You could say that our earlier practices hail from places such as Yoga, Qi Gong and Many of the martial arts. These work in general on an energetic and a mental level.
More recently there are all sorts of breath techniques that focus on all manner of things from deep psychological work such as holotropic breathing through to the currently popular Wim Hof method.
My personal practise and exploration began with yoga pranayama (breathing and energy practices) over twenty years ago but since then I have broadened it to include as many disciplines as I can find to explore. I have looked at a huge range of techniques including amongst others, Buteyko technique and Systema (both originating in Russia with a focus on optimising mental and physical health); freediving dry training (to dive without air tanks); hypoxic training (reduced oxygen) as well as the breathwork essence of many martial arts and ‘systems’ such as Taoism.
I bring what i feel are the most effective tools of all of my research together in what i call Functional Breathwork. The general theme of Functional Breathwork is to breathe with ease, without tension and with awareness. Once we develop awareness of WHAT our breath is doing on a moment to moment basis, we can then work on WHY we breathe as we do and finally HOW we can work from this informed position to make it more functional to us as individuals whether that be to help with anxiety, work with posture or physical symptoms or to develop optimal athletic performance.
CONDITIONS & PROBLEMS BREATHWORK CAN HELP WITH AND HOW
The breath is our interface between the mind and body, it is affected by and in turn can affect both the physical body and our mental state.
Understanding the breath on a physical level, in other words, how to breath most efficiently and effectively, can allow us to work with conditions of the body ranging from optimum physical performance through to poor posture.
Likewise with the mind, the breath is very closely connected to our autonomic nervous system (which controls our involuntary processes such as digestion). Factors such as our breathing volume, rate and the muscles that we are using to breathe send a constant stream of information to the brain about our current environment. Our brain interprets this and makes an informed judgement about whether we should be ready for action (fight or flight) or chilling and relaxing (rest and digest).
By understanding the breath and how we can modify our breathing patterns we are able to influence what state of the autonomic nervous system is dominant, or we can balance them out.
WHAT SIGNS & SYMPTOMS CAN WE SPOT THAT SHOW WE AREN’T BREATHING ‘RIGHT’?
It seems sad to say that we are breathing wrong, essentially it is keeping us alive so it is ‘functioning’ but maybe not actually ‘functional’. In truth we have forgotten how to breath efficiently and effectively and that is down to factors that are a mainly a result of modern living, for example the abundance of sitting in chairs – in cars, hunched over at tables, computers, watching tv, looking at mobile phones with our chins projecting forward- all of these constrict and restrict our ability to breathe freely.
Modern day mental stress with no obvious solution to the intangible problems of our world cause most people to hyperventilate chronically. They breathe too shallow, too rapidly and in the upper chest. We often notice a lot of upper chest movement with involvement of the neck and shoulder muscles.
This is not a very efficient way to breathe when at rest, it uses a huge amount of energy for little payback, taking air only into the uppermost part of the lungs which are not the best areas for gas exchange.
BREATHING EXERCISES FOR…
To encourage a state conducive to sleep we would generally want to move ourselves into the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest). The simplest way to calm the mind is by working on developing a slower exhalation with a natural pause at the end of that exhalation. I often talk about allowing the breath to trickle away on the exhale, with no effort and then pausing it momentarily until the inhalation occurs naturally and exactly when it needs to. Follow every step of the breath with your attention, allow your body to be totally soft and relaxed and before you know it you’ll be ‘out like a light’.
- CALMING ANXIETY
We cant really stop anxiety any more than we can stop ourselves thinking, however we can totally alter our relationship to it through mindful breath work.
This could in essence be similar to that for sleep, in that we want to calm and soothe the nervous system, not agitate and excite it -the mind is already busy enough when we are anxious!!
We would also want to look at slowing down the respiration rate – the number of breaths we take per minute has a significant impact on our mental state. When we are rapidly breathing, we tend to be rapidly thinking too!
It would help to make sure that we are breathing with a focus on the diaphragm driving the movement of the breath; this means that we should focus on softening the belly and allowing it to move in and out slightly. At the same time we should see only a little movement in the ribcage laterally (expanding) and none whatsoever in the upper chest (moving up and down).
In the case of motivation it would imply that you wanted to raise your mental and physical energy levels to feel inspired and energised. For this I would firstly makes sure that you are breathing physically with efficiency, driving the breath with the belly to bring oxygen deep down into the lower part of the lungs. We might then look at levelling the mind by working on a pattern of mindful ‘square breathing’ – with equal length inhale, exhale and pauses in between the two.
You might also want to explore the opposite of ‘sleep time breath’ (where we lengthened the exhale). To increase energy and alertness we might lengthen the inhale slightly with a pause at the top of the in breath, followed by a natural exhalation without significant pause at its end.
These are just some possible solutions, of course a lot of the work is down to the individual if individual with a good instructor that can help identify what works best for them.