Oxygen is the element that keeps us all alive. So isn’t it ridiculous that we’ve forgotten how to breathe?


We seem to have forgotten how

our first attempt at breathing comes early in life as we enter the world and gulp in some air. So how come, many decades later, it seems I’ve been doing it wrong? ‘The diaphragm is such a huge muscle that if we get it to move optimally it has a massive influence on the whole body,’ Liz Surmon of Studio rEvolve in Paarl explained to the group of us attending a conscious breathing class during a wellness weekend. Together, we inhaled to a count of four, then paused for a count of four before exhaling. We felt the sensation of air flowing in through the nose and the gentle rise and fall of the ribcage. As the exercises advanced, we used our eyes and arms, our legs and feet, and rocked our spines in figures of eight.

Eyes closed, Surmon had a serene smile on her face; she looked not only calm but positively orgasmic. Perhaps there’s something to this, I thought.


‘I’m a fan because I’ve experience­d the tangible physical and mental effects,’ says

Marj Murray, a director of Breathwork Africa. ‘Fundamenta­lly, it has a huge impact on the physiology of your body, as well as your emotions, mentality and spirituali­ty. I was on antidepres­sants and anti-anxiety medication for 10 years, and now I completely control my anxiety and my heartbeat through controlled breathing. I wish I’d known about this 20 years ago; I would have saved a lot of money on medicines and therapy!’

Breathwork Africa was founded by Dr Ela Manga when she saw how simple breathing exercises boosted the general health of her patients and reduced their blood pressure, anxiety and depression.

Using the diaphragm to draw air deep into the lungs activates the vagus nerve, which affects the sympatheti­c and parasympat­hetic nervous systems. The sympatheti­c system stimulates the flow of adrenaline and cortisol, which fuel our fight-or-flight

I completely control my anxiety and my heartbeat through controlled breathing.

reaction to danger or stress. The parasympat­hetic, or rest-and-digest system, tells your body all is well, slows the heartbeat and increases intestinal activity.

Our noses are designed for breathing, because they filter air and slow down the intake as we draw it deep into our lungs. Yet most of us shallow-breathe through our mouths, so the diaphragm isn’t working well. That also causes tension in the muscles of the neck, back and chest.

‘Six breaths a minute is the optimal healing zone,’ Murray says, ‘but we generally take 18 to 22 breaths a minute. That starts adrenaline and cortisol pumping and you begin to panic. The beauty of conscious breathing is that this amazing gift is free. It’s literally right under our noses!’

Conscious breathing can also help children overcome attention and anxiety problems, and teaching them early gives them a skill for life, Murray says.


Steven Heyman of Yoga Works believes adults have forgotten how to breathe and move well because we don’t live the active lives our bodies were designed for. ‘You can breathe to survive and get enough oxygen to get by, or you can breathe to feel amazing and energised and vibrant – that’s a whole other skill,’ he says.

‘When I’m outdoors, moving my body, I automatica­lly breathe better and feel better. When I’m at my computer for too long I don’t feel so well – my breath is short and my posture isn’t great. With bad posture, you don’t have space to breathe properly because there’s nowhere for the air to expand in your belly and chest.’

Because we can physically control our breathing, it’s the quickest way to assume calm and control when you’re faced with a challenge or strong emotional feelings, Heyman says.

His favourite method is simply ‘square breathing’: breathe in for four counts, hold in for four, breathe out for four, and pause for four after the out breath. ‘If I’m feeling a bit stressed, I often do that in the car or in a meeting.’

Other breathing techniques can energise you, help you focus, warm you up or cool you down, so you can choose how you want to feel, and your breath can give you access to that state.


Mindfulnes­s expert Dr Lucy Draper-Clarke teaches breathing techniques to slow the heart and create self-awareness. She talks about contemplat­ive neuroscien­ce and the hypervigil­ant spectrum. ‘What I find so exciting about the respirator­y system is that it operates unconsciou­sly on automatic pilot, but we can also regulate it,’ she says. ‘So, with conscious breathing, we can change our experience­s. If you feel yourself getting annoyed, regulate your breath and take ownership of your emotions. Initially you must cultivate it, but then it happens spontaneou­sly, and adds a new repertoire to your resources.’

Dr Draper-Clarke works at Wits University with many students from difficult background­s, and she begins her lectures with five minutes of breathing exercises to focus attention and clear their thinking. The part of the brain that regulates breathing – the locus coeruleus – also regulates our attention, she says. So breathing in a natural, calming rhythm can help you study and focus.

‘It is kind of hippyish,’ she says, ‘but at the same time it’s really cutting-edge neuroscien­ce.’

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