Updated: Jan 28, 2021
Heal your body and mind with this forgotten medicine
In modern life we pay attention to how we exercise, how long we sleep, and what we eat – we know that they are key for our vitality. But did you know 90% of your energy should come through your breath, and how you breathe can make a big difference to how you feel?
Respiration happens automatically, but unlike most autonomic processes of the body, we can also consciously control our breathing. In many ancient cultures (including India and China), and indigenous cultures, breath control has been used as medicine for the body and mind, a tool to activate your own natural healing powers.
With the development of modern medicine we have lost some wisdom from the ancient worlds about the importance of our breath. Fortunately in recent years an understanding of the power of the breath is returning to modern life, led by figures such as Wim Hof and writer James Nestor, author of 'Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art'.
A poor breathing pattern can leave us low on energy, which we may perceive as hunger or tiredness, and it can invite a host of mental and physical health problems, including stress, stroke and high blood pressure.
Too fast, too shallow
It is widely agreed that slow breathing is optimal for our physical and mental health, studies suggest in the range of 6-10 breaths per minute. This allows for optimum oxygen transfer from the blood to the cells in our body and encourages balance in our nervous system.
This slow rate of resting breath is achievable for most individuals with practice, but stress, poor posture and lack of movement mean that the average person is taking between 12 and 18 breaths each minute. When we breathe fast, it also tends to be shallow, which can increase feelings of anxiety.
Do you breathe through your nose or mouth?
Although in breathwork we use the mouth to charge our system, everyday breathing is more effective through the nose. You can test and switch if you tend to breathe through your mouth by taping your mouth with micropore tape. Changing to nose breathing can improve sleep, including sleep apnea, asthma symptoms and high blood pressure.
The breath in Yoga
Yogis have always been aware of the importance of bringing "Prana" (the yogic word for our energy, or life-force, similar to Chi in Chinese traditions) into our body through our breath. Pranayama, or breath control, is a core yogic practice for both energising and calming our nervous system.
The three-part yogic breath, (breathing in so the belly moves, then our ribs area, and finally the upper chest expands) is a deep, slow breath. This stimulates the vagus nerve and helps us move into the parasympathetic nervous system: a state where our body can rest and repair, and which alleviates stress and anxiety.
As we synchronise moving into Yoga postures with the breath, we unite our body and mind's intention in our own natural rhythm, which can bring a feeling of peace or flow. As we breathe together as a group in class we start to feel our essential connection to each other, the reality of the yogic attitude that 'we are all one'.
Join me for a breath awareness and grounding practice at the video below from 1 minute 10s.
A Daily Breath Practice
Bring yourself into a relaxed state for healing each day by focusing on your breath and encourage your body to return to the slow belly breaths you took as a baby. I use this simple technique most days to unwind, recharge and manage any emotional turbulence:
1. Get comfortable, seated or lying down. Start by noticing your natural breath pattern. Observe the rate of the flow and where you can feel the breath moving in your body.
2. Close the mouth if it is open and just breathe in and out through the nose.
3. Start to encourage the breath down to the belly, you can place the hands there to feel it. The belly should gently expand as you breathe in, the breath then fills up the lower and side ribs and finally the upper chest and back. When we breathe out the breath flows out of the upper body, lower chest and side body, and then the belly.
4. If you can’t feel the breath moving in the belly, pull your belly button in towards your spine as you breathe out fully. Relax the belly on the inhale and it often balloons out with the incoming air. Give it a few more tries, and then let your body relax and breathe as it wants.
5. If it's comfortable for you, try to slow down your exhale and fully empty the lungs. A full exhalation triggers a reflex, which allows the next inhale to be deeper and easier. Our exhales also eliminate 70% of the body’s waste.
6. See if you can make each breath last over 10 seconds. It might take some practice for you to achieve this. If you are preparing for bed and want to relax count to 4 on the inhale and 6 on the exhale. If you want to energise yourself try to count to 6 on both the inhale and exhale.
7. Keep your awareness focused down in the belly and when the mind gets distracted, gently bring it back to the breath.
8. Relax :) Breathing in this way can start to calm your nervous system in under ten minutes, but everyone is unique, and if you have anxiety controlling your breath might make you feel more anxious. Let your body breathe how it needs to today without judgement. With practice our breathing pattern changes, like everything in life.
What is Breathwork and what are its benefits?
You'll find out in my live video below: