Breathwork is a criminally underrated relaxation practise that can improve everything from our gut health to our mental health and sleep cycle – so why isn’t everyone doing it? Well, for starters, many of us haven’t even heard of the thing! Let’s find out what it is, why it works and how you can get started anywhere, any time for the low cost of $0.00 – no expensive “gurus” required.
Looks like there's a bit of truth to the age-old line, "just breathe!" It may come across a little condescending – in the same vein as "calm down!" – but there's something to it; after all, we've got a therapeutic practise named after it! Breathwork, also known as controlled breathing or conscious breathing, refers to various techniques that involve intentionally changing the way you breathe to achieve specific physical, mental or emotional outcomes. Breathwork practices often focus on the rhythm, depth and patterns of your breath to influence your physiological and psychological state. There are different types of breathwork techniques, each with its own goals and effects. Here are a few common approaches:
- Deep Breathing: This involves consciously taking slow, deep breaths, often focusing on expanding the abdomen as you inhale and contracting it as you exhale. Deep breathing can help relax the body, reduce stress, and increase oxygen intake.
- Diaphragmatic Breathing: Similar to deep breathing, this technique emphasizes using the diaphragm (a muscle located below the lungs) for more efficient and full breaths. Diaphragmatic breathing can help improve lung capacity and relaxation.
- Box Breathing: In this technique, you inhale for a certain count, hold the breath for the same count, exhale for the count, and then hold the breath again for the same count. It's often done in a rhythmic pattern, forming a "box." Box breathing can promote calmness and concentration.
- Alternate Nostril Breathing: This yogic technique involves alternating between breathing through one nostril while closing the other with your fingers. It's believed to balance energy and enhance focus.
- Breath Awareness: Simply paying attention to your natural breath without attempting to change it can promote mindfulness and relaxation.
- Pranayama: Pranayama is a set of yogic breathing techniques that encompass a wide range of practices, from slow deep breaths to rapid, controlled breaths. Pranayama is often used to influence energy flow, enhance mental clarity, and achieve a balanced state of being.
- Holotropic Breathwork: Developed by psychiatrist Stanislav Grof, this technique involves deep and rapid breathing to induce altered states of consciousness. It's often used for personal growth and healing.
Breathwork can be practiced on its own, as part of meditation, or integrated into various wellness practices such as yoga, mindfulness and relaxation exercises. Now let’s find out what makes this seemingly simple practise so beneficial!
It Can Reduce Stress, Anxiety + Depression
Breathwork's ability to reduce stress, anxiety, and even depression is linked to its influence on the body's autonomic nervous system, which regulates involuntary bodily functions like heart rate, digestion, and breathing. How? Well, for starters, certain breathwork techniques, like deep breathing and diaphragmatic breathing, activate the body's parasympathetic nervous system, often referred to as the "rest and digest" system. This activation triggers the relaxation response, leading to a decrease in stress hormones like cortisol and a decrease in the body's fight-or-flight response. Breathwork can also help regulate heart rate variability, which is the variation in time between each heartbeat. A balanced heart rate variability is associated with reduced stress and better emotional well-being. Slow and controlled breathing patterns achieved through breathwork have been shown to decrease heart rate and lower blood pressure.
Another vital element of breathwork’s effectiveness is the vagus nerve – this part of the body plays an important role in the parasympathetic nervous system. It influences heart rate, digestion and stress responses. Deep, diaphragmatic breathing can stimulate the vagus nerve, leading to relaxation, improved mood, and reduced anxiety. Breathwork also encourages mindfulness, the practice of being fully present in the moment. Mindful breathing focuses your attention on the present, redirecting your thoughts away from sources of stress or anxiety. Research shows that mindfulness has profound effects on our mental health state, as it reduces rumination and negative thoughtsthat loop us into a cycle of worry, while improving cognitive abilities, boosting our attention spans and working memory – and those are just the side bonuses!
It's important to note that while breathwork can offer significant benefits, it's not a replacement for professional medical or psychological treatment. If you're experiencing severe stress, anxiety or depression, it's advisable to seek guidance from a qualified healthcare provider – especially if it’s severe. Of course, not all of us can access these resources, and they also aren’t a guaranteed fix, so using techniques like breathwork are a simple, free way to help manage overwhelming emotions.
It Improves Sleep Quality
Yes, breathwork can help you get a good night’s sleep! It comes down to the relaxation and reduced stress, which create a conducive mental and physiological state for better sleep. Here's how:
- Stress Reduction: Many breathwork techniques activate the body's parasympathetic nervous system, which helps counteract the "fight or flight" response associated with stress. By inducing relaxation, breathwork can alleviate the stress that might be interfering with your ability to fall asleep or stay asleep.
- Calm Mind: Mindful breathing and slow, controlled breathing can help calm an overactive mind, quiet racing thoughts, and reduce mental chatter. This can be particularly useful for individuals who struggle with insomnia due to a restless mind.
- Anxiety Management: Breathwork can lower anxiety levels by reducing the production of stress hormones like cortisol. Since anxiety often disrupts sleep, managing anxiety through breathwork can contribute to more restful sleep.
- Body Relaxation: Deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation techniques can help release physical tension and discomfort, making it easier to get comfortable and fall asleep.
