What if there was a way to leverage something you are already doing 20 000 times a day that will help you decrease stress & anxiety, improve sleep and boost mood? Would you be interested in knowing what it was and how you could tap into this “secret”?
I’ll cut the suspense as the answer is simple. It’s called breathwork and it is the simplest most effective practice to enhance your health and well-being when done intentionally.
The best part about breathwork is that you can do it anytime, anywhere and it does not cost a thing! You can do breathwork sitting on a park bench, when you go for your daily walk, before a stressful work meeting or when you are encountering a difficult and emotional situation that can help calm you down. By intentionally changing the way we breathe, we can change not only the way we feel but also how our bodies react to what’s going on around us. Although breathing is something we do without thinking all day long, the way we breathe plays a significant role in regulating our physiological responses.
Taking deep, slow, intentional breaths sends signals to our nervous system—the part of our body managing things like our heart rate and our stress response—that we are fine and that we are not under any sort of attack.
Under normal circumstances, we inhale to absorb oxygen and exhale to rid our body of carbon dioxide through the lungs, with the help of our diaphragm muscle. But when we’re stressed or anxious, the way we breathe can rapidly change. Instead of deep diaphragmatic breathing (or belly breathing), which is light and slow, we instead breathe very shallow (up in the lungs), and fast—causing our bodies to enter a state of fight or flight (a sympathetic response), and physiologically exhibiting stressed symptoms. The issue now becomes that many of us have become accustomed to this rapid, shallow breathing even when we’re not in immediate stressful situations, and therefore impacting our health in the long run.
As we bring attention back to our breath and become more conscious of the way we breathe daily, not only are we able to be calmer and collected during situations of stress but also experience long term benefits of keeping our nervous system in a more parasympathetic state. So how does one do so? There are many different breathwork practices and tactics, which this blog does not intend to cover them all, yet will instead highlight some of the most popular ones so you can dig deeper on your own, try them out and start experiencing some of their benefits yourself.
Here is an overview of 4 different breathwork techniques:
1 – Buteyko Breathing
The Buteyko Breathing Method teaches you how to bring your breathing volume back toward normal or, in other words, reverse the damage done by chronic short breathing (which produces a deficiency of carbon dioxide or C02). Why is that bad, you might be thinking? Strange as it may seem, oxygen deficiency is not caused by lack of oxygen, but by lack of carbon dioxide as the chemoreceptors that send information to our brainstem telling us how much to breathe are sensing carbon dioxide, not oxygen. Over-breathing through short, rapid breaths actually depletes the body of oxygen as it simply does not have enough time to retain carbon dioxide for long enough, resulting in the inability to utilize the oxygen it has, making the body feel that there is not enough air in the body. Buteyko breathing essentially keeps you from both excessive oxygen consumption and excessive CO2 release. In addition, Buteyko nasal breathing transports the gas nitric oxide (NO) more readily into the lungs because the nasal cavities produce and contain high levels of nitric oxide which is a known blood vessel and bronchial dilatator. This technique can be beneficial for those with asthma or other respiratory conditions.
The Control Pause:
The control pause is a measure of your body’s sensitivity to carbon dioxide we just discussed. It is a useful measurement marker to gauge one’s progress when using the Buteyko breathing practice and training.
To measure one’s control pause score, first, sit comfortably and relax for 3 to 5 minutes. When ready, take a normal breath in through your nose, a normal breath out through your nose, pinch your nose and start the timer on your phone or watch. The goal is to hold your breath after expiration until you feel the first definite urge to breathe. For most people that will be a contraction of the diaphragm in your abdomen or of the muscles around your throat. At that point simply resume breathing and stop the timer. The time in seconds is your control pause.
A control pause of under 25 is indicative of dysfunctional breathing and a score of above 25 more functional breathing but again this score is mostly intended to assess your progress with your breathing exercises.
