WHEN SOUL & SCIENCE MERGE: A BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO BREATHWORK
BY AHNA KENNEDY
Inhale deeply. Exhale slowly. Repeat.
If you’ve ever taken a deep breath to calm your nerves, you’ve already practiced breathwork. It’s as simple as that.
Our breathing is deeply and organically interwoven within our emotional and physical state of being; therefore, how you breathe is directly related to how you feel.
What is Breathwork?
The term ‘breathwork’ first originated in the 1960s. However, breath-centered practices and meditations have played an essential role throughout history within many ancient cultures and religions, including Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Yoga, Sufism, and Shamanism. Many of these cultures used breathing techniques for similar reasons to modern breathwork, which alters consciousness to promote healing, self-discovery, and spiritual growth.
Nowadays, breathwork is an umbrella term describing the practice of consciously directing the breath and changing your breathing patterns to alchemize your mental, emotional, and physical state of being. Most formal practices involve 20 minutes to an hour of sustained, rhythmic breathing techniques, while informal practice can look like a 5 min reset before or after a stressful time — making it an amazing resource for moment-to-moment well-being.
Scientifically speaking, breathing is the process in which we replenish the body with oxygen to be used in vital biological systems such as the digestive, circulatory, excretory, and respiratory while helping to keep our cells strong and healthy for the general well being of the body.
Think of it this way — breath is the only lever we can pull in our entire physiology, where we can actually manually down-regulate stress at any given moment. Pretty incredible, right?
Benefits of Breathwork
I often recommend breathwork exercises to my health coaching clients. Numerous studies have found that consistently practicing controlled breathing techniques can help reduce symptoms associated with anxiety, insomnia, chronic pain, digestive dysfunction, hormonal imbalances, sleep disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression.
On a spiritual or energetic level, breathwork helps activate the subconscious mind and bring forth awareness and insights that are not often easily accessed through traditional forms of therapies. The majority of breathwork practices aim to move some energy through the body, helping you to release stress and tension, heal and resolve trauma, and gain deeper insights into current life issues.
When it comes to our physical health, we know that a stressed body becomes a sick body, and when the sympathetic nervous system is active, stress hormones flood our systems and create a state of dis-ease. Therefore, to optimally de-stress our minds and bodies, we must learn how to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for rest and digestion, among other essential jobs. This is where breathwork steps in! For example, long, deep breaths from your diaphragm can manage and significantly decrease your stress responses within a matter of mere minutes.
Here are some other key benefits:
- Relaxes + balances the nervous system
- Stimulates the vagus nerve
- Reduces stress + anxiety
- Relieves + manages pain
- Improves digestion
- Improves immune function
- Strengthens intuitive muscles
- Decreases inflammation
- Enhances mental clarity + focus
- Heightens energy + vitality
- Improves blood pressure + circulation
- Promotes healing from trauma + grief
- Helps explore altered states of consciousness, consciously
- Increases gratitude + self love
Types of Breathwork
There are numerous types of breathwork practices that range from fairly gentle and easy to do at home, to others that are more intense or profound, and require a certified practitioner to lead you through a group or 1:1 session.
Practices vary between using a slow, deep breath and fast, accelerated breath. Many slow exercises are rooted in yogic traditions such as Pranayama. While others, including Holotropic, involve amplified breathing and meditative music. Depending on the practice, breathwork can leave you feeling focused, energized, relaxed, calm, or ready for sleep.
The most common styles of breathwork include:
- Wim Hof
How to Start a Breathwork Practice
The best way to begin your journey is by starting slow and steady. Understandably not everyone has the finances or resources to work with a certified facilitator. Thankfully there are some gentle and transformative techniques, including a plethora of guided meditations online, that you can comfortably practice alone or with a friend.
The beauty of breathwork is that it’s a free and easy tool that can be used at your disposal, anytime, anywhere.
Once it begins to feel more like second nature, you can practice first thing in the morning, right before bed, or in the middle of the day for a quick boost or reset. Most facilitators recommend practicing for at least twenty minutes daily to reap substantial benefits.
Here are three beginner techniques to get the ball rolling:
- Box Breathing
The goal with box breathing isn’t to force any breath, rather allow the breath to become soft, deep, and from the abdomen. This technique slows the heart rate and deepens concentration, which provides overall stress relief while heightening performance and efficiency. It’s most ideal to use this method at the beginning of the day or before a big meeting that requires your absolute focus.
Start by releasing all of the air from your chest and breathe in counting to four slowly. Hold your breath for four seconds, and slowly exhale through your mouth for four seconds. Repeat this cycle for five minutes to feel the effects.
2. Alternate Nostril Breathing
Alternate nostril breathing is an ancient yogic breathwork technique that helps to soothe your nervous system, reduce your heart rate, remove toxins, and clear energy channels within the body. This practice is particularly helpful for those who suffer from chronic anxiety, stress, or insomnia.
Start by sitting up straight and lifting your right hand towards your nose and use your thumb to close your right nostril. Inhale through your left nostril and close it with your fingers, and then remove your thumb from your right nostril and exhale from there. Proceed to inhale from your right nostril, close it with your thumb, and remove your finger from your left nostril and exhale from there. Repeat through five to ten cycles as needed.
3. The 4-7-8 Relaxing Breath
This simple practice is perfect for a gentle and relaxing full-body reset. It helps to quickly and efficiently calm the body, as it slows the heart rate and nervous system. This exercise is ideal when you are feeling especially angry, overwhelmed, triggered, or having trouble sleeping.
The basic premise is to breathe in for a count of four seconds, hold your breath for a count of seven seconds, and exhale out of the mouth for eight seconds. Repeat up to four cycles.
Who Should Practice Breathwork?
Breathwork is generally safe and well-tolerated by most individuals, but there are certain groups of people, particularly those with fragile health, who should consult a medical practitioner before getting started.
These groups include:
- Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding
- Anyone with a history of heart attacks, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, epilepsy, seizures, or severe mental illness.
In conclusion, paying closer attention to my breath has genuinely made a huge shift in my life and wellness, as has helped me release anxiety, trauma, and grief, and to find more peace and clarity. By helping us to release and shed layers of stagnant stress and repressed emotion, breathwork liberates the energy within us to heal and transform. Happy breathing!
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19534616/#:~:text=Results%3A%20%20%20%20%20%20%20,change%20only%20in%20patients%20 practicing%20the%20slow-breathing%20 exercise