- Mindfulness and Distraction: Engaging in breathwork cultivates mindfulness, the practice of being present in the moment. This mindfulness helps redirect your focus away from worries and distractions, allowing you to drift into a more peaceful sleep.
- Transition to Sleep: Incorporating breathwork into a pre-sleep routine signals to your body that it's time to wind down and prepare for sleep. A consistent relaxation routine can train your body to associate breathwork with the onset of sleep.
- Reduces sleep interruptions: People who wake up during the night due to stress or anxiety may find that breathwork helps them return to sleep more quickly.
- Enhanced Oxygenation: Deep, slow breaths improve oxygen exchange in the body, leading to a more relaxed state and potentially enhancing sleep quality.
It's important to note that the effects of breathwork on sleep can vary from person to person. Some individuals might experience immediate improvements, while others may need time to adapt to the practice. If you're looking to incorporate breathwork into your bedtime routine, consider creating a relaxing routine that also includes other calming activities like stretching, reading and lighting candles.
May Reduce Pain Levels
Who knew that breathing could make that headache less unbearable? Turns out this practise can reduce pain levels – we’re talking physical pain here – through several mechanisms, primarily by influencing the body's stress response, promoting relaxation, and enhancing the mind-body connection. What does all that mean? Let’s dive in:
Many breathwork techniques activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which counteracts the body's stress response, leading to a decrease in the production of stress hormones like cortisol. Reduced stress and tension can alleviate pain or at least make it more manageable, along with achieving the following:
- Slowing your heart rate
- Slowing your breathing
All of these contribute to reduced stress levels, making pain less overwhelming. But there’s another way breathwork can reduce pain – as it requires focused attention on the breath, it diverts your mind away from pain sensations. This distraction can reduce the perception of pain and make it feel less intense. Then we’ve got the release of endorphins that can be triggered by controlled breathing – also known as “feel-good” hormones or natural pain killers, these lead to feelings of euphoria and a reduction in pain sensations. The deep breathing can also relax tense muscles, so if you’re struggling with tension headaches or pain from sitting uncomfortably at a desk all day, this relaxation can alleviate this tension and reduce pain levels. Mindful breathwork strengthens the connection between your mind and body. This heightened awareness can help you better understand your pain, manage your emotional response to it, and potentially reduce its impact on your overall wellbeing. There are a few other ways this pain-relieving effect works:
- Deep breathing techniques increase oxygen intake and improve blood circulation. This can enhance the delivery of nutrients and oxygen to tissues, supporting the body's natural healing processes and potentially reducing pain.
- Chronic pain often leads to increased levels of anxiety and depression, which can worsen the perception of pain. Breathwork's ability to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression can indirectly contribute to pain reduction.
- Certain breathwork techniques teach individuals to manage their responses to pain sensations by using the breath as a tool for relaxation and focus. This sense of control can empower individuals to manage their pain more effectively.
While breathwork can offer pain relief, it's important to approach it as a complementary strategy rather than a replacement for medical treatment. For chronic or severe pain, it's crucial to work with a healthcare professional to develop a comprehensive pain management plan that may include medications, physical therapy, and other appropriate interventions. Breathwork can be a valuable addition to this plan, contributing to your overall well-being and comfort.
Try a Breathwork Exercise At Home: 4-7-8 Breathing
Here's a simple breathwork exercise that you can practice to promote relaxation and reduce stress. This technique is known as 4-7-8 Breathing. It’s exactly what it sounds like – you’ll breath in for a count of 4, holding the breath for a count of 7, and exhale for a count of 8. It's best practiced in a comfortable seated or lying-down position – but really, you can do it however you like; you don’t have to miss out just because you’re on the go!
- Find a Comfortable Position: Sit or lie down in a quiet and comfortable place where you won't be disturbed. Close your eyes if you're comfortable doing so.
- Relax Your Body: Take a few deep breaths to relax your body. Let go of any tension in your muscles, starting from your head down to your toes.
- Breathe In (4 Counts): Inhale quietly and slowly through your nose for a count of 4. Fill your lungs completely, but don't force the breath. Let it come naturally.
- Hold Your Breath (7 Counts): After the inhale, hold your breath for a count of 7. During this time, keep your focus on your breath and the sensation of holding it.
- Exhale (8 Counts): Exhale slowly and completely through your mouth for a count of 8. Allow the breath to leave your body gently, releasing any tension.
- Repeat: Continue with the cycle of inhaling for 4 counts, holding for 7 counts, and exhaling for 8 counts. Do this for a total of 4 breath cycles to start. Over time, you can gradually increase the number of cycles if you feel comfortable.
- Observe Your Breath: As you practice, pay attention to the sensation of the breath entering and leaving your body. Focus on the rhythm of your breath and the calming effect it has on your body.
- Practice Regularly: Try to practice this exercise for a few minutes each day, especially during times when you feel stressed or anxious. It can also be helpful before bedtime to promote relaxation and better sleep.
Remember, breathwork is a personal practice, and it's okay if your breath counts vary slightly. The goal is to create a slow, controlled, and calming breathing pattern. If you ever feel lightheaded or uncomfortable, return to your normal breathing and take a break.
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