The moment you find yourself in an uncomfortable situation, do you instinctively take a deep breath? That is because breathing, aside from being one of the basic functions of our body, also keeps us grounded by improving our self-awareness and turning off our automatic stress responses.
We discuss with U.K based Mindset Coach and Breathwork Trainer Briony Gunson how breathwork can improve your overall health. Briony is a Certified Mindset Coach with the Proctor Gallagher Institute— having worked directly with Bob Proctor — as well as a Trauma-Informed Breathwork Facilitator, Breathwork Trainer, and Meditation Teacher. She has taught 1,000s of people meditation techniques and has led 1,000s of people in breathwork, hosting retreats and workshops Internationally. She runs corporate well-being workshops and speaks at conferences, festivals, and events on practical well-being, human potential, and conscious living.
What is Breathwork?
We all breathe. So what’s the big deal about breathwork? Turns out, a lot actually!
More than just inhaling and exhaling, breathwork refers to any kind of method or technique that involves bringing the attention of the mind to the breath. When practicing breathwork, you consciously and intentionally modify your breathing pattern– the depth, pace, and whether it’s through the nose or mouth. Even some simple modifications in the way we breathe can bring about some usual states of mind and also many benefits - from improved cognition to better physical health and emotional well-being.
Following the rise in popularity of yoga and meditation practices in the U.K., breathwork has evolved from being a well-being tool to a powerful therapeutic practice. In more recent years, the expansion of breathwork beyond yoga and spiritual circles was accelerated by the superhuman feats of Wim Hof. Also known as The Iceman, this Dutch motivational speaker, and extreme athlete has worked with University researchers to investigate how we can use breathwork as a tool to directly control the immune system - something that has been thought previously by modern science to not be possible.
The excitement around breathwork was further fanned by worldwide best-sellers like the 2020 book, Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor. This science journalist’s extensive work documents many ancient practices, backed with compelling data to reveal the science behind breathwork and its benefits. For example, According to a 2017 study, conscious breathing benefits both physical and mental wellness by stimulating body relaxation responses such as regulating breath flow and blood pressure, slowing down heart rate, and reducing anxiety. The use of breathwork as an effective treatment for PTSD and other emotional/psychological trauma– alongside bodywork tools like yoga and cold water therapy– has also aided the popularity of breathwork.
Overall, it is interesting to note the growing interest in breathwork has been against the backdrop of a global pandemic connected to the lungs. It seems that, now more than ever, it’s essential that we learn more about the power of our breath and how the quality of our breath can directly influence the quality of our life.
Why is Breathwork Important?
There are various breathing techniques for specific issues and purposes. For example, a slow, deep breathing exercise can support immediate stress relief, while advanced methods such as holotropic breathwork are effective for emotional healing. A study also has shown that conscious breathing helps relieve chronic pain sufferers from pain and physical discomfort.
Common benefits to breathwork practices include:
• Reduced stress and anxiety
• More self-awareness
• Greater emotional intelligence
• More mental clarity
• More calmness of mind
• Better quality sleep
• Less overthinking
• Being more present in day-to-day life
• Deeper connection to the body
• Improved relationships
• Pain relief
• Improved lung function and lung capacity
• Increased capacity for joy, confidence, focus, and creativity
Breathwork and You: How Does it Work?
To understand how changing the quality of your breath can impact the quality of your life, let’s look at the science of breathwork and the nervous system
Our modern lives are very stimulating. The human body can be stimulated into a mild flight-fight response, even with just our thoughts, an email from your boss, or scrolling through social media.
This persistent low-level stimulation - which can manifest as anxiety over time - means our nervous system starts to become dysregulated. A dysregulated nervous system will affect your cognition, memory, heart rate, digestion, sleep quality, and so much more. Even contributing to autoimmune disorders. Your body is constantly on autopilot trying to process these threats, whether real or imagined, past, future, or present.
The body's autopilot is the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS contains both the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). Your PNS supports the body's “rest and digest” state and can also create a “freeze/shut down” reaction to stressful stimulation. Your SNS is your body's “flight-fight” response.
