by Lisa de Silva
Can something as simple as breathing really improve our mental, emotional and physical wellbeing? Lisa de Silva discovers how conscious breathing is taking the world by storm
Our lives on this planet start and stop with a breath. While we can survive lack of water for several days and lack of food for several weeks, we cannot survive without breathing for more than a few minutes. Each day we breathe more than 23,000 times. It is an instinctive and automatic action – but are we breathing properly?
While Eastern spiritual practises such as Buddhism, yoga and martial arts have long extolled the benefits of conscious breathing, it is only in more recent years that the West is waking up to the fact that controlled breathing techniques can greatly improve our mental and physical health. Always alert to a new wellness movement, Los Angeles has been hosting breath-work circles and breathing retreats for years and now this trend has reached the UK.
Today, conscious breathing is fast becoming the new mindfulness, but if you don’t fancy signing up to a breathing workshop we’ve compiled this handy guide to help you understand the process of conscious breathing and how it can increase your mental, emotional and physical wellbeing.
The Science of Breath
Breathing supplies the body with a steady and constant supply of oxygen. Inhaled air is processed, warmed and filtered in the nose by tiny hairs called cilia. The air then enters the lungs which pump oxygen into the bloodstream, nourishing our cells and vital organs. Exhaled air removes the waste product of this process, which is carbon dioxide.
When we breathe properly the oxygen-carbon dioxide exchange during respiration maintains a balanced pH in the blood keeping us in excellent health. Problems occur when we don’t fully inhale. This makes oxygen scarce, so the blood has to flow faster leading to problems such as high blood pressure. What’s more, if we don’t fully exhale low levels of carbon dioxide are left in the blood causing blood pH levels to rise which can cause cognitive impairment, seizures, dizziness and fainting.
The Benefits of Conscious Breathing
In 1956, Dr Arthur C Guyton claimed that all chronic pain, disease and mental stress is caused by a lack of oxygen in his Textbook of Medical Physiology. The cure is simple – increasing the amount of oxygen to our bodies through deep and conscious breathing.
Deep breathing delivers proper oxygenation and can get the air down into the lower lungs where the nerve receptors associated with calming the body and mind are located. This activates the body’s relaxation response, reducing blood pressure and soothing the mind. So, it’s no surprise that in challenging situations the advice is to, “Take a deep breath and calm down.”
Other benefits of deep and conscious breathing include:
- Lower risk of heart disease and strokes
- Promotes better digestion
- Improves general immunity
- Boosts energy levels
- Improves sleep
- Increases the ability to burn fat
- Inhibits the release of stress hormones
- Reduces anxiety
- Increases the ability to manage chronic pain
What can prevent Conscious Breathing?
Despite all the amazing benefits of conscious breathing it is estimated that 95% of us breathe in a way that is ‘biomechanically unsound.’ This is due to sedentary lifestyles, the demands of 24/7 digital connectivity and high levels of stress. When stressed we tend to take short and shallow chest breaths. The air does not reach the lower lungs meaning the body’s relaxation cannot be accessed. This is known as ‘vertical’ breathing and is associated with our flight/fight response.
Unfortunately, today’s stressful lifestyles can keep us locked in this state on a long-term basis and this type of restricted breathing can lead to health problems such as anxiety, high blood pressure and heart disease. The remedy is to practise deep and conscious breathing which will shut off the type of shallow stressful breathing that is so damaging to our wellbeing.
How to practise Conscious Breathing
Conscious breathing is a safe and powerful way to infuse the body with oxygen and energy to recharge a depleted system. Practise the technique just 20 minutes a day to reduce your levels of stress and anxiety, enhance feelings of wellbeing and benefit from the healing power of breath.
The techniques below will turn off the flight/fight response, relax your body and calm your mind.
- Stand or sit up tall to enable deep breaths.
- Inhale through the nose and exhale through either the nose or mouth.
- Breathe slowly and deeply engaging your diaphragm so your lower lungs fill with air and your belly rises.
- Focus on the air moving through the nostrils and filling your body with nourishing oxygen.
- As you exhale imagine you are expelling all the toxins and negative energy from your body.
- Try to concentrate on the breath and stay in the present moment.
- Energy Breathing – to boost energy inhale to a count of five, hold for a count of seven and exhale for a count of nine.
- Square Breathing – to calm the mind and slow the heart rate inhale to a count of four, hold for a count of four, exhale for a count of four and hold for a count of four.
- Alternate Nostril Breathing – to focus the mind breathe normally for three breaths, then close one nostril with a finger and inhale/exhale and then swap to the other nostril for around eight breaths.
- Calm Breathing – to induce calm during a panic attack breathe in to a count of seven, do not hold and breathe out to a count of nine.