It’s already a 24/7 thing, but turns out breathing is set to be your health hero
Breathing - you know, the thing you’ve been doing since the day you were born – is set to become a top wellness trend of 2018, with claims it can improve everything from your energy levels to your sex life when it’s done right. We ask: wellness 2.0 or a load of hot air?
Breathing, much like putting one leg in front of the other and navigating roundabouts on your drive home, is easy until you think about it. Become aware of your lungs expanding and contracting and you’ll wonder how you’ve managed to do it on autopilot for your whole life. So, try not to go blue in the face as we tell you that respiration is big news. Breathing spaces and workshops are cropping up faster than F45 spots, while
The Breathing Revolution by yoga teacher Yolanda Barker is expected to become one of the most popular self-care books of the year (it’s due to hit shelves in Oz in December).
It makes sense. Anyone who’s ever been told to “take a deep breath” will know the calm-the-f*ck-down power of a few lungfuls. Rebecca Dennis, a transformational breathing coach, explains it comes down to the link between the nervous system and inhaling/exhaling on repeat. “The sympathetic nervous system is the one responsible for your fightor-flight response,” she explains. “When activated, it raises your heart rate and blood pressure, diverting blood to the brain and skeletal muscles and flooding the body with adrenaline and cortisol. But breathing fully from the diaphragm stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which slows your heart rate, lowers blood pressure and diverts blood supply towards the digestive and reproductive systems. It means that breathing in the right way can interrupt the cycle of adrenaline and cortisol, which contributes to chronically high stress levels and acts as a precursor to panic attacks and anxiety.”
So, that’s the theory. As for legit science, there’s currently very little. Dr James Eyerman, a psychiatrist in California, is one of the few who has researched breathwork. “I published a series of reports on around 11,000 psychiatric patients with a range of conditions who had been offered breathwork as a supplementary treatment,” he says. “There were no adverse effects from breathwork,
but it wasn’t possible to carry out a systematic follow-up. That said, the patients all reported it to be their most positive therapy experience at the hospital.” A recent study from Beijing Normal University in China found diaphragmatic breathing can lower cortisol levels and improve attention span. As with much altmedicine, more studies are needed, but the results add to a growing body of anecdotal evidence.
Catch a breath
Quite like the act itself, the whole breathing ‘industry’ is nothing new. Holotropic breathwork – beloved by hippies in the 1970s and enjoying a renaissance – is considered one of the earliest forms. “It was devised by psychiatrist Stanislav Grof, who had researched the effects of LSD on the mind,” explains holotropic breathwork practitioner Jamie
Mills. “When the drug was made illegal, Dr Grof investigated other ways to access that out-of-thisworld state of being and found that deep breathing at an accelerated pace – which essentially deprives the brain of oxygen – could elicit memories and sensations associated with any deep trauma you may have experienced during birth. He believed that by addressing this, it was possible to treat conditions like anxiety and depression in later life.”
Eyerman published a paper theorising that holotropic breathwork may have a stimulatory effect on the vagus nerve, which travels down the trunk of the body from the brain, releasing those high-as-a-kite hormones, serotonin and dopamine. Unsurprisingly, the method is controversial, with many arguing that limiting the body’s oxygen intake is never a good thing. Indeed, practitioners advocate that holotropic work be done with a second person – a pro sitter – present to watch and keep you safe.
Conscious breathing is an altogether more modern, mainstream offshoot. It involves (shocker) being more aware of your everyday breathing. But wait – isn’t this what you’ve been doing during meditation and yoga for yonks?
“As a general rule, yogic breathing helps you control feelings of stress, whereas conscious breathing helps you get in touch with your emotions and release them,” explains breath coach Alan Dolan. “If you think of breathing as being on a spectrum, these two types are at opposite ends. One is focused on symptoms; the other attempts to get to the root cause of the problem.”
Drill down into the various types of conscious breathing and the plot thickens. Transformational breathing posits that better breathing can improve your physical health, too. Among the benefits touted by its advocates are an energy boost, immune system upgrade, better digestion and relieved muscle tension. “The technique teaches you to breathe in a constant flowing pattern and opens your respiratory system to its full capacity,” explains Dennis. “While anyone can learn – regardless of their fitness level – it’s best to have a few sessions to learn how to do it properly. Then you can use it for just five or 10 minutes a day, like a meditation practice.”
The basics: you inhale with a wide-open mouth deep into your belly, without any pause before the exhale, so your breathing is constant and connected – and the exhalation is shorter than the inhalation, unlike in yoga and meditation.
Let it flow
But with a sesh at Sydney’s Breathwork Healing studio costing you upwards of $150, do you really need a breathing workshop any more than you need schooling in how to blink? “The trouble is that most people are stuck in a hyper-vigilant state because of the stresses of modern life, which isn’t the way we were designed to live,” says Dolan. “It means you’re in a low-level version of the fight-orflight response most of the time.” Ah yes, that ‘must reply to that Whatsapp, oh God, there’s an earlymorning email from my boss and what’s the chance of my smoothie exploding in my bag’ state of mind. “When you’re in that headspace, everything in the body constricts, including the process of breathing.”
Dennis confirms this. “The majority of adults only use a third of their respiratory system,” he says. “As a baby you breathe effectively, but as you grow older, you begin to breathe less deeply, only inhaling into the chest or abdomen, or subconsciously holding your breath … here and there rather than letting it flow. Learning how to breathe the way you did as a baby, deeply from your diaphragm without pause, has endless health benefits because the breath is so intrinsically linked to both mind and body.”
So, as anecdotal as the evidence might be, learning to breathe as nature intended won’t do you any harm, and practitioners claim that the benefits can be life-changing. “Your breath really can help connect your body to anything that needs dealing with,”’ says Dolan. “For the majority of people, that will mean stress-related issues – depression, anxiety and sleep problems. We live in a mind-led society, but focusing on your breathing lets your body take the reins for a change. You follow your breathing, release the [stored] tension and get in touch with what’s really going on in your body.” In this sense, it would seem breathing is a do-anywhere, no-kit, intuitive form of self-therapy.
“Clients tell me that learning to breathe properly has had a dramatic effect on the way they feel about themselves and their lives generally,” adds Dennis. “So much of it is about letting go of the emotions you harbour without realising it. That can translate to a more intimate relationship with your partner; getting more, better-quality sleep; and having more energy.”
You don’t have to be aware of your breathing all the time, nor do you need to go along to a dedicated session. Dennis suggests allocating 10 minutes daily to it, like you would a morning yoga or meditation session. Oxygen at the ready...
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