Some techniques such as Conscious Connected Breathwork - where we can use an open mouth circular breath - stimulate the SNS. Why is this useful? Because we can amp the body up into a similar physiology state when you may have experienced past stress and trauma. By consciously and safely entering into this state, your body can begin to release suppressed energy in your body's tissues. Releasing energy from your body in a breathwork session can manifest as somatic experiences like shaking, tremoring, clenching, etc. Emotional releases can also happen, with crying, toning, or using words. In essence, we can start to access buried emotions and traumas while doing breathwork, releasing us from mental, emotional, and physical stress that other tools like talking therapy may not be able to access.
This is why it’s important to experience certain types of breathwork with a trained facilitator, so they can support your process. In particular, techniques like Holotropic breathwork produce strong physiological effects and altered states of consciousness that may not be suitable for beginners or people with certain health conditions.
5 Tips to Practice Breathwork
Before engaging in certain breathwork practices, it may be advisable to speak to a healthcare professional to see what’s suitable for your body based on your health. There are more tips below for you.
Knowing Your Purpose
What are you wanting to receive from breathwork? Have a clear intention for why you are engaging in this practice. That said, try to let go of expectations around needing to experience something immediate or powerful with breathwork. Often, if we try to make something happen in breathwork, we stay stuck in the mind and block ourselves from the experience. Sometimes the most subtle experiences can be the most profound. Most important of all is to be curious about how your body feels in the breathwork practice. There are many different types, so feel free to explore various practices and teachers - see what resonates with you.
It is recommended for beginners to begin at a slow pace. You may start and set a timer for a minute, then increase it as you get comfortable. With practice, you will become familiar with body sensations– such as tingling in the hands, feet, or lips, body temperature changes, lightheadedness, etc. It is important to listen to your body– do not push beyond what may feel available to you. It is often a more immersive experience to have an instructor guide you, so see if there’s a group practice online or near you to try out.
You can gradually increase the depth of your breathing or breath holds over time– just like running, weight lifting, or stretching, it’s important not to push your body, and let it gently adapt over time.
Find a safe space to do your practice– never do breathwork whilst driving or in water (e.g. sea, bath, or swimming pool). It’s not safe because you can alter your state of consciousness.
Make It a Habit
Incorporating breathwork practice into your daily life will help you establish healthy habits. While it seems practical to only do deep, controlled breaths in times of stress, performing it regularly will be useful in maintaining a balanced nervous system. Finding even just 60 seconds a day to breathe a bit more deeply will benefit you– maybe switch 60 seconds of social media scrolling for a few deep breaths!
Be in the Moment
Try your best to give your full attention to the practice. Allow yourself to get comfortable, so you can be at ease. Allow your physical body to soften. In particular, try to relax your jaw, drop your shoulders and release your lower belly and glutes (we can often subconsciously be holding tension in these places).
As you follow a guided practice, or just following your own breath, notice if you zone out or get distracted with busy thoughts. Keep bringing your attention back to the breath– which is like building a mental muscle of focused attention– and how it feels in your body. You may experience memories coming up as well as emotions. Do your best to be present to what you feel and curious about what is arising.
Every breathwork experience is different! Do your best to keep letting go of expectations and be patient and curious about what is coming up in your mind, body, and emotions. It is very common to experience resistance in the mind or body. Even the mind questioning “Is this working?” is an example of how we can get distracted. Just keep coming back to focusing on the breath as best you can.
Since breathwork is a process, notice if you feel frustrated when it does not work as you would like it to. That frustration in itself may be interesting to observe! Why the impatience? What is it that you want to experience? What is it about what you are experiencing that you feel resistance towards? You can begin to see how this practice develops a greater self-awareness of your thinking patterns and behaviors.
As you grow in your familiarity with breathwork, you may wish to try other practices or work with other teachers.
It is such a basic need for the human body to breath that we take approximately 25,000 breaths everyday without ever realizing it. And every cell in your body needs oxygen. This breath is with us from the moment we arrive on the planet with an inhale, to our very last exhale as we pass away. So it really is our connection to our life force. Breath is such a basic need for the human animal body.
It’s no surprise then that if we were to even slightly improve this essential body function, there will be benefits to every organ, and a halo effect on our overall physical, emotional and mental health. We could tell you more about the benefits– its power is known to relieve mental stress and physical pain– but why not try it for yourself? Even as this article ends, maybe you could pause for a moment and take a long, deep luxurious inhale and allow a long slow exhale… How did that feel? Maybe your body is thirsty for that deeper breath!
You have the power to change your breath. And that same power could change your whole life if you let it.
Learn more about Briony here:
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