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How to breathe | Psyche

Cold water swimmer in Cumbria, England. Photo by Getty

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Guide

How to breathe

Whether your aim is improved health, mental calm or achieving transcendence, breathing techniques can help you get there

by Martin Petrus + BIO

Cold water swimmer in Cumbria, England. Photo by Getty

Need to know

You never know when you’re going to meet someone who will change the course of your life. For me, it happened about five years ago when, without knowing what I was getting myself into, I signed up to a course in the Netherlands run by Wim Hof – the legendary master of cold exposure.

Hof is an extraordinary teacher, best known for his world records and other endurance feats, such as previously holding the title for completing the longest-ever ice bath, running a barefoot half-marathon in the Arctic Circle and climbing most of Mount Everest dressed in shorts. One of the most important elements of his method for making people fall in love with low temperatures is what he calls ‘conscious breathing’. By controlling the breath, he turns the experience of being in freezing water, which would normally be a fight for survival, into something profoundly meditative.

Back when I met Hof, my life was a constant struggle – I was always getting ill, feeling depressed and generally unhappy. I was looking for ways to improve my immune system and increase my energy levels. I didn’t know then that the answer to many of my questions would be this obvious: just breathe.

Respiration influences many of the processes in our body that have a direct impact on our physical and mental health. Each day, we take around 20,000 breaths, so over the years it adds up. With every inhalation, our heart rate speeds up and with every exhalation, it slows down. The nervous system is especially sensitive to changes in breathing rate. Through our breath, we can change our state from stress to relaxation, or from feeling dull to being energised. Longer term, through being more attentive to the way we breathe, we can benefit our health and longevity. In short, we can change our breathing on demand, which can be a hack to accessing the rest of our physiology.

I was so inspired and transformed by what I learned from Hof and others that I felt I had no choice but to pass it on to others and, today, I work as a breathwork coach. What is breathwork? It can be described as ‘breath consciousness’ and ‘conscious breathing’. Every time we notice our breath or change our breathing pattern to achieve a specific outcome, we are practising breathwork.

Today, breathwork is the new yoga. It can be found everywhere from therapy sessions to gym classes, but, while it’s currently in vogue, it’s far from new. It’s hard to pinpoint the first moment when humans decided to use breathing intentionally, but you can find early indications of conscious breathing in Hindu scriptures dating back hundreds of years, for instance in the Bhagavadgita, composed sometime between the 2nd century BCE and the 2nd century CE:

Still others, who are inclined to the process of breath restraint to remain in trance, practise by offering the movement of the outgoing breath into the incoming, and the incoming breath into the outgoing, and thus at last remain in trance, stopping all breathing. Others, curtailing the eating process, offer the outgoing breath into itself as a sacrifice.

The Tibetan teachings of Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche that form the basis of the Bon tradition, which considers the breath to be important, are even older, dating back 18,000 years. Breathing techniques have also been used in yoga for more than 2,000 years. In fact, breathwork has been present in nearly all traditions and cultures: in mythology, philosophy, various rituals, rites of passage, healing methods, spiritual and religious practices, martial arts and meditation.

For many people, the breath is something much more than just the purely physical movement of air. It is often described as the energy, life force, cosmic essence, the vital principle that permeates reality on all levels including inanimate objects. It is the spirit or the soul. Different cultures refer to the same phenomenon but by different names, such as: prana, qi, ki, lung, ruach, spiritus, mana, rouh and pneuma.

In yoga, the breath is considered not only the path of spiritual development, but also as a simple way of staying in good health. In the yogic breathing pranayama, the practices are well described, each with its own purpose – including energising, cleansing or relaxing. For a long time, most mainstream medical practitioners had no interest in breathwork, but that began to change in the 1950s. For instance, following his research into the ways that breathing rate impacts health, Konstantin Buteyko, a Ukrainian-born doctor, created a technique for dealing with breathing disorders such as asthma, general breathlessness and rhinitis, and also as a treatment for hypertension. His method was used in hospitals across Russia. Now the ‘Buteyko method’, although it’s considered a form of alternative medicine, is used across the globe to treat breathing-pattern disorders. Overall, I believe our modern understanding of the nervous system and scientific studies are confirming that the yogic breathing practices have their intended effect. We’re rediscovering what the yogis knew a long time ago.

