‘No matter what we eat, how much we exercise, how resilient our genes are, how skinny or young or wise we are – none of it will matter unless we’re breathing correctly. […] The missing pillar in health is breath’ – James Nestor in his book ‘Breath’.
This statement really struck me. I consider myself to have a healthy lifestyle – I do yoga, I run, I walk our dog every day, I have a balanced diet, I don’t drink alcohol and I’ve never smoked. My health matters to me; living a healthy lifestyle is part of who I am. And as a yoga practitioner and teacher, I thought that I was a pretty good breather. But was I?
I started to get curious. Breath awareness and breathing practices are part of yoga and I already knew the benefits of breathing techniques for asthma, blood pressure, stress, anxiety and general wellbeing, but my curiosity was sparked by talk of how breathing techniques could help (and some techniques could also hinder) people recovering from covid and suffering with long covid.
Delving deeper, I learnt that breathing techniques could also help women going through the menopause, migraine sufferers and the list goes on. I realised I had a massive knowledge gap – after over 1000 hours of yoga teacher training, I’d never studied the science behind breathing in depth. I’d never fully appreciated the potential role that healthy breathing habits can have in transforming our health, nor the negative impact that dysfunctional breathing habits can have on our body and mind. I had never focused on my own breathing habits, and I didn’t have a dedicated daily breathing practice. It felt like I was uncovering a missing piece of the puzzle.
So, 40+ hours of training and study later, here I am on my path towards a greater depth of understanding. The practices that I have learnt have impacted me, and my teaching, significantly. How I teach breathing – the language and techniques that I use in my classes – has changed, and I’m committed to there being a minimum of 5 minutes of breathing practice at the end of every class.
Never have I paid so much attention to my own breathing patterns, and I’ve woken up to the importance of having a daily breathing practice. Every night, I now do a minimum of 5 minutes of Coherent Breathing in bed. I wear mouth tape at night and when I run. And throughout the day – whilst sitting at my desk, walking the dog, watching the TV – I am now so much more aware of my breathing habits. I take every opportunity to slow my breathing down and if I catch myself with my mouth open, I close it.
Through the pandemic my sleep had been disrupted and I’d wake up with headaches from clenching my jaw in the night. I’d often feel groggy and I’d have brain fog in the morning, and I felt like I was always tired. I didn’t set out to address these symptoms, but since I started my daily breathing practice and using mouth tape, I feel so much better. I now have so much more energy and I’m sleeping through the night.
Here’s a brief overview of what optimal breathing looks like. This insight comes from the teacher training I have done, and also from James Nestor’s incredible book ‘Breath’. The thing that strikes me is that even if you live a healthy lifestyle, there is still so much to be gained from increased awareness and just 5 minutes of daily practice.
Nasal breathing is far healthier and more efficient than breathing through the mouth, and we can absorb up to 18% more oxygen when we breathe through the nose versus breathing through the mouth. Consistently breathing through the nose makes the airways wider and breathing easier; the more we use the nose, the more the tissues acclimatise. The nose also acts as a filter, whereas with mouth breathing we are exposing ourselves to all the pollutants in the environment. The nose pulls air more deeply into the lungs where there are more blood-rich alveoli for better oxygen uptake.
Nasal breathing also increases nitric oxide by 6 times – nitric oxide is a vasodilator which means it opens up the blood vessels, increasing blood flow and lowering blood pressure, and increasing oxygen delivery to the cells. Nitric oxide is also antiviral, antibacterial and antimicrobial.
James Nestor goes into more detail in his book: ‘When we breathe in through the nose, it heats, cleans, slows and pressurises air so that the lungs can extract more oxygen with each breath. […] One of the many benefits [of nose breathing] is that the sinuses release a huge boost of nitric oxide, a molecule that plays an essential role in increasing circulation and delivering oxygen into cells. Immune function, weight, circulation, mood and sexual function can all be heavily influenced by the amount of nitric oxide in the body’.
Mouth breathing at night can lead to snoring and sleep apnoea. Sleep apnoea is where we stop breathing whilst we are asleep. If this is consistently happening, sleep apnoea can have a big impact on our health as it can result in hypertension, neurological disorders, autoimmune diseases and more. You can read more about this, and what you can do to prevent it, here.
So, whilst you’re going about everyday life – sat at your computer, watching the TV, driving your car or out for a walk – start paying attention to whether you are breathing through your mouth. And if you are, shut it! When exercising this can be more challenging, but it’s something you can build up tolerance to over time.
Fast breathing tends to be shallow and in the upper chest. When we over-breathe in this way, not all of the oxygen that’s available in the air is taken in – the majority of the oxygen that we breathe in, is breathed out again. By taking slow breaths we allow our lungs to take in more oxygen in fewer breaths. Slowing the breath down is therefore much more efficient for the body.
Taking between 12 and 20 breaths per minute is said to be medically normal. According to Patricia Gerbarg and Richard Brown, the most efficient breathing rate has been found to be 5.5 second inhalations and 5.5 second exhalations, which equates to 5.5 breaths per minute. This is known as Coherent Breathing, a practice which, according to James Nestor, ‘puts the heart, lungs and circulation into a state of coherence, where all of the systems of the body are working at peak efficiency’.
Just 5 minutes of conscious daily practice of slowing our breath down to 5, 5.5 or 6 breaths per minute can make a difference to our health.
Rather than thinking ‘deep’ breaths, focus on allowing the belly to gently rise on the inhalation and fall on the exhalation. This will mean the diaphragm is moving properly which results in the air being drawn down into the lower lungs where there are more blood-rich alveoli, increasing oxygen uptake.
The movement of the diaphragm has a significant impact on our heart, blood pressure and circulation. With proper use of the diaphragm there is less stress on the heart as the diaphragm helps the heart to move blood around the body. This is because the movement of the diaphragm powers the thoracic pump – pressure that builds up in the thoracic cavity when we breathe, drawing blood in and pushing blood out of the heart. Therefore, if our diaphragm is not working properly, the heart has to work harder, blood pressure elevates and circulation is reduced.
Another reason why a low breath is favourable is that we have calming receptors in the lower lungs which are stimulated by the movement of the diaphragm when we belly breathe. On the other hand, if we’re breathing in the upper chest, we are alerting alarm receptors at the top of the lungs which can exacerbate feelings of anxiety and panic breathing.
In everyday life, notice where you feel your breath. Is it in the upper chest? Or lower down? As part of your slow breathing practice try to direct your breath down to your lower lungs, so that your belly gently rises and falls.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO LEARN MORE?
If you’d like to start a daily breath practice, you can do this with me via my on-demand class platform and app. I also offer online 1-2-1 breathing tuition where we’ll explore ways in which you can improve your breathing habits and make breathing practices part of your everyday life. I also offer corporate breathing classes and workshops to enhance workplace wellbeing.