LearnWell: All About Breathwork
What Is Breathwork?
“Breathwork” is any technique that involves controlling your breath for therapeutic purposes. These purposes are generally calming, but breathing is an amazingly powerful tool. It can also energize, help us emotionally, and give us a sense of empowerment.
How we feel can affect the way we breathe, but it goes the other way, too — how we breathe can change our emotions. Proper, diaphragmatic breathing can reduce anxiety and depression and help put us more in our bodies, while shallow chest breathing can make us more anxious.
Eastern traditions like Yoga emphasize how we channel life force, or “prana”, in a body of techniques known as “pranayama”. More adventurous “breathworkers” like Wim Hof are able to use breath to control their tolerance of physical pain and freezing cold, for example.
What Happens During Breathwork?
When we breathe properly, mindfully focusing on our breath, we stimulate our vagus nerve. This is the nerve that controls our heart rate and our parasympathetic nervous system, aka our “fight or flight” response. According to researchers, when we stimulate our vagus nerve, we can improve our ability to think and be more resilient.
Some researchers believe that the beneficial effects of yoga and meditation are a direct result of the breathing methods associated with these processes. Improving our vagal tone through breathing gives us a sense of control over our physiology and creates a sense of homeostasis and calm.
Why Is Breathwork so Powerful?
In our society, taking a proper pause and gaining a sense of peace can feel revolutionary. When you do breathwork, you are creating an oasis. As mentioned above, the vagus nerve controls our parasympathetic nervous system, which dictates our level of anxiety (among other things). Studies suggest that slow, methodical breathing can change the amount of oxygen one takes in, helps lower one’s heart rate, and even helps improve one’s metabolism.
How to Do Breathwork
If you are at the office or home and you are stressed or find your thoughts racing, try this:
- Find a comfortable, private, seated position.
- Become mindful of your breathing.
- Put your hand on your stomach, to make sure you’re breathing into your belly. You should feel it rise and fall with your breath.
- Breathe in for a count of four.
- Hold your breath for a count of four.
- Exhale for a count of four.
Repeat this as many times as you need. This is known as “box breathing”, and is a technique used by Navy SEALS to center themselves.
Do this whenever you get stressed. Breathing properly may help you get better sleep, too, and can improve physical processes that require calm, like digestion. Breathwork techniques get more complex, but this is the best place to start.
Is Breathwork Healthy?
To be in a prolonged place of stress is terribly unhealthy, sending your body into a state of inflammation and unleashing a cascade of negative effects. One of these effects is that the body maintains a heightened level of cortisol, the stress hormone. Cortisol is necessary on occasion, but if left unchecked can affect your cognitive function, cause weight gain, increase blood pressure, and even put you at greater risk for heart disease. Deep breathing can restore your health by causing the vagus nerve to signal your nervous system to lower your heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol.
The benefits of breathwork can be profound, both mentally and physically. The techniques are simple but can grow more complex. The important thing is to start when you feel stressed or anxious. Even ten long breaths can calm you.
You can lie on your back or sit up straight. Be conscious of your breath. Try to have an empty stomach when you practice. Make sure that you are breathing into your belly, or diaphragm, and not your chest.
Stress can strike at any time, and our Mindvibe section of the MyLifeWell App is curated to help guide you with instructions that are clear and encouraging. As you progress into breathwork, you will naturally get more interested in its subtleties and more novel techniques. And as you become more aware of your breathing and the physical changes you can bring about in your body, you will learn that minor changes can make more and more of a difference. Just as with yoga, once you have covered the basics, you will feel the difference that a subtle shift in emphasis or instruction makes.
Is Breathwork the Same as Meditation?
Breathwork and meditation share many benefits, such as an increased sense of calm, and a new sense of clarity or perspective toward one’s thoughts.
Simple breathing meditation is obviously related to breathwork, focusing on the flow of the breath in and out of the body. Mantra-based meditation involves controlled breathing but is slightly different from breathwork in that it emphasizes repeating a phrase in your mind.
Breathwork comprises other practices, too, like “oujjai” breathing, which is used during yoga, to give the yogi strength and stamina. Oujjai breathing involves:
- inhaling through the nose
- constricting the back of the throat, and
- exhaling through the nose, timing the breath to the movement and holding of poses.
In oujjai breathing, the instruction is often given to exhale forcefully and pretend you are fogging a mirror. There is a characteristic sound that the exhale makes. It can help you increase your mindfulness, but it is more about power and focus as an active part of a yoga practice.
The more you progress and understand the subtleties of your energy and body, the more you will understand about your mental and physiological state. In doing so, you may find yourself wanting a breathwork practice that is portable and supportive, which the MyLifeWell App offers.
Without proper instruction, some advanced breathwork techniques can be quite intense. MyLifeWell.com offers encouraging support so you can get maximum benefits from your practice, whether you’re in a hotel room, at an office, or at home.