The breath: more than simply inhaling and exhaling?
Every day, you take an average of 23,040 breaths. That’s around 173 491,2 billion inhales and exhales shared around the world. The breath is something we all have in common; it is a vital ingredient to our existence as humans, it allows us to inhale new life with each breath and it is our most basic living function. The first thing we all do when we are born is take a huge breath of air. Yet most people don’t utilize their breath for what it can be: an incredibly practical tool in their self-care toolkit. By manipulating the breath, we are able to consciously change our breathing patterns, which consequently lead to an altered, lighter state of being. We can slow down, dive inside and give our mind and body some space to simply be. The breath does not only provide us with essential oxygen, it also offers us a way to reset and rejuvenate. Breathing provides us with an opportunity to find a state similar to that achieved through meditation and mindfulness practices, allowing us to cultivate calmness and centredness. The breath holds so much more possibilities than just a way to breathe in and out.
As humans we possess the remarkable ability to not only be aware of but also control our brain and some of its functions, the breath being one such function. Animals can only change their breathing speed in response to physical activity, a process which is involuntary. Yet we can access breathing functions consciously and regulate our breathing on a voluntary basis. We can choose how fast we breathe, whether we breathe through our nose or mouth, or we can even choose to hold our breath. But does this control over inhaling and exhaling have a profound effect on our state of being and health?
And what do the experts say?
Although breathing is an automatic process that is driven by the brain, it actually has the ability to physically change the brain. Dr. Jose Herrero and Dr. Ashesh Mehta, renowned neurosurgeons at North Shore University Hospital in Long Island, recently conducted a study to determine the neurological effect of breathing. The results were astounding: changes in breathing patterns and rhythm showed engagement in different parts of the brain. Not only did the breathing manipulation activate separate parts of the brain, but it also created synchronicity between brain areas. By focusing on breathing during times of stress, brain processes can be altered to activate more control, focus and calmness. Remember being told to “take a deep breath” when you were upset? Well, studies such as this provide the neural evidence to support this heeded advice. This simple breathing tip for kids seems to hold a lot of truth to it. When we “take a breath”, whether through breathing exercises or simply by paying attention to our breath, we gain access to internal parts of our brain that are normally inaccessible to us. Our brain becomes receptive to our attentive breathing, allowing a wave of feelings such as calmness and clarity to emerge. Think of it as a way to spring clean your internal clutter, bringing clarity to the mind and oxygen to the body.
Psychologist Belisa Vranich dedicated her entire book to the breath; naturally, its title is “Breathing”. She writes that about 95% of all adults breathe unhealthily and anxiously. We sit for extended periods of time staring at a computer screen, often hunched up, over-caffeinated and carrying a ton of stress. Our inhales and exhales seem to be the least of our worries, as we do not see the breath as anything else than a manner of supplying oxygen. We end up taking fast, shallow breaths which our bodies actually associate with stress, as this mimics the way we breathe when we feel panicked. Consequently, our tendency to overwork ourselves without paying much attention to the breath ends up creating more stress for both our bodies and our minds.
Dr. Vranich, who is a psychologist turned breathing educator, works with everyone from elite athletes to overworked individuals to retrain the manner in which they breathe, in order to cultivate more mindfulness and patience into their life. According to her, “vertical breathing” is when your breath travels from your lungs up through your chest, thereby moving your shoulders upward. This manner of breathing only uses a small portion of your lung capacity, instead working and consequently straining your neck and shoulders. Rather, the right way is to “breathe horizontally”. This involves breathing using the diaphragm, which is the muscle made for breathing, as it allows your lungs to fully expand outwards and fill with maximum air. Think of it like making your entire abdomen expand outward with each breath you take, much like an inflating balloon. By breathing horizontally, your lungs expand wider and you take deeper, fuller breaths, which fuel your body with oxygen and signal it to relax.
