Breathwork for Beginners
Updated: Aug 26, 2021
Breathwork is all the rage at the moment. Celebrities, athletes, CEOs are all jumping on the bandwagon and touting the huge array of benefits that come with connecting to the breath. But what is breathwork? And where should you begin?
Firstly, Breathwork isn’t new. It’s been around for a few thousand years! From Pranayama to Chi Gong, the mystics of old have been using their breath as a tool to access altered states of consciousness for millennia. We all know breathing is important, it does keep us alive after all. But more than maintenance of life it also provides a tool for physical, psychological and even spiritual growth. So let’s dive a little deeper into how your breath affects your life.
Breathwork on the Body
We breathe, on average, 25,000 times per day. The role of those breaths is two-fold. Firstly, we are breathing in oxygen, which is used by mitochondria in our cells to produce energy (remember your high school biology class? Mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell). We rely on oxygen to produce energy on a cellular level. Secondly, we are breathing out carbon dioxide (CO2) which is a by-product of energy production. So, put simply, oxygen is fuel and carbon dioxide is exhaust (it’s a lot more complex than this, but this gives us a simple framework). Our breath is regulating the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in our blood based on demand. Notice how you breathe faster and heavier when running up a hill? Well you need more oxygen for fuel, and need to remove the extra CO2 you are producing.
Breathwork gives us the ability to change the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide at will, independent of the demand in the body. Our body thrives on certain types of stress and through our breath we can trigger these beneficial stress states, causing a positive adaptation. We more-or-less s t r e t c h our capacity to deal with physiological stress, making us more resilient and better adapted to what life throws at us.
Different styles of breathwork do different things in the body. But most of the effect on the body comes from shifting the levels of O2 and CO2. Due to the role of these and other gasses in the body this is like interval training for your entire body.
Breathwork on the Mind
Look at almost any meditative practice in history. How do they start? By watching the breath. A state of breath awareness helps us to still the mind, calm the body and become present. Breathwork for many, is a short cut to the meditative state. An active meditation of sorts, we combine the breath and the body to create an obvious shift in our state of awareness. When you are focusing on your breath, you are not focusing on your to-do list, or what someone said about you, you are entirely present with your breath, in your body. By repeatedly practicing, we teach the mind to focus, to slow the barrage of thoughts, and to tune into the body.
We have many specialized systems in our brain, but for simplicity’s sake let’s look at three distinct brain regions or roles.
The hindbrain or ‘reptilian’ brain is responsible for our survival functions, and is typically below the level of conscious awareness. Threats to our survival are registered here.
The midbrain or ‘mammalian’ brain is our emotional response system. This is where the brain encodes events as positive or negative, and then draws on these networks to initiate certain responses when required.
The forebrain or neocortex is the 'human' part of our brain. Higher-order consciousness, executive functioning, complex thinking, reasoning. This is our ‘thinking’ brain, where many of us, spend a lot of time.
It is the breath that allows us to navigate between these systems, unraveling our stress response, quieting our thinking brain, connecting on a deeper level to our body. Breathwork helps us move away from thought, and into emotion and feeling. From thinking and doing, into simply being, a state of blissful awareness.
Breathwork In Your Daily Life
How you breathe affects how you feel. How you feel affects the decisions you make and the actions you take. Your breath can add fuel to the fire of stress and anxiety, or it can put the fire out completely. But there is a catch … You cannot use your breath to shift your state, if you are not aware of your breath.
Are you breathing 10 x / minute, or 20 x / minute?
Are you breathing with your nose or your mouth?
Is it smooth or chaotic?
Effortful or effortless?
The way in which you breathe creates downstream shifts in mood, possibly creating irritability, frustration or agitation which you will likely blame on your environment / your boss / the ‘bad day’ you are having. By understanding your breath, you will have more control over your thoughts, emotions and actions.
Like any practice, it often takes a little time to develop the skills. One day of breath awareness will not erase the years or decades of stress and tension built up in your body. You must make a commitment to check and change your breath over and over, creating the neurological groove that will soon become habit. It’s as if you invest the time to train the autopilot, ensuring that optimal becomes automatic.
Your ability to not let things phase you, to let go of emotional stress and baggage, to sleep well and perform well all comes back to your breath. How you take those 25,000 breaths each day matters, and how you choose to change your breath for a desired outcome is a skill that can be learned. Investing the time and effort into optimising your breath will pay huge dividends to simply feeling good each and every day.
So where to start? Well, how are you breathing right now?
Nose or mouth?
You should be breathing through your nose 99% of the time. If your mouth is open, close it! Air filtration, humidifcation, conditioning all occur in the nose, and it is also our first line of immune defense.
Chest or Belly?
If you are sitting reading a blog, and your upper chest and shoulders are moving, that’s a problem. Soften the breath, draw it down into the belly, relax the shoulders, breathing should be effortless.
Fast or Slow?
How many times do you breathe in a minute? Start a timer, and count your breaths for 1 minute. If your number is higher than 12 - you have work to do, but you also have a huge amount of potential!
Try checking your breath at least once an hour and ensure nose/belly/slow. Create the neurological groove, train the autopilot. Then you can dive into the therapeutic breathwork practices that create the big shifts in mindset, mood and energy.
Start your journey today
If you want to start the journey to optimising your breath, try my new Fundamentals of Breathwork course. If you would like to be guided in a breath practice, head to my YouTube channel. If you want to really dive deep into transforming your life, book a discovery call and see how we can work together.