These days, athletes are also taking an interest in breathwork. In sports, it’s always an arms race. Whoever finds a new way of improving by a minuscule margin can have a huge advantage over their competition. Athletes are turning to traditional yogic breath-control practices as a means for conditioning the body and strengthening the respiratory system – certain breathing exercises can improve how efficiently the body uses oxygen. Breathwork is especially pertinent to endurance sports. The Buteyko method suggests that nasal breathing and breath-flow restriction can help to raise the body’s tolerance to carbon dioxide (CO2). Breath-holding methods have also been tested widely as a way of increasing the load on the body and creating beneficial long-term adaptations similar to altitude training.

Yet, despite the importance of the breath and the rising popularity of breathwork, so many people never give any consideration to this fundamental aspect of life. If it weren’t for our autonomic nervous system, I bet many of us would probably die by just forgetting to breathe while reading an email. In this Guide, I will show you some basic breathwork techniques. Whether you’re an Olympic-level athlete looking to gain an edge, you’re struggling to cope with chronic anxiety or you’re just curious, you’re breathing anyway, so why not start to use your breath to your benefit? Even after having worked with so many people, the potential of breathwork – a tool that’s available to all of us – still blows my mind. It could be as simple as learning a three-minute relaxation routine, or it could be the start of a lifetime journey into self-development – either way, welcome to breathwork.

What to do

Practise nasal breathing

If you’re extremely busy and don’t feel that you have much time for breathwork, but you’d like to work on your breathing to improve health and wellbeing, I suggest that you try implementing one of the most basic of principles: practise breathing through your nose rather than through your mouth. This is something that you can do throughout the whole day… and night.

Here are some benefits of nasal breathing:

  • It slows the incoming airflow, which has a calming effect on the nervous system (specifically, it activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps promote calm and relaxation).
  • The air is travelling slower and stays longer in the alveoli, where gas exchange happens. This gives oxygen more time to diffuse in the bloodstream, which can result in 10-20 per cent greater oxygen uptake.
  • Your nose acts as a filter for pathogens, such as bacteria and viruses.
  • The air going into the lungs is conditioned to better suit the body – warmed up or cooled down, depending on the external environment.
  • By breathing through your nose, you expel up to 40 per cent less water (meaning you’re less prone to dehydration).
  • It avoids the problems associated with long-term excessive mouth breathing, such as dental problems, inflammation of the upper airways, forward head posture and even changes in the shape of the jaw.

What if your nose is blocked? You should try to do everything you can to unblock it. Sometimes it’s just a case of overcoming the discomfort of the feeling of a shortness of breath. You might be so used to mouth breathing that nasal breathing will feel unnatural at first. But the more you breathe through your nose, the easier it’s going to be. If you’re really struggling, nose dilators, plasters or sprays (to clear the nostrils) will help you in the early days and weeks. If you have a deviated septum (a misalignment of the bone and cartilage that separates the nostrils), which interferes with nasal breathing, you might consider speaking to your doctor about having a corrective operation.

If your nasal passages are just lightly blocked, you can help to clear them using a simple exercise: perform a small exhale, pinch your nose and hold your breath. During the peak of your breath-hold, CO2 and nitric oxide will accumulate, both of which are vasodilators, which will help the passages to unblock.

When should you be breathing through your nose? A good instruction is to think about it in three phases:

  1. Total nose breathing
  2. Inhale nose, exhale mouth
  3. Total mouth breathing

At rest and low intensity, you can be in phase 1 the entire time. When you start moving or even lifting heavy things, you can try to stay in this phase as long as possible. At a point where the effort becomes too hard, then move to phase 2. If you increase the load even more, getting closer to your maximum capacity, then phase 3 will be necessary. Once the effort decreases, you can go back to phase 2 and 1, respectively.

