Healing Power of Breath
Updated: Oct 19, 2021
'To breathe is to be alive. To breathe more deeply is to delve into life more fully. Think of your breath as vitamin O, oxygen being the most important nutrient that you take into your body.'
One key element in transforming stress is something you already do thousands of times a day: breath. The benefits of working with the breath are profound in many ways. The way you breathe directly influences the quality of your life. In fact, the way you breathe might be the most important factor in how you feel.
To breathe is to be alive. To breathe more deeply is to delve into life more fully. Think of your breath as vitamin O, oxygen being the most important nutrient that you take into your body. You can go months without food and days without water, but you can only go a few minutes without air. Breathing is the most important act for keeping you alive and for maintaining the flow of qi in your body. Oxygen is our most essential food, the fuel that ignites the essential bodily processes—everything from digestion and assimilation, to hormone secretion, to numerous brain functions. The proper functioning of every cell in our bodies depends upon the quality of our breathing.
Think about how people breathe when they are sad and crying. They inhale with short, shallow gasps, and exhale with long wails or choppy sobs. If someone is angry, in-breaths are usually constricted, and out-breaths are long and forceful. During stress, the breath can actually become so shallow that it is almost nonexistent. On the other hand, when someone is feeling good, the breath is calm, deep, and even.
The amazing thing about breathing exercises is that the relationship also works in reverse: by changing the way you breathe, you can also change the way you feel. The breath always reflects our emotional state. Just as negative emotions are reflected in the breath, so, too, are positive emotions. If you breathe deeply, down into the abdomen, this sends a signal through the body via vagus stimulation to transform negative emotions into positive ones. Deep breathing moves qi and clears stagnant energy. If you want to feel better, breathe more deeply. Remember that breathing is a reflection of thought and emotion, the bridge between the mind and the body.
Like bad posture, improper breathing techniques come from long days of sitting. Sitting forces our bodies and organs into unnatural postures, which allow our muscles to become stiff and restrict our breathing. Proper breathing is easier when the body is flexible and in a posture that allows the lungs to move.
This means that instead of breathing through our stomachs as we should be, we learn to breathe through our chest. Chest breathing doesn’t fully inflate our lungs and it strains the muscles around our neck and shoulders, making for inefficient and problematic breathing patterns.
Most of us are unaware that our respiratory systems are chronically constricted. Chronic shallow breathing drains our energy and allows stress to take root in our bodies, resulting in tension and tight muscles.
Shallow breathing under-oxygenates the blood, the organs, the muscles, the glands, and all the cells in the body, whereas deep diaphragmatic breaths act like another pump in order to circulate blood more efficiently throughout the body, and helps take pressure off the heart.
Shallow, constricted breathing overworks the heart, suffocates the brain (15 to 20 percent of the oxygen we breathe goes to the brain), weakens the immune system, and leads to disease and premature aging. Under-oxygenation leaves toxins in the blood that are then recirculated throughout the body, and many catastrophic illnesses have their roots in chronic under-oxygenation caused by shallow breathing. In fact, medical researchers believe a lack of oxygen in the system is the prime cause of 1.5 million heart attacks each year.
Breath unleashes the vital energies of life. If we cannot inhale completely, psychologically we cut ourselves off from new experiences, adventure, and creativity. If we cannot exhale completely, we hold on to the past and are weighed down by old emotional hurts and wounds. When we inhale deeply and exhale fully, we clear out stagnant emotions and thoughts and take in new possibilities with each breath.
Mouth Breathing Versus Nasal Breathing: What’s the Difference?
Breathing through your nose is one of our oldest pearls of wisdom. However, does it really make a difference? Research finds that it does.
When you breathe through your mouth, you will experience less tissue oxygenation, which causes your heart rate and blood pressure to elevate in an attempt to make up for less efficient breathing.
An elevated heart rate or high blood pressure can cause fatigue and dizziness. In other words, breathing through your nose allows you to absorb more oxygen with less physical exertion.
It also causes you to expel too much carbon dioxide from your body, which can cause fluctuations in your blood’s pH level and limit the hemoglobin from releasing oxygen into our cells. This is called the Bohr effect, which can ultimately lead to hypoxia or low blood oxygen levels that restrict blood flow to vital organs.
This means that even while exercising it is better to breathe through your nose than your mouth. While it can be tempting to exhale through our mouths to cope with heavy exertion, this does us fewer favors than maintaining a proper balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide.
One way to work through this tendency is to back off the intensity of your exercise routine until you are able to maintain the routine while breathing only through your nose. This is a different kind of training since it trains your body to become more comfortable and tolerant of holding in carbon dioxide.
Additionally, breathing through the nose allows us access to a small portion of nitric oxide that we carry into our lungs. Nitric oxide helps with maintaining the balance of our bodies. It also helps to dilate our lungs and blood vessels, while providing antibacterial properties to clear out germs and bacteria.
