In its simplest form, breathwork is a healing modality, a self-care tool and a cleansing technique practised across religious scriptures and spiritual rituals to facilitate the mind-body-spirit connection.
Harnessed throughout meditation and mindfulness, most breathing techniques stem from sacred yoga traditions pointing reference to Pranayama. Translated in Sanskrit it means “control of energy”, and is the ancient science of breathing. Prana is the essence of breath and is considered a life-giving force. A pillar of Hindu and Ayurvedic customs, there have been links to the ‘life force’ seen throughout cultures from the Chinese principle of qi to the Christian Holy Spirit.
It’s this reverence for breath as our life force energy and the profound rituals surrounding it that have now become entwined in modern medicine.
They say the quality of the breath mirrors the quality of the mind, which is reflective of the deep, transformative breaths we’re choosing to take today, as opposed to the short, shallow, sharp inhalation we’ve become so accustomed to. There are hundreds of schools of breathwork and various types and techniques: Ujjayi, circular and nostril, but the healing mechanism stays the same.
Rory Warnock, a Performance and Wellness Coach specialising in breathwork, refers to the practice as conscious breathing. “Breathing is an involuntary action we do over 25,000 times per day. But we have the ability to voluntarily breathe in specific rhythms, rates and depths to positively alter our physiology and psychology,” he says.
In many ways, these techniques allow you to operate at your optimal state of being. On a physical level, breathwork enriches the body with oxygen, improves sleep, energy, heart rate variability, athletic performance and reduces inflammatory conditions like diabetes, heart disease and a weak immune system. The power of breath purges the body and nervous system of toxins - deep breathing improves blood and lung volume, while diaphragmatic stimulation awakens the lymphatic system to activate detoxification, simultaneously exhaling and filtering waste through our urine and breath.
“Breathwork anchors us to feelings of peace and quiet, ‘take a deep breath’ is a saying we’ve come to know to quell feelings of anxiety and stress.”
On a mental level, it has the ability to impact your soul and spirit and ignite mind-body illumination. Breathwork anchors us to feelings of peace and quiet, ‘take a deep breath’ is a saying we’ve come to know to quell feelings of anxiety and stress. It’s intrinsically applied as an emotionally clearing method dispelling negative thoughts, clearing trauma, balancing mood and reducing stress, both physically and psychologically.
“Many breathwork techniques and practises are a form of mindfulness, with the difference being breathwork is usually active, and meditation is usually passive. It gets you out of your head and into your body. With some techniques the changes are immediate and it can change your physiological system, shifting the nervous system in real time - it’s one of the fastest and most accessible ways to feel more calm and clear, with various studies to prove it,” explains Warnock.
One such study shows how relaxation techniques stimulate the vagus nerve to switch off the body’s fight-or-flight response and switch on the relaxation response, helping to heal the nervous system. By practising diaphragmatic breathing, you can activate your parasympathetic nervous system, triggering this ‘rest and digest’ mode, which helps lower your blood pressure and cortisol levels. Research also shows mindful meditation interventions reduce the size of the amygdala, lowering stress and improving stress-related health outcomes.
During your practice, emotions can arise as you work through any blockages and reconnect to your higher state of consciousness, drawing parallels to the spiritual component of the process. Warnock points out some methods can be immensely activating, triggering physical reactions like warm fuzzy feelings, tingling and vibrations.
“I’m an advocate for minimum effective dose, this technique requires the least amount of work for the most amount of benefit. Everyone should learn how to breathe in a more functional pattern, both day-to-day and during sleep. Functional breathing is using the nose to draw in light, slow and deep breaths. Avoid short, shallow, upper-chest and mouth-breaths,” explains Warnock. “Nasal breathing is far superior to mouth breathing - the nose is 50% more resistant than the mouth, which results in 10-20% more oxygen uptake. The nose acts as a natural filter bringing clear, warmed, humidified air into our lungs.”
“To calm feelings of stress, anxiety or for when you’re struggling to fall asleep. It’s an incredibly fast and effective way to move from sympathetic (fight or flight) to parasympathetic (rest and digest) and shift your autonomic arousal,” he adds.
Breathe in through the nose for four seconds and out through the nose for six seconds, for 30 cycles. The breath should be light, quiet and deep.