When was the last time you did nothing but breathe? Phone down. Eyes closed. All your awareness directed to your breath. Notice your breath at this moment. Are you taking calm, deep breaths? Is the pace as short and clipped as your patience? Or are you holding your breath entirely, as if awaiting bad news? For an essential, life-sustaining act that should be second nature, human beings aren’t always the best at breathing. The average person takes between 17,000 and 23,000 breaths per day and it’s rare for many of us to consciously notice the breath, unless we’re faced with dis-ease. Cognitively, we know that the breath is vital for survival, but isn’t this really a case of not appreciating what we have till it’s gone? Cue breathwork.
“Everything in our body is governed by the breath—our bones, blood, tissue, organs and believe it or not, even our cells have a rhythm in which they breathe and operate within us,” shares craniosacral therapist and yoga practitioner, Kathy Gabriel. When under stress, our body’s sympathetic nervous system or ‘fight or flight’ response is activated. In this state of panic, anger or fear, the breath quickens and shallows. “Many of us actually under-breathe, meaning we use more of our secondary (sometimes called accessory) breathing muscles instead of our primary breathing muscles to breathe,” explains the breathwork teacher. These secondary breathing muscles are located around the neck and upper chest region, which accounts for improper and often shallow breathing, causing us to feel fatigue in these areas—not to mention cyclical stress, she says. Primary breathing muscles on the other hand “involve our respiratory diaphragm, muscles around the rib cage and abdomen, and pelvic floor”.
Sadly with the pace of life and our increasingly sedentary lifestyle, taking deep, belly breaths seems more like a yoga retreat-worthy indulgence. Poor breathing triggers a cascade of negative reactions in our body, including stress and anxiety on loop.
“The quality of your breath has real physiological outcomes. Over time, this can affect our immune system, mental well-being and emotional resilience to take on whatever life throws at us,” says Gabriel.
“When we breathe shallow, we think shallow,” says breathwork therapist, Stephanie Chaunte Leong of Soma Psyche Alchemy. “When we push at our edges and breathe deeply, we access a deeper and richer quality of life.”
The breath and our emotions
In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), each organ is connected to an emotion. Curiously, “the lung is linked with grief and letting go”, says TCM physician, Jun Negoro of Mino Chinese Medical Clinic. She shares that shortness of breath and shallow breathing are all too common in patients under high stress or sufferers of chronic fatigue.
Negoro explains that long-term lung imbalances such as breathing issues may lead to “sadness and detachment” and vice-versa. A Yale study on the relationship between emotions and respiration found that significant emotional states are associated with different forms of breathing. Changing our breath therefore, can alter how we feel. In a content or relaxed state, our breath tends to be regular, slow and deep.
“Studies have shown that deep steady breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system (‘rest and digest’ mode) and tells our brain to calm down. This slows down the heart rate and signals to the body that we’re safe,” says Negoro. “Studies with mental health conditions are synonymous with shallow breathing or hyperventilation. As it is, our breath is directly related to our emotions,” says MR Jab, sports medicine trainer and Breathera breathwork facilitator at Movement and Sports Medicine Centre.
Recalibration and catharsis through breathwork
Becoming more aware of our breath leads to an increased awareness in our own bodies and well-being. “When the breath flows freely, the mind and body connect to bring a sense of awareness and gratefulness to the present moment of living,” says Jab. If you are new to breathing exercises, Negoro reminds us that over perfect technique, it’s “more important to be mindful of your breathing in general, and just take deep breaths a few times a day, preferably in nature”.
The benefits of breathwork on the body
Breathwork is a group of dedicated rhythmic breathing exercises that teach us how to modulate our rate of breathing, bringing focus to the breath. To the uninitiated, breathwork may appear as a series of breath holding, huffing and puffing included. As oxygen levels in the body rise, it’s normal to feel dizzy or in a heightened state. Whatever the breathwork technique, you will invariably close each practice feeling clear-minded yet calm, with a heightened awareness of your own mind-body connection.
A breathwork-related study in 2016 by the Medical University of South Carolina determined that a 20- minute session of yogic breathing could reduce the levels of pro-inflammatory biomarkers in the saliva. In today’s pandemic-clouded context, some research points to the role of controlled breathing in reducing stress levels, controlling mood fluctuations such as anxiety and depression, while improving the quality of life by heart rate, cognitive performance and more.
“It is medically proven that efficient breathing can help to improve our muscle tone and physical posture, regulate our autonomic nervous system, manage our pH and homeostatic balance in the body,” explains Gabriel. “Proper breathing can help activate our brain networks related to mood, attention and body awareness and function. Essentially, learning how to breathe properly can help us with physiological, mental and emotional aspects of our health.”
