The Respiratory Revolution Part II—Think You Know How to Breathe? Think again…
by Catherine Morris | November 4, 2020, updated 3 months ago
This article is part two of our series on better breathing 'The Respiratory Revolution' which examines the power and potential of better breathing. We’ll share stories of superhuman feats, tips for better breathing at home, and insight from the experts. To read part one click here.
Breathing seems like a no-brainer. We’re taught from our very first biology lesson that it’s an automatic process—oxygen goes in, carbon dioxide comes out. Unless we’re meditating or exercising, we don’t even think about it.
Well, perhaps it’s time to think about it.
People have used breathwork to power themselves up mountains, out of planes, and into a state of spiritual bliss, but you don’t need such lofty goals to feel the impact of proper breathing i.e breathing that fuels your physical and mental health.
The Basics of Better Breathing
So, you want to refine your respiration—how do you get going? Step number one is to stop being such a mouth breather.
Around 30-50 per cent of adults primarily breathe through their mouths, counter to what nature intended. Mouths are for eating, drinking, and speaking. Noses are nature's filter, designed to take in air and pass it through the nasal passages where it is warmed and moistened.
The nose is one of your first defences against external invaders, trapping viruses and bacteria. In addition, breathing through the nose gives you as much as 20 percent more oxygen than mouth breathing.
Better breathing means light, regular breathing through the nose. It also means breathing less. That sounds counterintuitive, but it's not about how much air you suck in, but how much oxygen your body can use from that breath, and that depends on your CO2 levels.
Oxygen is carried through our bloodstream thanks to hemoglobin. When there's too little CO2 in your system, the hemoglobin hangs onto its oxygen, but at higher CO2 levels it releases its burden and the oxygen heads into your cells where it's needed. The harder we breathe, the more CO2 we're expelling, and the less oxygen we're actually getting.
How to Breathe Better at Home
Sandy Mulroy is a holistic healer. Mulroy offers guided meditations, reiki, sound healing and massage at her Solar Power Health practice, and says breath is crucial for all forms of healing. She does a kundalini breathing-based meditation as part of her daily morning ritual and says it's important for everyone to take note of their breathing, particularly given the constant external stress of modern life.
“We're so over-stimulated. We have so much going on, our brain can't take a full breath because we're doing a million things at once. Just ten minutes of focusing on your breath in the morning would help. It is an intimate process. It is not an exercise, it's a practice, it's just part of you. It's literally your life force.”
The Buteyko Method and the Papworth Method
Mulroy recently took a course in Buteyko breathing that she describes as “incredible”.
There are many ways to slow down and deepen your breathing but two of the most well-established styles are the Buteyko Method, and the Papworth Method. The former was developed by Ukrainian Dr Konstanin Buteyko in the 1950s, and claims to treat nasal congestion, asthma, anxiety, hay fever, and snoring. The technique involves slow breathing exercises, breath holds, and diaphragmatic breath work.
Much like the Buteyko Method, the Papworth Method emphasizes nose breathing, how to avoid hyperventilation (breathing too much), and breathing from the diaphragm rather than your chest.
You can give Papworth a try with a simple exercise:
- Breathe in slowly through the nose.
- Breathe out through pursed lips, as if blowing out a candle, making sure that your exhale is twice as long as your inhale.
- Throughout the exercise, pay attention to what's happening in your torso—think of expanding and contracting the stomach, rather than the chest.
Breathing for Better Mental Health
Every single breath we take is unique. The rhythm of your breaths changes constantly, you might pant during exercise, hold your breath when scared, or take long slow breaths as you're falling asleep. It's possible to manipulate these rhythms to change how you think and feel.
If you have trouble sleeping or suffer from anxiety, you might want to try the 4-7-8 method, developed by Dr Andrew Weil who claims it lessens insomnia, improves digestion, and reduces that panicky fight or flight feeling.
- Rest the tip of your tongue against the roof of your mouth and gently keep it there for the entire exercise.
- Inhale for four seconds. Hold the breath for seven seconds. Audibly exhale through your mouth for eight seconds.
- Repeat for four cycles without pausing and run through the exercise twice a day. After 4-6 weeks of daily practice, you can build up to eight breath cycles.
Anxiety responds well to breath work (particularly diaphragmatic breathing), and that is evidence for why breath is a vital part of any meditative practice aimed at clearing our minds and lowering stress.
If you want to go deeper you can train your breath to take you on a psychedelic journey with holotropic breathing. This form of breath work involves fast-paced breathing that floods the body with oxygen. It can bring up intense feelings and emotions, and is best performed with an experienced guide. Psychiatric patients have successfully used holotropic breathing to treat trauma, suicidal thoughts, and addiction.
Mulroy has a background in Shamonic and Wiccan healing, both of which use holotropic breathing to help people achieve alternative states of consciousness. She says it can be a powerful tool for self-examination—“Holotropic breathing pumps the blood very fast and oxygenates it so it takes you to a euphoric state where you can see things better, [and] just listening to your own breath can be hypnotic.”
Breathing for Better Physical Health
Yoga is now mostly known in the west as a form of exercise, but if you've ever been to a class you'll notice the strong emphasis on matching movement to breath. Yoga instructors typically cue their students to inhale with certain poses and exhale with others, based on whether they're constricting or expanding their body.
This form of yogic breath work is known as pranayama—roughly translated as control and channelling of your life force or core energy. Yogis know the power of breath and how it can help the body become stronger, more fluid, and flexible.
“When you are climbing up a mountain you have to pay attention to your breath, it's vital. When I first started hiking it was difficult because I love to talk, so I was talking and climbing, and had to stop all the time. Now I'm more aware of how I'm breathing and it helps.”
The rule about breathing less, rather than more, applies when exercising too. One surprising study showed that rugby players who held their breath while doing sprints could actually perform more sprints than the control group who were breathing normally.
For athletes, daily breath work is a way of training their respiratory muscles—the ones that expand and contract your torso while breathing—just as they would any other muscle group. This type of training can boost athletic performance by as much as 15 percent, according to The University of Portsmouth.
Breathing for Success
Next time you have a big presentation that’s got you quaking with nerves, take a long, slow breath. I’m willing to bet you’ll feel better. Calming our nervous system in this way makes us more alert, more resilient to stressful situations, and more focused on what’s important rather than giving into fear.
In the next article, in our breath work series we talk to mental performance coach Jamie Bunka of AURA Peak Performance Consulting about how she gets her clients to breathe, think, and perform better.
Catherine Morris is an award-winning journalist with a bad case of wanderlust and a passion for all things health and wellness. Originally from Northern Ireland, she worked as a news and feature writer for media outlets in the UK, South Africa, France and the Caribbean before settling in Canada. Catherine now lives in Alberta with her husband and rescue mutt and spends her time happily exploring the great outdoors with both.