Practise diaphragmatic breathing

Another basic step that you can take in life to improve your breathing is to consider your posture. It works both ways – bad posture will restrict your breathing, and disrupted breathing patterns can negatively influence your muscular system. To better manage our posture, we need to take a closer look at the diaphragm, which plays a key role in core stabilisation. It’s a big, dome-shaped muscle situated under our ribs that divides the thoracic and the abdominal cavities. When you inhale, the diaphragm moves down creating the difference in pressure in your lungs and pulling in air. When you relax, the diaphragm moves up and the air goes out. Here lies the guidance to natural breathing – the inhalation is active, drawing the air in and the exhalation is passive, as you just relax and don’t have to push the air out.

To develop a healthy diaphragmatic breathing pattern try the following exercise:

  1. Lie down on your back or sit comfortably on the floor or in a chair. You can place your hands on your body for tactile feedback.
  2. Bring your attention to the inhale, observing your belly expanding while the air is being pulled into your lungs. While this happens, your upper chest and shoulders should remain still.
  3. Each exhalation is passive – just relax and the air goes out; there’s no need to push.
  4. Go into a steady rhythm of active inhalation and relaxing exhalation.
  5. After a short while, once it becomes effortless, move your attention to the sides of the abdominal area around the lower ribs. Try to engage the lower ribs – with every inhalation they should be expanding slightly to the sides. This will be a more subtle movement than in the front.
  6. After spending another few minutes in this area, focus on your lower back. Imagine that, with every inhalation, the lower back is gently activated, and with every exhalation it relaxes.
  7. With time, you will be able to effortlessly combine these three areas (front, sides and back) so that the expansion during inhalation is felt not only in the front of the belly, but 360 degrees around your body.
  8. If at first you don’t feel any activation of your ribs or your lower back, don’t worry, give it some time.
  9. Spend a few minutes each day practising this and just breathe normally for the rest of the time. Even when you’re not focused on your breathing, with time you’ll find that it becomes fuller and more relaxed.

Compared with shallow chest-breathing, diaphragmatic breathing has various benefits. It’s more relaxing and it makes the process of gas exchange more efficient. The oxidative stress caused by mental or physical exhaustion can be mitigated by diaphragmatic breathing. We often hear that breathing can improve our immune system, and there’s some truth to this. Diaphragmatic breathing helps to move the lymph (the fluid that flows through the lymphatic system), therefore moving pathogens through the lymph nodes where they can be treated with specific lymphocytes. Another benefit is the increased blood flow to the heart. Finally, if you strengthen the diaphragm as a muscle (through regular diaphragmatic breathing), you’ll increase your physical endurance.

Practise rhythmic breathing

With practice, breathwork can help give you a degree of control over your stress response, one of the most important superpowers you can imagine. Since your body is governed by rhythms – your nervous system picks up the steady flow of air as a cue for safety and adjusts other bodily processes accordingly – you can use this to your advantage.

One way is via a common practice in yoga, in which we breathe in and out to a count. The aim is to find a comfortable length of the breath and, once it becomes easy, the rhythm can be slowed down. Usually, after a few minutes of rhythmic breathing, you will feel the shift to your body’s parasympathetic nervous system, the branch of the autonomic nervous system that not only helps our bodies repair and recover, but also improves our social engagement. Rhythmic breathing has also shown promise in helping to treat depression and anxiety. Here’s how to give it a go:

  1. Find a comfortable position, sitting or lying down. Close your eyes and breathe through your nose.
  2. Focus on diaphragmatic breathing.
  3. Slow your breath down so that you follow a pattern of inhaling for 6 seconds and exhaling for 6 seconds.
  4. If this is too hard, pick a shorter count such as 3 or 4 seconds in, and the same out.
  5. Keep this rhythm for a few minutes, staying relaxed and focused.
  6. When the 6-seconds rhythm becomes easy, you can try to extend the length to 8 seconds, 10 seconds, or even longer. Also, for a greater relaxation effect, you could try breathing out for twice as long as you breath in.