To connect with the breath is to align with our deepest selves. In this hectic world “overwhelmed by pandemic, strife and suffering, it’s easy to want to ‘escape’ or check out of our bodies and being”, says Gabriel. “Breathing is a great tool because it’s innate and doesn’t require thought. So by bringing focus to it, we can return home to ourselves and be honest about what we are feeling in a given moment and ultimately work through any discomfort to find a degree of stillness and ease in everyday life.”
While both our ‘fight or flight’ as well as our ‘rest and digest’ functions are invaluable, Leong believes that being “hyper-aroused or hyper-vigilant” as a society has thrown our nervous system off-balance. “Intentional breathing supports the recalibration of both into a healthy state of equilibrium.”
The fact is, you can only go as deep as your awareness of the breath.
“Everyone experiences their thoughts one way or another and for some, this may not be a pleasant experience unless there is love involved,” says Jab.
For Jab and other champions of breathwork, taking time to do nothing but consciously breathe helps to instill stillness, and creates space for anyone to observe how our thoughts can cloud your judgement and decision-making. This mindful act of breathing makes room for processing traumas and deconditioning from often irrational fears. “When you are experiencing your thoughts, you are not present. Breath awareness snaps you out of what may not be useful and brings you to the present moment, back to what matters most to you, now, here.”
Breathera with the Movement and Sports Medicine Centre
Breathera empowers and inspires individuals to experience how life can change with simple yet powerful breath manipulations. These in turn, lead to mastery over your thoughts and emotions, helping you to respond instead of merely reacting to your inner and external worlds. “Breathera uses a range of methods that meets the requirements of recovery, performance, spirituality, health and overall well-being,” says MR Jab, sports medicine trainer and Breathera breathwork facilitator at Movement and Sports Medicine Centre. “Stillness learnt through Breathera helps you to find Zen in anything you do. In breathwork, we help people to experience life and heal themselves, both mentally and physically. Breathera is a practice, just like riding a bicycle. Once proficient, being aware of your breath takes less effort, and you get to experience life with less stress, more gratefulness, love, health and happiness.”
$30 for 55 minutes
Biomechanics of Breath course with Urban Yogis
This deep dive into breathwork teaches the different techniques to improve lung capacity, cardiovascular health, autonomic balance and regulation as well emotional resilience. Improving your resilience to stress also means constantly improving the quality of your breath, shares Urban Yogis founder, Kathy Gabriel. It’s about putting in the work consistently “so that breathwork is not something that is merely activated in times of stress, but something that we can also enjoy as a positive resource and power in our daily life”.
$68 for the three-part online course
Rebirthing Breathwork with Dawn of Gaia
“In Rebirthing Breathwork, we say that how you breathe is how you live your life,” shares founder Gladys Lee, who runs breathwork classes on Zoom these days. “By observing one’s breathing, we can recognise one’s patterns in life. Human beings are habitual. Hence, when we want to make a change in life, we need to break free from an existing habit. You must intentionally think and act differently. This is the work that needs to be done daily to build that new habit.” Pay-as-you-wish group sessions on Zoom for 180 minutes, up to $280 for a private session
The Breath Cocoon with Soma Psyche Alchemy
The Breath Cocoon’s restorative breathwork practice was created to support healthier sleep cycles and immune function, while strengthening emotional regulation and self-awareness. It also alleviates states of stress, anxiety and depression. “As we connect our physical sensations through the breathwork to the unconscious images, memories and emotions that emerge, we have access to the lesser known parts of ourselves. When we bring these images from the shadows into the light of conscious awareness and acceptance, we become more fully integrated as a whole human being, instead of punishing ourselves for parts that we are ashamed of,” says Soma Psyche Alchemy’s founder Stephanie Chaunte Leong. Empowered with a greater compassion toward ourselves, we are then better equipped to extend the same generosity to others.
$138 for a private 60-minute session, $38 for a group session
Wim Hof Method with Altered States
One of the more extreme breathwork programmes out there, the Wim Hof Method utilises deep, rhythmic inhalations and breath retention to reach a highly focused, meditative state in record time. This controlled hyperventilation technique seeks to optimise mental and physical performance, and influences the body to release more energy, while inducing a voluntary short stress response that trains you to be more resilient towards pressurising situations. The second part of the Wim Hof Method then combines this power breathing with cold therapy, where you are forced to take control of your breath and mind to lie in an ice bath for a minute or two. Not only does this heighten willpower, it also aids in physiological recovery, reduces inflammation, fortifies the immune system, and helps to alleviate stress and insomnia.
$75 for 45 minutes of Wim Hof breathwork techniques and 45 minutes of guided cold immersion
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