Breathing is fundamental to our existence.
On average, we take 20,000 breaths a day, but often don’t give it the attention it deserves.
“Breathing is so simple that we tend to overlook its benefits,” says Stefanie Broes, co-founder of breathing stimulation device Moonbird.
“Of course it keeps you alive, but scientists have found that breathing exercises can help reduce anxiety and improve sleep.”
Here you can find out how you can use your lung power.
What is Breathwork?
“When we breathe in, oxygen is carried by red blood cells to create energy in the body, and when we breathe out, we remove carbon dioxide, a waste product,” says Dr. Paras Patel, scientific director of wellness app The Zensory.
Breathing also prepares the body for stressful situations and promotes calm and digestion.
“Imagine you are walking down the street and something jumps towards you.
“Our first reaction is a short, forceful inhalation, which prepares our body for the flight, fight or freeze response,” says Dr. Patel.
“Alternatively, one of our first physical reactions after a long day, when we finally sit down, is to take a long exhale, which helps us relax.”
It stimulates our parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the body’s rest and digest system.
However, sometimes our fight-or-flight response kicks in so strongly that we end up breathing rapidly even when we’re not under threat – maybe we’re opening an email or answering a phone call.
But we have the power to change our breathing to combat this, reducing stress, heart rate and blood pressure in the process.
Additionally, breathwork can increase energy levels, increase emotional well-being, and promote a sense of overall balance and clarity – plus, it’s free!
Tips to improve your breathing
shut your mouth
“Many of us develop a largely dysfunctional breathing pattern as we age, largely due to the stress or trauma we are exposed to,” says Miranda Bailey, co-founder of The Breath Connection.
“This pattern of ‘overbreathing’ – breathing through the mouth too quickly – can have negative effects on physical and mental health.”
Your advice? “Shut up in the nicest possible way.
“The more often you can consciously bring your breathing back into a slow rhythm through your nose and into your stomach, the better your health and well-being will be.
“Stress and inflammation can decrease and energy levels can increase.”
“Nasal breathing helps open the airways, increase blood flow, promote better use of the diaphragm and increase oxygen delivery,” says breathing coach Jess Parkinson.
Humming for Zen
“Humming is a great way to open the airways and increase oxygen delivery,” adds Jess – perhaps best tried when working from home.
But wherever you are, make sure you direct your breathing as deeply as possible.
“When our breathing is disrupted or suboptimal, we tend to breathe high into the upper chest, putting additional strain on the muscles in the throat, neck and back,” says Jess.
“Deeper and slower breathing can affect the diaphragm, which helps strengthen and stabilize the core and supports overall posture.
“Try cupping your hands around your lower ribcage and as you inhale, feel your lower ribs and stomach gently pushing your hands outward.
“As you breathe out, feel them fall.
“Keep your chest and shoulders relaxed.”
Make note of how you breathe in different situations.
“Focus on becoming as aware of your breath as possible and actually paying attention to it, which is something we don’t normally do,” says Laura Pearce, founder of Yoga Collective London.
“Determine the length, depth and movement of your breath.
“For example, do you breathe into your stomach, chest, or shoulders?
“Take notes and create a mood scale ranging from relaxed to severely stressed and observe how you feel.
“This allows you to feel what your breath feels like in a calm place and replicate that during stressful times.
“This causes the nervous system to let go of the stress.”
Change your sleep settings
If your breathing stops and starts again during the count, you may have sleep apnea, which can not only affect your ability to sleep well but can also lead to other health problems such as high blood pressure. Heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
If you think this might be the case for you, talk to your GP.
Alternatively, if your airways feel congested at night, consider whether you may have an allergy.
The Sleep Charity recommends keeping your bedroom clean and free of clutter and dust.
Washing your bedding regularly and using an anti-allergic pillow can also help you breathe and sleep easier.
There are many apps that can help you get better control of your breathing.
Try iBreathe for guided breathing exercises. Once you get the hang of it, you can use it to design your own exercises that fit the patterns that help you relax most.
Likewise, Breathwrk offers breathing exercises that focus on different areas of your life, including those for sleep, calming, and increased energy.
It’s also worth taking a look at your smartwatch’s settings – the Meditation app on Apple Watch provides real-time feedback on how your breathing relates to your heart rate.
Just don’t spend too much time staring at a screen.
Just as we can forget to blink when we’re concentrating on a work task, we’re also more likely to hold our breath.
Four breathing exercises to try
Nevsah Fidan Karamehmet, breathing expert and founder of Breath Hub, shares various techniques that can be used depending on the moment…
To ease the panic
Use 4-7-8 breathing, a simple and effective method to reduce stress and anxiety.
How? Find a comfortable position, either sitting or lying down.
Breathe deeply through your nose for four seconds; Hold your breath for seven seconds. Then breathe out slowly for eight seconds.
Repeat this for several minutes.
Focus the mind
Use coherent breathing – this helps balance the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, which control the fight-or-flight and rest-and-digest responses.
How? Simply breathe in to the count of four, then breathe out to the count of four.
Make sure you breathe evenly and don’t take breaks between inhaling and exhaling.
Continue this breathing exercise for at least five minutes.
This will help you focus if you find your mind constantly wandering.
To increase energy
Use Kapalbhati, a rapid breathing technique.
How? Find a comfortable position.
Place your hands on your lower abdomen and breathe in slowly and deeply. As you do this, make sure to fill your lungs with oxygen.
You should feel your stomach expand as your lungs fill with air.
After taking this breath, exhale forcefully, using your diaphragm to push the air out of your lungs.
Repeat this for about a minute.
To induce sleep
Use Chandra Bhedana, a yoga breathing technique that can help relax the mind.
How? Gently press your right nostril with your finger to close it and inhale through your left nostril.
Once you have gently inhaled enough air to fill your lungs, close both nostrils and hold your breath for as long as is comfortable for you.
Then open the exact right nostril and exhale gently to clear the lungs of air.
Repeat this alternating nostrils until you feel sleepy.