If you spend time practising this form of breathing when all is well, you will find it more effective when you use it to calm yourself during moments of unease.

Build your carbon dioxide tolerance

One of the most significant things that you can do for your mental processes is to get the right amount of oxygen into your brain and vital organs. The rate of your breath holds the key to that. What you’re looking for is slow and gentle breathing. When our breathing is fast and shallow, we’re mostly moving the air in the ‘dead space’, which is the volume of air that doesn’t take part in the gas exchange (it isn’t utilised by the body). This is why we want slow and deep breathing, which gives us a much better gas exchange.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the gas in air that triggers a faster breathing rate – we have a natural instinct to expel it from our system – so one key to slowing our breath down is to get more accustomed to CO2. We often think of CO2 as something negative, a by-product that we have to get rid of. However, CO2 plays a very important role in our body as a vasodilator. It also helps to release oxygen from the blood, which is known as the Bohr effect. This is why increasing your body’s tolerance to CO2 can be beneficial, helping your cells’ uptake of oxygen.

When you exhale through your nose, you keep more CO2 than when exhaling through your mouth, so practising nasal breathing as often as possible is the first step. Beyond that, to be more in control of your breath, whether you’re dealing with asthma or improving your sports performance, you should focus on improving your tolerance to CO2. The ‘breathe light’ exercise from the Buteyko method that I mentioned earlier is perfect for this (to ensure your safety, check with your doctor before trying this exercise):

  1. Start in a comfortable seated position. Keep your eyes open or, if it helps you to focus more on the breath, then keep them closed.
  2. While breathing lightly through your nose, observe the volume of air that you’re breathing in and out.
  3. Start to reduce the depth of your breath by about 20-30 per cent, to the point where you start to feel a slight air hunger but not panic (your breathing rate should stay the same, at its usual resting level). If you reduce the depth of breath too much, to the point of strong discomfort, go back to normal breathing, reset and start to reduce again.
  4. Find a balance where you can feel a slight air hunger, but can continue breathing like this for 5-10 minutes.

Always, when practising, make sure that your whole body is relaxed. If you’re new to breathwork, start slowly and gently, and progress only when you feel comfortable. Once you get the hang of this, you can practise this daily.

According to the Buteyko method, as you raise your tolerance to CO2, your breathing becomes lighter and more effortless, and your average breathing rate slows down. Practitioners also suggest that this process facilitates the release of oxygen from haemoglobin into the cells, as well as helping to improve your blood circulation. If you have an active lifestyle, it’s a great way to increase your endurance and delay the moment of fatigue.

Practise breath-holding (with a qualified teacher)

In yoga, the practice of breath retention called kumbhaka has been used for hundreds of years. Many masters have pointed to the fact that practising regular breath retention can result not only in greater health but also in enhanced stamina. Modern scientific findings are providing tentative support for this, showing that a few breath-holds can trigger several mechanisms that help us to stay without air for longer. During breath retention, our spleen contracts, releasing blood that’s very rich in oxygen-carrying red blood cells. We also experience a release of the hormone erythropoietin, which not only further increases the red blood-cell count, but increases the efficiency of mitochondria.

When working with active people, many times I’m asked the question: ‘How can I increase my physical performance through breathing?’ It turns out that a conscious breath-hold can be one of the most powerful tools available for this purpose. Athletic performance correlates with the amount of oxygen that can be transported and utilised, and training in breath-holding can build this capacity.

The use of altitude training in sports to improve physical performance is based on similar principles. Being in a low-oxygen zone (or ‘hypoxia’) forces our body to adapt, so that, after returning to sea level, we can enjoy the benefits of increased performance. Breath-holding effectively simulates this kind of environment. The ‘exhale-hold’ or ‘altitude-simulation’ technique can be used to drop the oxygen saturation in your body, if only for a brief moment. As part of a training programme, even these short moments in hypoxia can build up to a meaningful advantage. Since breath retention is a complex technique, I always recommend that you should learn it with a qualified teacher. Your teacher will show you how to perform a maximum breath-hold after a light exhalation (leaving about 30-40 per cent of the air in your lungs). For safe and effective training, your teacher should use a pulse oximeter to monitor your oxygen levels.

