There are a lot of new-age wellness techniques touted that make even the least cynical among us roll our eyes—yes, we’re looking at you jade eggs. But on the flip-side, in times of unprecedented uncertainty, there are useful, yet often overlooked approaches that deserve more of the limelight. Breathwork is one of them.
Unlike walking, talking and eating, none of us were ever taught how to breathe as a child. It’s something that came naturally, quite literally with our first gasp. But just because it’s an innate skill doesn’t mean we’re doing it properly. While Richie Bostock, also known as @Thebreathguy, has been championing the importance of breathwork for years, over the past few weeks he has become something of a beacon of calm on our social media feeds.
“The number of people doing breathwork has exploded recently because of its simplicity and effectiveness,” says Bostock. “It doesn’t require you to have to think or feel in a certain way, you just breathe, and you will experience something new.”
How effective can breathing be for stress?
We’re by no means suggesting that taking in a couple of deeper breaths is going to radically change your life, but in moments of stress—when you feel your chest tightening and head spinning—it can definitely bring about a soothing sense of calmness.
“It is a magical tool which enables us to ‘trick’ our body into feeling calmer, more relaxed or more energised,” says Kat Farrants, yoga expert and founder of Movement For Modern Life. “We can change our mood and our physiology, plus how we respond to things.”
Without sounding cliché, it’s all about slowing it down and focusing on the breath. “Slowing down your breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the opposite to your sympathetic nervous system, more commonly known as the fight or flight stress mode,” explains Fiona Lamb, clinical hypnotherapist at the Hale Clinic. “Both states cannot be accessed at the same time, so when this system is triggered we essentially override our stress response – cue a more relaxed body and mind.”
While the science around breathwork is still quite thin on the ground, what there is does seem to support the claims that advocates make. In 2018, a study by Trinity College Dublin found that the way we breathe can affect the chemistry in our brains, and help improve our attention and focus. “Our research found that there is evidence to support the view that there is a strong connection between breath-centred practices and a steadiness of mind,” says Ian Robertson, co-director of the Global Brain Health Institute at Trinity.
5 key breath patterns to try
Every day we take between 22,000 and 29,000 breaths, but most of us breathe too quickly and limit our inhalations and exhalations to our chests, rather than our bellies—especially when we’re stressed. So, how should we be breathing?
Use your nose
Do you breathe with your nose or your mouth? If you spend more time in the latter camp, Bostock challenges you to switch it up: “Use your nose, it’s what it’s there for and it helps you to slow things down.”
If your shoulders lift and your chest puffs out when you breathe, you should focus on breathing down into your belly, expanding your lower ribs. “At the moment, you’re using your neck, shoulders and upper chest muscles to expand your chest to breathe in air, but they’re designed to be used in short bursts when we need to breathe quickly, rather than 24/7,” says Bostock. Shallow breathing can also result in neck, shoulder and back pain.
Emphasise your exhale
Inhaling with deep belly breaths is only half of the technique. “Make sure that your exhale is good and you can feel your body is narrowing, almost like a crunch. You want to make sure that you’ve got all the stale air out,” says US-based clinical psychologist and founder of The Breathing Class, Dr Belisa Vranich.
The six-second rule
“Start by inhaling through your nose for six seconds and then exhale through your nose for six seconds,” says Bostock. “Repeat this cycle for at least three minutes, if not longer, if you can.” If six seconds sounds like a big commitment, Bostock suggests starting with three or four seconds, and building up to six over time.
If you want more guidance to get you going, we highly recommend tuning into Bostock’s regular live-streamed breathwork sessions. It’s also worth checking out @Breathpod on Instagram, which is headed up by the breathing coach Stuart Sandeman, and also offers real-time breathing classes.
And, while your worries won’t disappear completely with one deep breath, you might just be surprised by how much better you feel after three minutes. Plus, it’s free of charge, requires zero equipment and can be tried from the comfort of your couch. Enough to persuade even sceptics to give it a try.