How to Assess Your Body’s Carbon Dioxide Tolerance
Dr. Buteyko, creator of the Buteyko Breathing Technique, developed a simple test for assessing a body’s carbon dioxide tolerance. This is an easy test to try on your own. To use it with goal-setting, keep a record so you can see improvement as your practice your breathing techniques.
To begin, sit straight (shoulders back, legs uncrossed) and breathe in a steady, comfortable rhythm.
Breathe quietly in and then out of your nose. Then after an exhale, pinch your nose shut with your fingers.
Start a stopwatch and keep track of how many seconds you can hold your breath before feeling a strong urge to breathe again.
Note your time, which is known as your “control pause (CP).” Resume breathing in a calm and controlled way.
Your CP is a benchmark for your body’s tolerance of carbon dioxide. The shorter it is, the more quickly you’re likely to become breathless during exertion. Each addition of five seconds to your CP will make physical activity easier. This is something that you can work on strengthening and increasing over time.
Some health benchmarks include:
1-10 seconds – The Buteyko method considers this a serious breathing impairment. You might experience difficulties while exercising and have some chronic health problems. Tips: Begin strengthening your carbon dioxide and breathing tolerance by breathing only through your nose throughout the day.
10-20 seconds – This is a significant breathing impairment. You will likely experience moderate difficulties while exercising. Tips: Only breathe through your nose during exercise. Scale back on exercises that force you to cope by breathing through your mouth.
20-40 seconds – This is a mild breathing impairment and an average level for most adults. Tips: To increase your CP at this point, you need to engage in physical exercise and cardio, such as jogging, cycling, or swimming, which build up an air shortage.
40-60 seconds – This is a healthy breathing pattern that is in peak condition and is unlikely to experience difficulties or get winded quickly while exercising. Tips: Increase your quality of life and mental energies through meditation and mental training and development.
Best for Mindfulness meditation, focus, good health, and yogic exercises.
Pranayama or Yogic Breathing prioritizes awareness. Yoga seeks to create a combined sense of awareness that includes the breath, mind, and body. This is a good approach for those who intend to pair yoga or mindfulness with their breathing.
This breathing technique will help you pay attention to what your body is doing and how you can train it to be strong and healthy. Yogic breathing supports healing, personal development and mental or emotional transformations, and spiritual practices.
Yogic Breathing uses four primary skills:
Focus, in particular, the ability to focus exclusively on the breath.
Breathing through the diaphragm.
Strengthening the diaphragm to allow for more effective, connected, and efficient breathing.
The exercises below are Ayurvedic warm-ups. They can be used independently or in conjunction to help you begin noticing, focusing on, and controlling your breath. After such a warm-up, you can work your breath into more meditative even breathing. The end result of yogic breathing tends to be quiet without snoring sounds, physically smooth and located deep in the belly or diaphragm.
Alternate Nostril Breathing (Nadi Shodhana/Nadi Shuddhi)
Use your right thumb to close your right nostril. Breath in through the left nostril. Then, close the left nostril and breathe out through the right nostril. Reverse the process, breathing in through your right nostril and out through your left. Continue this cycle until you feel that you feel focused and relaxed, or for 5 minutes, whichever comes first.
Uninostril Breathing (Surya Anuloma Viloma/Chandra Anuloma Viloma) – Close one of your nostrils. Then, inhale and exhale exclusively through the open nostril. Try to keep your breathing slow and evenly paced.
Right Nostril Initiated Breathing (Surya Bhedana) – Close the left nostril and inhale through the right nostril. Then close the right nostril and exhale through the left. Repeat this process as desired for mental focus.
Psychic Breath (Ujjayi) – Inhale and exhale through the nose at a steady, comfortable pace. As you do so, partially contract the glottis (the area at the back of your throat). Your breath may sound like light snoring. Remain aware of the breath as it passes through your throat.
Female Honey Bee Humming Breath (Bhramari) – Fully inhale. Then, use your index fingers to close your ears. Exhale while making a soft humming sound, like a honeybee.
Best for: Slowing the breath for focus and deliberation, physical training, and quitting smoking.
Box breathing is a technique used by retired Navy SEAL Commander Mark Divine, to aid slow, calm deliberation and respiratory strengthening. Box breathing is a great way to calm the nerves and work toward physical fitness. It can help individuals regulate involuntary bodily functions, such as body temperature. Additionally, holding the breath allows a healthy buildup of carbon dioxide.
Like most proper breathing techniques, box breathing requires the practitioner to breathe through the nose and expand the breath through the belly or diaphragm.
How to Box Breathe:
Inhale for a five-second count.
Hold the breath in for another five seconds.
Exhale for five seconds.
Hold the breath from another five-second count.
Box breathing should be repeated for one to three minutes several times a day or before a meeting or event, when the practicer is feeling nervous or anxious. Individuals can work up to five to ten minutes of box breathing a day.
Best for: Physical health and exercise training, controlling anxiety and panic attacks, promoting good sleep, and decreasing the effects of asthma and sleep apnea.