Key points – How to breathe

  • Breathing is one of the most important factors for our health. In all cultures, it has been used for centuries in various rituals, healing and spiritual practices. Breathing allows us to influence our autonomic nervous system and our body’s chemistry.
  • Many recent breathing techniques, used therapeutically or in sports, have their origins in traditional practices such as yoga. Research supports the functionality of ancient methods.
  • Paying attention to nasal breathing is a simple first step you can take that will improve your breathing habits and bring you health benefits.
  • Implementing the right diaphragmatic breathing patterns is the key to improving posture and core stabilisation.
  • The simplest way of reducing stress is to focus on learning simple rhythmic breathing. When using this technique, you’re activating the rest, digest and repair mode of your nervous system. Rhythmic breathing can help with mood regulation and even depression.
  • Cognitive functions and the ability to focus can be improved by slowing down your breath. With this technique, we can improve circulation and increase oxygen delivery to the brain.
  • Your physical performance can be improved by adding breath-holds to your training. This simple practice can give similar benefits to altitude training, but you’ll need to work with a qualified teacher.

Learn more

Using breathwork for mental health and even transcendence

Working with your breath on the physical level can give enormous health benefits, but this is only the beginning. More and more therapists point to the fact that many physical problems have their origins in mental states, such as chronic stress or trauma. Our bodies aren’t just a collection of systems working independently but a complex network of interlinked processes. A single thought can trigger various hormones and neurotransmitters, changing our biochemistry, heart rate and muscle tension. Breathwork can be one of the most effective ways of working with emotions and mental states to bring in wholeness and wellbeing.

Integrative breathwork therapy is a domain of breathing practices that originated from a major therapeutic movement in the United States in the 1970s. During this time, many communities of practice were formed: ‘rebirthing’, which was influential, although now largely discredited, was founded by the author and New Age pioneer Leonard Orr; ‘holotropic breathwork’ was developed by the early psychedelics researcher and psychiatrist Stanislav Grof and the psychotherapist Christina Grof; and Judith Kravitz established ‘transformational breath’ shortly after. All of those techniques are unique, but what they have in common is that they recognise the link between one’s breathing and one’s emotional state. Although more empirical research is needed, the logic of their approach is as follows: suppressed emotions or trauma can create tension in the body. This blockage in the tissue, whether muscles, ligaments or fascia, has a direct impact on respiration. By simply observing your breathing, the facilitator can trace the root cause of the imbalance. Then, by changing your breathing pattern and directing attention to the right place, the emotional blockage or trauma can be released and integrated.

Integrative breathwork sessions look a little different from breathwork in yoga (yogic pranayama). They usually take anywhere from 30 minutes to a few hours and can be done in a group setting or one-on-one. Participants usually breathe deeply in a steady rhythm without any pauses between the inhale and the exhale. The facilitator directs the whole process by giving instructions on how to change the depth or speed of the breath. Sometimes the facilitators will use ‘bodywork’ (including massage) or they’ll encourage participants to follow their body’s spontaneous movement, to aid the release of tension stored in their muscles.

When working with clients using this approach, many times I’ve noticed how quick and effective it can be. Many participants describe this as one of the most transformative experiences they’ve ever had. If you’re curious to give this kind of therapy a go, I suggest that you start by speaking to your family doctor to ensure that you have no physical or other issues that might raise concerns, and then find a recommended and accredited practitioner of holotropic breathwork, transformational breath or biodynamic breathwork and trauma release.

During integrative breathwork sessions, especially long ones, participants will often describe unusual feelings and changes in perception. Often it could be just a gentle tingling in the arms or legs, but sometimes it can feel like an out-of-body experience. It’s thought that these non-ordinary states of consciousness can play an important role in the whole healing process. Typically, altered states of consciousness can be generated by things such as sensory deprivation, hypnosis, high temperature, fasting, sleep deprivation, substances (such as plants, drugs or alcohol), but also by physical changes in the brain. To that list, we can add certain breathing techniques.

