According to Yogi’s, ‘life is measured by the breath, not by years or by the calendar. If you can breathe 1 breath a minute you become the light & knowledge.’ Yogi Bhajan.
One breath per minute however is a big ask and would require guidance and training. An average healthy individual breathes approx. 10 – 12 breaths per minute. Those who tend to be more on the anxious spectrum or stare at screens too much may be double this. This is because of the effect of microwave technology on our brains and the ‘mania’ caused by filtering of colossal amounts of data. Yogi’s have been demonstrating for years the miracle of breathwork. In the west we look to science & research to validate our experiences i.e. we tend to look for the how of things. Such as how controlled breathing can instantly and positively affect our metabolism, lift our mood, fight off infection and reduce pain. Yes, breathing can be a pain reliever!
Thanks to a rise in practise of Yoga and Mindfulness and the popularity of a Dutch man named Wimhof or the Iceman as he is better known as, the west has now produced the much loved ‘evidence’ of how exactly breathwork is the new all-important therapy. Wimhof performed breathing exercises and used cold water therapy that resulted in the first scientific literature to validate and describe voluntary activation of the innate immune system and reduced inflammation . That means control over parts of the body that we never thought we had control over. A 2014 study out of Yale School of Medicine found that subjects who were taught a breathwork routine had less severe inflammatory responses after exposure to IV bacterial toxins than those who didn’t. It’s exciting to see breathwork coming on trend and hopefully will encourage everyone to practise daily breathwork as an effective, safe tool for healthcare. I can also say first hand it takes very little commitment to get results.
Advanced Breathing Exercises should be done under the guidance of an experienced teacher and here is why?
A tendency to hypoventilation (under breathing) or hyperventilation (over breathing) & Natural Lung Capacity are influenced by Heart Health, Anxiety, Depression, Grief and Medication. You need to understand where you are to understand what techniques will best get you to where you want to go. Some of the advanced breathing exercises may not be suitable.
Hyperventilation or Over breathing – Can be described as breathing 20 – 30 breaths per min with a lot of upper chest movement (narrowest part of the lungs)[i] and may include mouth breathing. Long term negative effects lead to anxiety, asthma, panic disorder, dry mouth, burping and poor digestion. Mouth breathers tend to snoring and halitosis (bad breath).
A positive expression of hyperventilation is the practise of Fire Breath or Kapalabhati which are controlled breathing exercises for short periods and may be followed by breath retention. Good results are believed to be due to the release of opioids and cannabinoids causing enhanced mood and reduced inflammation and pain [ii]. This however is not the best place to start for those who tend to over breathe.
Hypoventilation or Under breathing – can be described as breathing that is too slow or shallow to meet the needs of the body. Long term negative effects are depression, muscle spasms due to acidosis, tiredness, poor sleep quality[iii], poor immune system and foggy brain.
A Positive expression of a slow breath is Full Yogic Breath (uses all the lungs) & approx. 4 – 6 breaths per minute for the average person. Some eager people try to slow their breath down beyond their natural ability, then end up hyperventilating. Therefore developing breath awareness first is best practise.
The following describes a biofeedback method I often use in private therapy sessions and in group classes.
STEP 1: Sit quietly and observe your natural breath. Make mental notes of how short the breath is; the pace and rhythm; does it fill the chest or the belly. You can only answer these questions honestly & accurately if you make NO modifications.
STEP 2: Relax first the facial muscles then neck and shoulders. Letting your facial muscles relax first. This improves blood flow to the brain and encourages the rest of the body to relax.
STEP 3: Drop your shoulders and diaphragm and breathe gently with no effort – allow the belly to pop.
STEP 4: When comfortable with steps 1-3 slowly deepen the breath allowing it to fill the belly and then rise higher in the lungs. Allow a pause after the exhalation.
Breathwork is an important part of a health care regime, is free and accessible to all. It should be a part of the school curriculum. It is that important. Consider the long reaching consequences as a powerful tool for managing pain, reducing inflammation & of course mental health. The good results are immediate. I am grateful for the evolved slow yoga practice movement and how it encourages a slower breath.
I see clearly how it gives us the power to slow our lives down so we can enjoy the precious moments!
Siobhán Shinnors has been studying the power of the breath since 1994 on her first explorations into yoga and tai chi. It has been a constant passion since.