Yes, mouth taping is the practice of taping one’s mouth when sleeping. It may seem a little strange at first but with this technique, we want to drive nose breathing as opposed to mouth breathing. Getting a good night’s rest is critical to our health as when we sleep, the body recovers, memories are consolidated and toxins are flushed from our system. Nose breathing allows the nitric oxide previously mentioned to go into action and it also helps the body achieve more of a relaxation response, which is the key to maintaining deep sleep and successfully progressing through the stages of the sleep cycle. Nose breathing can also help our body maintain homeostasis by balancing the autonomic nervous systems so we can wake up feeling strong and refreshed.
Mouth taping can definitely seem a bit risky at first – and it certainly has the potential to be if done incorrectly (proceed with caution and safety). Using duct tape, packing tape, or any other adhesive that is not intended to be worn on the skin is not recommended. The tape chosen must be hypoallergenic and latex-free so even individuals with adhesive allergies can safely and comfortably wear them. If you feel claustrophobic, try taping your mouth during the day as you go about your tasks to get used to the feeling of having tape over your mouth.
2- Box Breathing:
Box breathing, also known as four-square breathing, is a technique used to guide slow, deep breaths. It can help enhance performance and concentration and can also be a powerful stress reliever. The technique is simple: as you close your mouth and slowly inhale through your nose for four seconds, hold your breath for four seconds, exhale through your mouth for four seconds, then hold the exhalation for another four seconds. This deep, intention breathing helps to regulate the autonomic nervous system and calm us down.
3 – Basic Wim Hof Breathing
In order to perform Wim Hof breathing (named after the creator of this breathwork technique), sit comfortably and take 30 quick, deep breaths, inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth, with no pauses between each inhalation and exhalation. Each exhalation should be relaxed and you should not fully exhale but should instead leave some air in the lungs so that you breathe in more oxygen than you breathe out CO2. At the end of the 30 breath cycle, exhale and hold your breath for as long as possible with no air in your lungs. You will eventually feel the urge to breathe. At that point, inhale and hold your breath for the final fifteen to 30 seconds or as long as you can.
This technique stimulates hypoxia (oxygen deprivation) and even mimics hard training in altitudes. By holding your breath, you induce a positive stress response by turning on your survival mode. The potential benefits of this breathwork technique are said to be an increase in red blood cells, better production of growth factors that lead to the development of new blood vessels, induction of nitric oxide synthase, protection of cell DNA and stem cell activation for better cell growth and repair.
4 – Alternate Nostril Breathing
This simple yet powerful technique also known as Nadi Shodhan Pranayama is easy to do and can help create a deep sense of well-being and harmony as it helps balance the right and left hemispheres of the brain.
Ancient yogic texts explain that the nostril on the right is our sun nostril and it controls our energy level; our left nostril is our lunar nostril and it controls our emotions. More modern science is telling us that the right nostril impacts the left side of the brain which is said to be more analytical and methodical and the left nostril impacts the right brain which is said to be more creative and artistic. It is also said that the left brain is more sympathetic driven (fight or flight) and that the right brain is more parasympathetic driven (rest and digest).
When we breathe long and deeply through alternate nostrils, the whole nervous system is soothed, calmed and energized simultaneously. All that is required of a person is to do this alternate nostril breathing for 3–5 minutes to feel its benefits.
You can perform the alternate nostril breathing by sitting with a straight spine. Using the thumb and index fingers of the right hand, make a “U” of the two fingers, using the thumb to close off the right nostril and the index finger to close off the left nostril.
Close the left nostril, inhale deeply through the right nostril. At the end of the inhale, close the right nostril and exhale through the left nostril. Inhale through the left nostril fully and deeply, then close the left nostril and exhale through the right one. Again, inhale through the right nostril and continue alternate nostril breathing. The breath must be complete and full-on both the inhalation and exhalation cycles.
Who knew that breathing could have so much complexity and so many alternatives! Finding one or many breathwork techniques that you can incorporate in your daily life can help enhance your health so you can feel better, sleep better and think better.
If you want to find more about Buteyko Breathing make sure to sign up for Dr. Nathalie’s webinar Hack Your Breathe—Discover How Using 7 Simple Steps Can Help You Feel Better, Think Better and Sleep Better here.