringing oxygen into your body.

Step 2: From there, the oxygen gets diffused into the blood and sent to the heart to be pumped out to the rest of the body.

Step 3: Once the oxygen is in the blood, it gets transported to the muscles to be converted to ATP (adenosine triphosphate), which is an energy source for the body.

Step 4: This means, when you do take that deeper breath, energy in your whole body will increase.

Step 5: While this is going on, carbon dioxide, which used to be thought of as a waste gas, is a catalyst in your body to release oxygen in the cells where it needs to go. “It’s really essential for exercise and sports performance,” she says.

What are the benefits of breathwork?

“Exercise gives you physical results, but breathwork isn’t quite so tangible sometimes,” says Fini.

“You can feel better in the moment, but – just like going to the gym – it takes consistent work to see the results and reap the benefits of it.”

One of the most important things is consistency – ”the nervous system loves consistency”, says Fini – and it’s so much better to try and do three minutes a day, every day, for a whole month, rather than try and build up to 20 minutes a day and not being able to sustain it.

Think of it as a “micro habit”, she says. “After a minimum of 2 weeks, you would start to notice a difference in terms of feeling calmer, more connected to your body, and being more aware of what is affecting your mental health,” she says.

Over time, by continuing this habit, you’re going to become more resilient to stress and your window of tolerance will be higher. “What you can and cannot handle in terms of external stress – that window will widen,” she says.

How can I get started?

Consciously slowing down your breathing and taking notice of it is a good place to start, but there are also a few breathing techniques that can be done quickly and in the moment that you may want to try.

Box breathing

“This is a really good general balancing breath,” says Fini.

How? Inhale deeply for 4, hold for 4, exhale for 4, hold for 4 again

“Within that, think about where you are breathing, making sure your diaphragm is expanding, she says. “It can be helpful to place your hands on your sides and feel where the movement is.”

Physiological sigh

If you reach a point in the day where you’re really stressed and only have a few seconds, one thing you could try is a physiological sigh.

How? Breathe to about ¾ of the capacity of your inhale. Once you reach the top, take a final sip of air in through the nose, short and sharply. Then take a slow breath out, through the mouth, as slowly as you can.

“If you do that 3 times, you can significantly reduce the impact of stress physiologically,” says Fini. “It’s a great one if you don’t have much time.”

This article was written by The Body Coach content team.

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