Breathing comes to us as an instinct; it is one of our primary means for survival. But look out! It’s actually not that simple. Yes, you heard it here folks: the act of breathing is more complex than we thought. Automatic, subconscious breathing allows our bodies to survive, but will not allow them to thrive. When we restrict or hold our breaths unconsciously, the flowing air pattern becomes distorted; not breathing correctly can negatively impact health. On the other hand, controlled breathing has multiple health benefits. If you want to know more, you’ve come to the right place. With the help of Ainara Felipe, a personal trainer, we’ve got all the answers about breathwork for you!

What is breathwork, and why is it important?

Breathwork is a set of different breathing practices that claims to positively influence one’s mental and physical state by generating various health outcomes. It has a long, varied history that goes back centuries across different cultures. In eastern cultures, breathing is profoundly linked to meditation and spirituality, which have a prominent role in reaching altered states of consciousness. Pranayama, one famous breathing practice, was mainly accompanied by yoga and meditation. It has several forms, such as nostril breathing, abdominal breathing, forceful breathing, and vocalized breathing, which can be performed following varying rates and depths. 

On the other hand, western cultures weren’t introduced to breathing practices until the late 1800s when they recognized the importance of breathwork for therapeutic benefits. However, they have developed these breathing techniques independent from any religious or spiritual beliefs. Western cultures tend to focus on breathing techniques with paced breathing, slowing down the breath frequency associated with relaxation, instead of fast breathing, which is mutually linked to stress and anxiety. 

Breath in, then breath out; inhale, then exhale. That’s what breathing is: an effortless yet necessary task. However, given this simplicity, most of us are not aware that we breathe poorly. We think we’re doing it right because it’s natural for us, but there would be fewer unhappy and unhealthy people if that were the case. 

Breathing is one of the main sources for obtaining and sustaining vital energy. “When we do not breathe properly, we are stealing energy from our body; we do not let our bodies be as effective as they can be,” explained Ainara, “when breathing correctly, we get to be more effective, taking more and better use of our energy. So by working on our breathing, we will find both physical and mental improvements.”  

What are the effects of breathwork on physical health?

Nasal breathing vs. oral breathing

Personal trainer Felipe mentioned one of the most common breathing mistakes: oral breathing. How so? You may ask. It may seem odd since both nasal and oral breathing does a pretty good job of letting air in and out of our system. However, breathing through the nose has significant positive effects on our immune systems and mental states. The nose filters the air and gives it the right temperature before it reaches the lungs.

“Not breathing properly can trigger episodes of flatus, which is caused by continuous friction and subsequent irritation of the peritoneum (membrane lining the abdominal cavity),” the trainer said. So, what can we learn from this? Although nasal breathing sometimes comes to us with a conscious effort as opposed to subconscious oral breathing, let’s try our best to keep our noses for breathing and our mouths for eating. 

Chronic spinal pain and smooth respiration

A study that was conducted to evaluate the association of the diaphragm with slow breathing showed that there was a greater diaphragm excursion (when the diaphragm expands more while breathing) in healthy humans as opposed to those with spinal health problems. The study then concluded that maintaining abdominal pressure and smooth respiration is helped by proper and balanced diaphragm performance through proper breathing.

Chronic heart failure:

Research on healthy people and those with chronic heart failure examined the effects of breathing rate on oxygen saturation and exercise performance. Slow breathing at 6 breaths per minute was found to be optimum for improving alveolar ventilation and minimizing dead space (air that enters poorly) in both classes. The study also concluded that those who suffer from chronic heart failure showed increased exercise performance and motivation because of slow breathing.

Blood pressure:

It has long been established that during inspiration, the heart rate increases while arterial blood pressure decreases and that during expiration, the heart rate decreases while arterial blood pressure increases. Several studies have also shown that regulated slow breathing lowers mean blood pressure considerably. 

To elaborate further on the role of breathing in hypertension, studies concluded the positive effects of alternate nostril breathing on this health condition. Alternate nostril breathing is a breathing exercise that stimulates the vagus nerve and the primary nerve in the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps to slow the heart rate, drop blood pressure, and calm the body and mind. Nurses are now encouraged to demonstrate the exercise to their patients. 

What about mental health? 

When we talk about mental health, stress is one of the leading causes of our problems. Let’s look at evidence of how mindful breathing helps reduce the risks of developing stress-related illnesses. 

A study was conducted on 71 middle-aged adults who described themselves as moderately stressed to determine whether yoga and mindful breathing can be a stress-coping mechanism. 

They were randomly assigned to either a control group or a 5-week yoga intervention, which combined 60 min of yoga sessions with 30 min of psychoeducation, twice weekly, along with a 5-min breathing exercise to practice daily. The participants witnessed significant decreases in anxiety, depression, and sleep issues, which were statistically influenced by improved breathing and a corresponding improvement in their overall mindfulness. 

Another study looked at the impact of everyday conscious breathing habits on university students’ test anxiety. A total of 36 people were randomly allocated under one of three conditions: conscientious breathing testing, cognitive reappraisal training, or no training. The study’s findings revealed that both conscious breathing and cognitive reappraisal exercises reduced test anxiety significantly. Furthermore, the attentive breathing state outperformed the cognitive reappraisal and control conditions in terms of positive thoughts.

Can we talk about different breathing types?

While talking about breathwork, Felipe mentioned that different breathing techniques depend on the purpose we want to achieve. “For example, this technique can be beneficial for those who want to meditate or reduce stress: Box 4-4-4-4 technique (4 seconds to inhale, 4 seconds of apnea, 4 seconds to exhale, and 4 seconds for a new apnea),” she suggested. 

The trainer also brought up three main breathing types: diaphragmatic breathing, thoracic breathing, and clavicular breathing.

Diaphragmatic breathing:

Diaphragmatic breathing is a stress and psychosomatic condition-relieving integrative body-mind conditioning technique. Diaphragmatic ventilation entails contracting the diaphragm, expanding the belly, and deepening inhalation and exhalation, which reduces the duration of breathing, thereby increasing the volume of blood gases in the body. Meditation, ancient eastern philosophies (such as Buddhism), and martial arts have also been linked to the benefits of diaphragmatic breathing. It refers to internal harmony and social adaptation, unique rhythmic movements and positions, and is considered a central component of yoga and Tai Chi.   

Let’s explore the most common ways people breathe without realizing it.

Thoracic breathing:

Thoracic breathing consists of breathing from the upper chest, which results in a greater upper rib cage motion, dominating the lower rib cage and abdominal movement. The accessory muscles of respiration also come to play (including the sternocleidomastoid, upper trapezius, and scalene muscles). However, this breathing technique has been proven to cause health problems, such as an impact on respiratory chemistry by decreasing carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in the bloodstream, which increases the pH of the blood. So, you may not want to get into that. 

Clavicular breathing:

Clavicular breathing is also known as “shallow breathing,” where the rib cage is probably constricted and hardly moving. The only area that might be moving while breathing is the upper part of the thorax and chest. Keep this in mind, if you want to breathe correctly, your diaphragm should be the only organ moving. You might want to stay away from this one also. 

What can we learn from all this?

Even though breathing correctly cannot directly heal all our health problems, it can avoid the risks of having them in the first place. It may seem like something so bland and simple that you don’t want to get into, but get this: 5 to 10 minutes of focused breathing a day can have a lot of benefits for our health. Why not allow ourselves to thrive instead of only surviving?