Developed in Russia as a treatment for asthma, the Buteyko Breathing Method works to reverse the health problems that come with improper breathing, over-breathing, and mouth breathing.
Buteyko traces the development back to his own realization one night that his heavy breathing was not a symptom but, instead, the actual cause of his breathing problems. He then worked to slow down his own breath and began to feel results. Reducing how much we breathe increases the oxygen that our tissue, organs, and especially our brain, are able to absorb.
Buteyko reminds us that we breathe more often than we really need to. The average adult takes fifteen breaths a minute. However, for focused, deliberate breathing that slows the heart rate and offers more efficient usage of oxygen, it’s common to slow down to six breaths a minute.
The Buteyko Breathing Method reminds us that breathing less is an indication of being healthier. Additionally, healthy breathing is lighter. Those who are breathing too heavily should take note of the breathing impairment.
The ideal breathing is slow, horizontal (i.e. belly breathing and not chest breathing), and of decreased volume. In this case, having a slight air hunger, indicating a carbon dioxide accumulation, is a healthy thing.
Positive physical effects include increased physical temperature, or less commonly, temperature stability in extreme environments, which is a signal of better blood circulation. Increased saliva is another sign of the parasympathetic nervous system activating and allowing for stress reduction.
Best for: Improving quality of life through increased motivation, health, and energy.
Developed from traditional Chinese philosophy and medicine with a modern approach, Qi is a meditative deep breathing technique. It helps to focus the mind on goals to channel motivation.
How to begin with Qi:
State your intention for your breathing session. For example, you might want to find energy and motivation, or you might want focus and relaxation.
Inhale and exhale deeply and quickly through the nose in one-second bursts. Imagine your breath moving in a circle through your body, as it flows up the back of the spine and then down the front.
Incorporate a rocking movement with the breathing by rocking forward to your knees on the exhalation and backward on the inhalation. Focus primarily on the inhalation and the ability to draw in energy.
Maintain your focus in your breath and keep a quiet mind.
The 365 Breathing Method
Best for: Chronic stress, anxiety, phobias, pain management, nicotine withdrawal symptoms, and trauma therapy.
The 365 method utilizes the scientifically proven technique of cardiac coherence. Cardiac coherence uses biofeedback to coordinate your breathing with heart rate. Slow, steady diaphragmatic breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, which triggers the parasympathetic nervous system’s relaxation response.
By stimulating the vagus nerve, people can create calm throughout the body. This calm slows and stabilizes the heartbeat, decreases blood pressure, and relaxes muscles. The brain also relaxes and increases its sense of peacefulness, allowing for positive psychological effects.
This method should be practiced everyday at least three times per day. Each session requires five minutes. The idea is to breathe at a constant rhythm of six cycles per minute for five minutes.
The rhythm consists of five seconds inhaling and five seconds exhaling. Some versions ask breathers to spend more time on exhaling and inhaling, for instance inhaling for four seconds and exhaling for six, to exert a quieting effect on the heart rate. Keep in mind that long inhales with short exhales will speed up your heart rate; whereas, shorter inhales and longer exhales will slow the heart rate and relax the body.
The regularity of this breathing exercise not only causes immediate relief for those prone to stress or anxiety, but the consistent daily approach also makes these individuals less vulnerable to stress in the long run.
The 4-7-8 Breathing Exercise
Best for: Relaxation and improved sleep, managing cravings, and reducing anger responses.
The 4-7-8 breathing exercise involves you exhaling twice for each time that you inhale. This kind of deep breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system and allows the body to relax.
Since this relaxes the nervous system, it’s best use is right before bed. However, many advocate using the technique to relax throughout the day.
As you start out, begin with a four-breath cycle. You can increase to an eight-breath cycle as needed after about a month of frequent practice.
Sit up straight and relax the tip of your tongue against the back of the front teeth.
Using only the nose, breath in for four counts.
Hold the breath for seven counts.
Exhale through the mouth for eight counts, making a whooshing sound through the mouth as you let the breath go.
Repeat this breathing cycle a total of four times.
Breathing is the dance of life, uniting all living things in a necessary, symbiotic life-support system. We live on the exhaled oxygen of plants; plants live on our exhaled carbon dioxide. Every breath reveals interdependence with the environment. Life offers each of us a full portion of vitality. Why breathe just enough to get by, when you can breathe deeply enough to truly thrive?
May you experience vitality & bliss, by practicing full body breath.
In service to wellbeing
Working with Gee Gahir, a Pioneer of holistic wellbeing services within the NHS, and Co-founder of Wellbeing Wizards, a podcast platform that provides insights into transforming wellbeing, Gee is an accredited EMCC intuitive lifestyle coach providing preventative naturopathic mind-body-space solutions to facilitate vibrant health and balanced lifestyles.
Connect with Gee to arrange a personalised coaching experience.
Healing power of breath by Dr Richard Brown & Patricia Gerberg