And breathe...

Women's Health Australia - - CONTENTS - By Char­lotte Haigh

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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