According to Samantha Moody, a professional and world-renown breathworker from New York, psychological traumas and pains are rooted in our lower abdomen. This is why it is essential to take deep horizontal breaths in times of stress, as this acts as a release to the area. Focused breathing allows your body to let go of tension and instead spread a feeling of relaxation. She goes on to say that our breath acts as a barometer for our emotional state of being, silently giving us clues as to how we are feeling. By observing our breath, we are able to gain an insight into our feelings. But by controlling our breath, we can access and unleash a range of new positive feelings. Evidently, the breath does not only act as a barometer but also as a catalyst to our emotional state and feelings.
Breathwork as a superpower
Our bodies are designed to have a built-in relaxation tool in the form of our breath. The breath is incredibly simple to incorporate into your life, as it already forms an essential part of your human being. Breathwork does not have to come in any specific form or shape; it is a tool that you can adapt to your individual needs and goals. The only objective is to be mindful and attentive to your breathing, thereby releasing internal blockages and negative feelings, as well as improving your overall health. Breathwork does not necessarily have to be a spiritual or enlightening practice, it can be practical or health-centred as well. Like anything in life, it is about finding a practice that rings true to you, one that you know you will enjoy and also stick to. There are a variety of breathing methods, practices, tools and techniques that are all designed to help you learn how to use your breath as a tool for relaxation. The more basic techniques are centred around breathing to certain counts as a way to calm down and clear the mind. However, there are also more integrated options available such as meditation, which becomes very accessible and practical through apps dedicated to helping you maintain your practice.
The 5-5-5 Breathing Technique
This technique is mainly used to calm you down and bring a sense of peace to your mind and body. It is based on the principle of five: inhale for five seconds through your nose, exhale for five seconds through your mouth and finally, wait for five seconds. This process is repeated three times more, or for a minute in total. This simple exercise triggers your parasympathetic nervous system to calm you down and release feelings of nervousness or anxiety. It is simple and easy to remember, and you will find yourself more focused after just a few repetitions of this pattern.
The 4-7-8 Exercise
Dr. Andrew Weil is a medical doctor from Harvard who focuses on holistic well-being. He has developed the 4-7-8 breathing exercise, which was originally created as a tool for people suffering from insomnia, helping them to learn to fall asleep in under a minute using just their breath. However, it is also a very useful technique to help you handle daily anxiety and stress. Your start by exhaling fully through your mouth, making a sound if possible. You close your mouth to inhale through your nose for a count of four, and then you hold your breath for seven counts. Now you can exhale loudly again through your mouth for a count of eight. This process is repeated until you fall asleep, or alternatively until you feel calm and centred.
Meditation and Mindfulness Practices
If you choose not to use counts as a way to focus on your breathing, you can follow the more holistic approach of meditation, which incorporates breathing alongside mindfulness exercises to help you find stillness and calmness within. Focusing on just your breath for as little as a minute a day has been proven to lower stress and anxiety. If you find yourself too distracted or busy with thoughts during meditation, you can also use guided meditations that help you focus and stay present in the moment. These can be in the form of a teacher or coach, an audio meditation or also an app. Everyday life has become a rush, and we are so used to stress and constant busyness that it can be quite difficult to take a few minutes to focus on breathing, even if we know how beneficial it is. This is why meditation-focused apps in particular provide an easy and practical solution, as they are integrated into your smartphone and thus always available to use- on the bus ride home, on your lunch break or as you wake up.
Our Stress Guide App is designed to provide a solution that fits your stress and lifestyle needs just right. The best thing about our app in particular is that we have created a way for you to physically track your breathing practice progress, as we have incorporated modern technology that allows your stress level to be measured using just your smartphone camera. The app uses vital data measurements to determine your personal stress level, such as your HRV and pulse rate. This objectifies your stress level so you know what you want to improve, whilst it allows us to create a program catered to your specific needs. We have created a hub of guided meditations, mindfulness methods and breathing exercises to help you use your breath to relax and de-stress.
If you’re interested in trying our app as a way to use your breath to cultivate calmness and health, you can download it for free and let us know if it helped you.
And remember, no matter how hectic life may seem, you always have time to “take a breath”!