Inhaling the Joy of Life: Conscious Breathwork
by Marlaina Donato
Our first breath is instinctual and belly-deep, but as we grow into life, everyday stress and trauma can bring us into the shallows. Mindful breathing can help guide our breath back to its original, healthy rhythm. Both the brain and organs benefit from increased oxygen, and the vagus nerve that connects the two—prompted by changes in the body’s pH levels—releases acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter responsible for lowering heart rate.
Breathwork can improve vagal tone, a major component in a wide range of conditions like depression, pain syndromes, sleep disturbances, anxiety disorders and chronic inflammation. A 2016 study by the Medical University of South Carolina published in the journal BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine shows a lower number of proteins associated with inflammation in the saliva of participants that employed breathing exercises. A study that appeared in the journal Psychophysiology in 2015 found that 20 minutes of mindful breathing at bedtime fostered a good night’s rest for people with insomnia.
From traditional rebirthing techniques using circular breathing to Middendorf Breath Work for somatic awareness, there are many styles of conscious breathing. The gentler approaches best suit everyday needs and taking a breathing break can actually provide more refreshment than one featuring coffee.
“Many people have found that a regular breathing practice has helped them increase energy and decrease anxiety. It is a powerful tool to reset the nervous system when we’re overwhelmed and stressed,” says Somatic Breath Therapy (SBT) practitioner Rachael Walter, owner of Breathe-Here-Now, in Keene, New Hampshire. Like many forms of breathwork, SBT bridges the chasm between mind and body. “Conscious breathing can also help people access and understand their emotions,” notes Walter.
Pranayama, an ancient technique of yoga that focuses on breath control and employs alternate nostril breathing, can be performed while lying down, seated or on the yoga mat. Kundalini yoga teacher Melissa Crowder, owner of 4 States Yoga, in Joplin, Missouri, advises students to start out slowly, three to six minutes a day, and then work up to a longer practice. “Alternate nostril breathing is a great practice for everyone. As little as six minutes of yogic breathing, as needed, can make a profound difference in decreasing pain and stress,” she says.
The American Lung Association recommends a variety of exercises, including diaphragmatic (belly) breathing, for conditions like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Engaging the diaphragm is key in breathing to fullest capacity. Walter explains, “An open, healthy breath is one in which we use the diaphragm to initiate the breath, followed by the belly expanding and the breath moving into the chest.”
Most of us unconsciously fall into shallow and sometimes self-conscious breathing patterns at an early age. “During my training, I read that by age 6, we pick up on cues telling us to tuck in our tummies. This simple, bad habit begins a cascade of physiological responses. Upper chest breathing can create anxiety symptoms and poor digestion,” explains Colleen Breeckner, owner of Colleen Lila Yoga, in New York City. “Diaphragmatic breathing causes the diaphragm to become flat and wide, and in turn, presses upon the stomach and helps to churn the gastric juices. For this reason, it can aid earlier stages of digestion.”
When used in conjunction with other modalities such as cognitive behavioral therapy, diaphragmatic breathing might be beneficial for irritable bowel syndrome.
Breathing Into Feelings
The depth and quality of the breath can help us to become aware of emotional states that include “holding patterns”. “Conscious breathing is a doorway into deep meditation, which can help alleviate anger and insecurities. It can also be helpful in dropping addictions,” says Crowder. “Linking pranayama with physical movement [asanas] helps to release tension and emotions that can be held in the body’s soft tissues.”
Breeckner agrees, “Developing this awareness can help us to move unpleasant and stuck emotions through the body.”
Well-being can be just a breath away, says Walter. “When we open up our breath, we open ourselves to a fuller experience of being human. It has the capacity to bring us into the present moment to access our joy and our life’s purpose.”
Marlaina Donato is an author and a composer.
Noteworthy Breathwork Styles
Clarity Breathwork: Developed from the groundwork of Leonard Orr, with a focus on accessing the subconscious mind for self-awareness
Holotropic Breathwork: Developed by psychiatrist Stanislav Grof, M.D., and his wife Christina and employs deep, rapid breathing to initiate an altered state of consciousness; training in the Grof method is required
Integral Breath Therapy: Gentle technique for an altered state of consciousness that works with the body’s natural healing capacity
Middendorf Breath Work: Named after German-born Ilse Middendorf, a gentle technique that does not include forcing the breath to promote healing
Rebirthing Breathwork: Pioneering and well-known form of breathwork that was
also developed by Orr with a focus on releasing unconscious energy blocks imprinted during the birth process
Shamanic Breathwork: Uses specific breathing methods, chakras or energy centers, music and movement to overcome emotional blocks for deep-level healing
Transformational Breath: Developed by Dr. Judith Kravitz using uninterrupted breathing, Kundalini yoga and other elements of physical and energetic healing; recommended by Dr. Christine Northrup and Dr. Deepak Chopra
Go-to Breathing Exercises
From Rachael Walter:
The Three-Breath Sigh
Place one hand on your lower belly and the other on your chest. Breathing in through your nose, let your breath start in the belly and move up to the chest. Then exhale through your mouth while making an audible sighing sound. Repeat two more times.
The Four-Eight Relaxing Breath
Place one hand on your lower belly and the other on your chest. Using a belly breath, inhale to the count of four and exhale to the count of eight, making your exhale twice as long as your inhale to facilitate relaxation. Feel free to play with how fast or slow you count to find a comfortable breathing pace. Repeat for six to 10 times as needed.
This is an excellent exercise to do while at work, school or a public place to give your nervous system a break, even when the world is crazy-busy around you. Walk at a slightly slower pace than normal and breathe in for one step; breathe out for the next step, counting three or four for each breath/step. Continue as you walk, being mindful of your breath, counting and surroundings.
For further inquiry, Melissa Crowder recommends these Kundalini yoga breaths:
Shabad Kriya for promoting deep restful sleep
Sitali Pranayama for lowering a fever or cooling off a hot temper
Breath of Fire for improved brain circulation, stimulating digestion and weight control
Right nostril breathing for afternoon slumps
Left nostril breathing to quiet mind chatter at bedtime