Indeed, Stanislav Grof proposed a specific category of non-ordinary states related to the practice of what he and Christina Grof called ‘holotropic breathwork’. Stanislav Grof was a founder of ‘transpersonal psychology’ and had been studying altered states of consciousness since 1954 using LSD. Following the ban on LSD research in the 1960s, he and Christina Grof looked for a way to induce non-ordinary states and, furthermore, to test if they could be used therapeutically in psychiatry. It was during this period that they discovered breathwork as a gateway to access non-ordinary conscious states safely and in a controlled way.

The Grofs created the term ‘holotropic states’ to capture what happens during extended breathwork sessions, where holos means ‘whole’ and trepein means ‘moving towards’. They argued that holotropic states aren’t just examples of numbing the senses, but moments that can lead to profound changes in consciousness, emotional development, healing, transcending the ego or even feeling a cosmic unity with all sentient beings. I’ve seen first-hand that these states can be extremely beneficial to us, providing insights into our own psyche and even the nature of reality. This isn’t a revelation, of course. Pre-industrial native cultures have used non-ordinary states in various religious practices, rituals, healing methods, rites of passage and shamanic procedures, but also for receiving inspirations and insights. It’s modern Western society that has pathologised these states, labelling them as primitive and insignificant. But without understanding non-ordinary states, we can’t fully discover the therapeutic potential of the breath.

Many times during breathwork sessions, I’ve had a totally transcendental experience. There were moments when I’ve felt boundless bliss and unconditional joy. This has often been combined with a deep understanding of where I am now and where I am going next, including finding answers to questions that were bothering me for a long time. After some sessions, I would feel calmer, and at peace with whatever situation I was in. Colours and textures seemed more vivid and my hearing picked up more frequencies than usual. I consider breathwork to be one of the most effective therapies, because you’re able to not only work out your issues as concepts, but actually feel and experience the change.

Breathwork is often thought of as a means of relieving discomfort and feeling better – physically, emotionally or mentally. But I believe that it’s so much more than just a ‘happy pill’. It’s the gateway to a deep enquiry into your own nature and into your consciousness. It gives you the possibility to explore and therefore understand the areas of the mind that are not available to others. No doctor, therapist or scientist can reach where you can through this introspective enquiry. If this Guide has whet your appetite, then, whether you decide to explore the simplest breathing exercises or more advanced methods, I would say it’s always preferable to find a good teacher. Many of the gentle practices can be learned in a yoga class, or even through an online course. For some of the deeper experiences, such as integrative breathwork, you’ll need a facilitator to guide you through the session.

Links & books

In his TEDx talk ‘Breathe to Heal’ (2015), the experienced breathwork practitioner Max Strom explains the benefits of more intentional breathing.

If I could recommend only one book about breathwork for people who don’t know anything about this subject, it would be Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art (2020) by James Nestor. He investigates all types of breathwork, giving an objective view of the field.

You can hear from Nestor first-hand in a 2020 episode of the Joe Rogan Experience podcast, in which he featured as a guest.

I also recommend Breath Mastery, a genuinely inspirational blog by one of the pioneers of modern breathwork, Dan Brulé.

To read more about breathwork within the context of non-ordinary states of consciousness, you’ll find great insight into its healing and transformative potential in the book Holotropic Breathwork: A New Approach to Self-Exploration and Therapy (2010) by Stanislav Grof and Christina Grof.

To learn more about how breathing exercises can help with asthma, go to the website of the Buteyko Clinic International, which has an extensive library of medical studies.

This isn’t an easy read, but a great guide to the traditional pranayama techniques is the book Light on Pranayama: The Definitive Guide to the Art of Breathing (2013), from one of the most respected yoga teachers in the world, B K S Iyengar.

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30 June 2021