You don’t need to cross a facilitator’s palm with gold to breathe better but breathwork practices can definitely help

Born to breathe: from that first gasp, we know how to do it, but the stresses of modern life mean we often don’t do it as well as we could. Breathwork practices can help. Photo: Jonathan Borba

Breathwork – or doing breathing exercises as a formal practice – is big right now. It means the internet is crawling with “breathwork facilitators” selling lessons in how to breathe better. There definitely appears to be a need for this as it’s widely claimed that many of us don’t breathe properly – often leading to a suboptimal balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the body – and that this is reflected in a full spectrum of modern maladies from stress and anxiety to allergies and musculoskeletal pain.

But one of the most telling things about those hawking breathing lessons is that a key product many offer is training in becoming a breathwork coach yourself.

This is because learning how to breathe better is very easy indeed – it’s one of our basic functions – and once someone has offered you a few tips to practise, there’s nothing more to sell you apart from the prospect that you too might be able to sell breathing lessons.

It’s a bit like a pyramid scheme trying to cash in on a market that’s trending at the moment.

Undoubtedly many of the breathwork merchants out there are charismatic and inspiring, and that is essentially what you are paying for. But most are selling the same core practices – many of which have, in fact, been done by yogis for centuries, under the name pranayama, or breath control.

The key, as with anything you do to improve your health, is to do the work, to simply come back day after day and practise. That discipline, for many, is the hard bit and the thing that an inspiring teacher can help to encourage.

But really, breathwork is simple, relaxing and doesn’t require much time at all, or any money to be spent. It’s simply about training – or, more accurately, retraining – your body to do something it was born to do: to breathe well, which is a natural process.

So where to begin? 

From the belly, via the nose

I’m going to suggest two practices, both of which I recommend doing with abdominal breathing. This simply means relaxing your belly as much as possible while doing the exercises and allowing it to expand on the inales and soften on the exhales. Imagine you are gently inflating a balloon in your belly each time you breathe in, then simply let it go as you breathe out. If you’re not used to this, it might take a little time to feel natural, but stick at it without making too much of a fuss; the idea is to try to use your lower abdomen rather than puffing up your chest as you breathe. Try to inhale and exhale via the nose (unless of course your nose is blocked or it feels uncomfortable).

Practice 1: Coherent breathing

The first exercise is one of the most powerful and simplest forms of breathwork, known as coherent or resonant breathing. To do it, sit in a comfortably upright position or lie down on your back. Then simply slow down and breathe, regulating your breath so you inhale for a steady count of five and exhale for five, repeating this pattern; it means you have have roughly six inhale-exhale cycles per minute, which provides a good oxygen-carbon dioxide balance and regulates the nervous system in a very relaxing way. Go at it for five to 10 minutes a session, and try to get in at least one or two sessions a day.

Once you have practised the pattern regularly for a week or so, you might find it pleasant to drop into it for a minute or two at random moments through your day, sitting on a train, for example, or at your desk while working. Eventually, it becomes a natural basic breathing pattern you fall towards effortlessly at suitable moments – when you don’t need to do vigorous stuff like running for your life, for example – although keeping it up as a regular formal practice is a good discipline to develop.

Practice 2: Box breathing

Another excellent practice is four-part breathing, popularly known as box breathing. It’s often cited these days almost as a US Navy Seal invention, because a former Seal wrote a blog post about its benefits a few years ago, but yogis have been at it for many hundreds of years. It’s a very calming practice and optimises oxygen absorption in the tissues by slightly raising carbon dioxide levels via short breath holds.

To do it, sit comfortably tall or lie on your back. You inhale for a count of four, hold your breath for a count of four, exhale for a count of four, hold your breath again for a count of four, and repeat this pattern for five to 10 minutes. At least one session a day is good, perhaps in addition to a coherent breathing session, or instead of. If you’re inclined, though, do it a few times a day.

As you become comfortable with the practice over time, you can experiment with the counts you use for your breaths and retentions, for example going from measures of four to five, six, or whatever feels comfortable, but keeping the measures equal (this is what gives it its modern name, box breathing – four equal sides, like a square, or box).

If you do coherent, or box, or both of these breathing practices regularly every day for a few weeks, there’s a fair chance you’ll feel benefits such as being more relaxed physically and mentally calmer. Definitely worth investigating.

In, then out: just breathe – it’s natural

This might be all the breathwork you need to do – the training effects of the daily formal practices subtly improve your everyday, natural breathing without you having to think about it. But you might find it gives you a taste to explore other practices, of which there are many. You could simply dive into the internet and you’re sure to find plenty of ideas (as well as people telling you breathing is so complicated that you ought to pay them money to learn how to do it).

But if you’d like a more structured approach and to know more about the science underlying breathwork, I’d highly recommend reading James Nestor’s book Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art. It gives a fascinating overview of why so many people breathe suboptimally, and how to improve this via a wide range of breathwork practices. It’s a fantastic foundation from which to explore breathing in whatever directions grab you. Nestor’s website is also a very good resource, including as it does a practical section featuring breathing videos. 

In terms of counting your breath, as in the two practices I suggest in this article, you can do so in your head, not necessarily aiming for pure clock seconds but whatever  rhythm is comfortable for you. You can also use a breath-counting app on a smartphone, removing the need for you to count and allowing you to focus fully on your breathing.

My favourite is called Breathe (iOS or Android); it’s minimal and has no real instructions but is reasonably easy to figure out, and so good that it’s worth doing so because it aids many forms of breathwork, including coherent and box breathing.

Another very good but slightly more limited app, as it’s purely for coherent breathing – which really is more than enough – is The Breathing App (iOS or Android). 

It’s a rare person in the modern world who isn’t affected by stresses and strains that lead to forms of muscular tension that affect the way they breathe. So I believe just about everyone should spend some time every day doing breathwork. 

It’s by no means a panacea, but it’s a very powerful and simple, free way to feel better via a natural mechanism you were born with: your breath. By all means do a course (there are plenty online, both paid for and free, just search), but honestly, either or both of the two simple practices I’ve suggested in this article are pretty much all you need to get some wonderful benefits. 

  • Martin Yelverton is a yoga teacher and Pilates instructor based in East London, currently offering classes online. Details at yogayelvy.com

Published by Martin Yelverton

I'm a plant-powered yoga teacher, Pilates instructor and freelance journalist.

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