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You do it 20,000 times a day, but do you do it right?

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Breathing is something most of us get very wrong. But get it right, and you’ll see a myriad of benefits discovers ALIX NORMAN

You’re doing it right now, without thinking. You’ve been doing it since the day you were born – even when you’re asleep! But are you doing it correctly? Probably not, say those who study the way we breathe. In fact, you’re probably getting it all wrong. But that’s where breathwork – a term that refers to the conscious control of breathing for therapeutic effect – comes in.

Easy to learn, breathwork is very much in the public consciousness right now; Google searches for the term have increased six-fold over the last five years. That’s millions of people seeking an easy, effective way to improve their mental, physical and emotional wellbeing simply by changing the way they breathe.

‘So what?’ you say. ‘I’m still getting oxygen aren’t I?’ Well yes. But, according to your particular physiology and psychology, you might well be getting too much or too little oxygen (most people are, surprisingly, the former), or oxygen that’s unfiltered, or perhaps not even getting the oxygen to the right place in your lungs! And this can impact everything from your immune system to quality of sleep to mental health.

 

POSTURE AND MOVEMENT

Posture is the worst culprit when it comes to bad breathing. A recent study from the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation proved that bad posture could reduce lung capacity by up to 30 per cent. So if your job involves sitting for any length of time (especially hunched over a keyboard) you’re very unlikely to be getting the air your body needs.

“The body tends to take the path of least resistance even in the best of chairs. It takes a conscious effort to sit well; you’ll often end up slouching and dropping your shoulders,” says Anastasia Uvarova, Physiotherapist and Ergonomics Assessor at Alpha Physio Care.

“With the abdomen compressed, the intercostal muscles and diaphragm can’t contract to create a good vacuum,” she explains. Hunched shoulders collapse chest and rib cage; your neck juts forward; the muscles in the front of the upper torso and neck tighten up, and those in your middle back stretch and lose strength. And while your hip flexors tighten, your glutes and hamstrings weaken, throwing your pelvis completely out of whack.

Instead, she suggests, the key to getting better air distribution is movement: “You need to air all parts of the rib cage; so stretching, breathing from the belly, and taking breaks is crucial.”

 

NOSE VERSUS MOUTH

Posture, however, is just the start. What you’re breathing through and with also has a huge impact on your breathing. “We all breathe roughly 20,000 times a day,” explains Sam Rystrom, the breathwork expert behind global app sensation One Deep Breath. “But research indicates that in addition to breathing too quickly, we breathe incorrectly: through the mouth.”

61 per cent of adults self-identify as mouth breathers. But, says Sam, mouth breathing is bad for your oral posture (the tongue drops to the back of the mouth, blocking air from travelling down the throat) as well as quality of sleep (causing substantially higher rates of snoring, insomnia, and sleep apnea). It also disrupts the release of vasopressin, a hormone that depletes water in the body and causes an imbalance of oxygen in the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain that influences decision-making, focus, and social behaviour.

“Your body is built for nose breathing,” Sam continues. “Air inhaled by mouth more or less goes directly into your lungs. But air inhaled through the nose navigates a complex system of tubes and tissues in the sinuses. Nose breathing,” he adds, “provides warmer, cleaner air that’s easier for our lungs and cells to absorb. And it also improves sleep apnea, increases in nitric oxide (which aids immunity, mood, brain function, and sexual performance), boosts the parasympathetic nervous system, and reduces the body’s allergic response.”

 

feature3 breathing from the belly rather than the chest has a host of benefits for body and mind
Breathing from the belly rather than the chest has a host of benefits for body and mind

BELLY NOT CHEST

Okay, so you’re sitting as straight a Dowager Countess, taking stretching breaks, and inhaling through your nose. Now let’s think about the muscles you’re using…

Breathwork experts advocate diaphragmatic breathing: breathing from the belly, not the chest. “Chest breathing is a fight-or-flight mode response,” Sam reveals. “By and large, upper chest breathing activates nerves connected to the sympathetic nervous system; they tell our body to prepare for threats and to divert resources away from digestion and recovery. But when you breathe out of the stomach, you’re engaging your diaphragm, stimulating your vagus nerve, and activating the parasympathetic nervous system, the body’s relaxation mode.”

Offering straightforward, science-backed techniques, breathwork supports the idea of light, gentle breathing, and delivers a myriad of techniques to calm the body, focus the brain, promote sleep, boost health, improve digestion, enhance focus, increase energy, and – most importantly in these challenging times – combat anxiety. Because done right, breathing is a fantastic tool for calming both mind and body…

 

JUST BREATHE

Local breath practitioner and psychologist Dimitris Christodoulou Dimitriou uses breathwork with clients who are physically, mentally and emotionally overwhelmed. Employing a specific set of Buteyko techniques (a breathing method that advocates carefully increasing the body’s tolerance to carbon dioxide) he helps clients combat stress and heal from the inside out.

“When we’re stressed or anxious, we often take huge, quick breaths. But this just exacerbates stress by increasing our oxygen levels. It’s a common misconception,” he suggests, “that we should be ridding our bodies of all carbon dioxide. CO2 is actually an energy source that can help regulate our parasympathetic nervous system response. So the key is to take slower, lighter breaths and breathe from the belly.”

Like Sam and Anastasia, Dimitris has seen an increasing number of people turning to breathwork over the last five years, and suggests this is far more than a passing trend. “We’ll be seeing a much bigger focus on breathwork for health and healing in the years to come,” he concludes. “It’s an incredible tool for improving your overall wellbeing. We are only just beginning to realise the benefits of breathing correctly. So many of us still get it so wrong. And yet your breath is such a simple, easy thing to change!”

 

The ‘One Deep Breath’ app is available for Android and iOS. Many of the techniques are free for all users.

 

And breathe…

Calm the body and mind with this simple technique from One Deep Breath:

  1. Sit or lie with a straight spine.
  2. Breathe in through the nose for approximately 4 seconds. (Your belly should rise, not your chest. Imagine drawing air into your lower back.)
  3. Breathe out slowly through the nose for 6 seconds, gently releasing the air as your belly falls.
  4. Focus on the air as it enters and leaves your body; notice how areas of tightness or tension soften on the exhale.
  5. Repeat for 1 minute.

 

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