Breathing is up there with heartbeat and brain function in terms of necessity of life. How we breathe also affects our quality of life. Unfortunately, most of us do not breathe optimally. As we grow from toddlers and children into older children, teens, and adults our breathing patterns change from perfectly open to compressed usually in response to life experiences and social influences. For example, we’re taught that a flat stomach is beautiful, so we might consciously restrict our breath to inflate only our chest so prevent distending our bellies. Unconsciously we might change our breath rhythm in response to experiences or fear of abuse, high stress situations such as mountains of homework/projects or excessive obligations, or diminished self worth. Interestingly, as the restricted breathing pattern become chronic, it can reinforce and perpetuate the emotional/mental states that created it. Thankfully we can retrain these habits.
Breathwork (sometimes called breath therapy) is an integral part of many ancient mind-body-spirit practices. It is also utilized in bodywork and body-oriented psychotherapy to promote healing in the deepest levels of the mind and body. The goal in breath therapy is to clear energetic and emotional blocks that are inaccessible to the conscious mind by creating an altered state of consciousness allowing a person to more fully integrate their life experiences thereby healing trauma. Practitioners have reported
Decreased physical pain and tension
Better digestion and circulation
More positive body image
Reintegration from dissociation
Reduced anxiety and depression
Emotional healing and healing from trauma/PTSD
Greater mental clarity
Elimination of bad habits and limiting beliefs
Feeling more alive and connected
More joy and pleasure in life
And many other mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical benefits.
Objectively, are some studies that show improved immune function. Research on the topic is fairly scant, but as more emerges I am positive we will find evidence to support the subjective benefits.
There are many different forms and philosophies of breathwork. Some employ music, visualization, guided meditation, or movement. You may be instructed to perform circular breathing, connected breathing, rapid breathing or to switch between these methods. And while the concept of changing your breathing or breathing more deeply is very simple, the process is powerful and should be done under the supervision of a trained facilitator. You are inducing an altered state after all. There are also some medical conditions that would preclude a person from practicing breathwork or require modifications. Pregnancy, history of epilepsy or seizures, untreated mental illness, abnormal circulation or vascular conditions, and severe asthma are some of the biggest concerns. Check out this article for a more comprehensive list of benefits, improved conditions, contraindications, and descriptions of some of the major types of breathwork. All that being said, there are a couple breath exercises that are generally safe for anyone. (Still consult your healthcare provider if you have a serious health condition before beginning any of these techniques at home.) Square Breathing 1) Sit tall or lay flat, whichever is most comfortable to you 2) Slowly and evenly count to 4 while you inhale, allowing both your stomach and chest to rise
* If counting to 4 feels as if you are taking too shallow of a breath or having to force more air into your lungs, increase or decrease your count until the breath is more comfortable. Use a clock with a loud second tick if you have difficulty maintaining tempo
3) Accentuate the natural pause between inhale and exhale by holding your breath for a 4 count
4) Exhale for 4 counts while feeling both your stomach and chest sink 5) Again accentuate the natural pause between breaths by holding to 4
6) Continue this pattern for 3 to 30 minutes depending on your level of experience, time allotted, and comfort level
Spine Breathing 1) Sit tall or lay flat, whichever is most comfortable to you
2) Make your breath slower and deeper than usual, feeling both your chest and stomach rise
3) Allow your breath to fall naturally upon exhale as opposed to forcing the air from your lungs
4) Once you are comfortable with this, imagine your breath in as filling up your pelvis, surrounding your sacrum, moving through your spine and into your skull
5) As you breath out, imagine that air is draining back down your spine into your pelvis
6) Repeat for 3 to 30 minutes depending upon level of experience, time available, and your comfort level
During either of these exercises, you might notice that it feels difficult to pull your breath or your attention to various parts of your body. This is normal and will just take practice. There also may come a point where it feels difficult to continue the breath pattern. Keep the pace to work through the resistance unless it is it causing you extreme physical or emotional distress in which case you should break and return to normal breathing until you feel able to continue. You know your body best.
What is your experience with breathwork? What changes have you felt since starting practice? Are these your first breath exercises? How do they feel to you? Let me know in the comments below! __________________________ Collinge W, Yarnold PR (2001). Transformational breath work in medical illness: Clinical applications and evidence of immunoenhancement. Subtle Energies & Energy Medicine, 12, 139-156.