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The Principles of Breathwork

We all know the power of our thoughts - our thoughts can create visceral felt-sensations within our body. Close your eyes and picture a bright yellow juicy lemon in your mind’s eye. Now imagine cutting into that lemon, opening it up and smelling the juice as you give it a gentle squeeze. Now lick the lemon! Chances are your tongue will feel a little electric and tingly. Or maybe your salivary glands are activating just at the thought of licking a lemon.


This has just been created with thought alone. I’m sure you’ve experienced those moments where a distant memory of something bad you feel guilty about pops into your head. Your stomach tenses and tightens and you may start to feel sad and ill. The event is gone, but our thoughts can create these real moments of feelings, sensations and emotions.


Let’s brighten it up a bit. Upon closing your eyes, imagine lying on your back in a meadow of soft flowers, and seeing hundreds of tiny puppy sausage dogs (or enter your favorite fluffy cute animal here) running towards you over the hill, finally playfully jumping all over you, cuddling them all over. There’s something heart-opening about this thought and perhaps a smile has come across your face.


In society, we provide plenty of focus on the brain and our mind. Our minds are extremely powerful, giving rise to empires, inventions, medicines and so on. Sometimes the body is forgotten as we divert so much attention to our ‘thinking mind’. From early on, we are thrust into education where the mind is developed above all else. Over time, our ability to attune with our body, a process called proprioception can diminish. Breathwork is a means of re-establishing our body-mind connection and creating more harmony between the two.


To provide a little insight, our nervous system is a two-way communication highway, with approx. 80% of the information coming from our bodies to our brains. If our ability to attune to our body diminishes, the signals of pain, discomfort, disharmony and dis-ease in our body must be loud enough to overcome this muted response.

So, the question is: “If our mind’s thoughts can create such visceral sensations in the body (like with the lemon), then can our body feelings and sensations create our thoughts?” And,the answer is a definite Yes! Just most of us are not attuned to the source of our thoughts, and that is the foundation of mindfulness.


One of the many core principles of Yoga is to condition the body and prepare it for meditation. If we are stiff, sore, and always sitting on the computer and we sit down to meditate, our body will be sending signals to our brain, and our thoughts will inevitably turn to frustration, resentment and misery.


Another example that you may recall is when you have felt very sick, especially with fever or stomach bug. Sometimes the thought arrives “Oh I’m dying!” Or “Poor me!”. Unfortunately, it is of note that people experience significant physical trauma with a long recovery time or resultant chronic pain have a danger of suffering depression—there is a clear two-way association between pain and depression.


Touching back on our previous blog: “The Science of Breathwork”, will reveal that when stress enters our body, our sympathetic nervous system will activate to overcome any perceived challenge or danger. This is a natural process to move us out of sleep, to get us moving in the gym, or to handle emotional, physical and mental challenges or stress throughout the day. However, we must be aware that as this activation increases, our muscles tense and our breath changes from slow, rhythmic and deep breaths to more a shallower, potentially chest-focused breath, amongst other changes.


This activation of muscles can create posture imbalances, eventual muscle imbalances and disruption of proper muscular-skeletal movement. Stress-induced tension also affects fascial sheets which can also restrict movement, function and movement of organs and impinge upon nerves running through our body.


“If breathing is not normalized, no other movement pattern can be.”

Frank et al and Chaitow suggest that abnormal stabilization patterns are associated with breathing pattern disorders and should be the starting point for all orthopedicevaluations.

One of the reasons why Pranayama is such a big focus within Yoga is that Pranayama and breathing practices allow harmony in the nervous system to be restored rapidly, as well as prepare for the more subtle demands of meditation.


Essentially, we want to optimize the breath in all situations so it’s in harmonic balance between the inhale and the exhale. Science has shown that inhale signals a sympathetic activation (our gas/accelerator pedal) whereas a relaxed exhale signals a parasympathetic activation (rest and digest; our brake pedal).


I like to think of the Yin-Yang symbol as a way of representing a breath in harmony. With the yang, white, representing a vibrant inhale bringing energy into our bodies, and the yin, black, representing the equal and opposing force of a relaxed exhale. If we can maintain a balance between the two, we achieve equilibrium within that state of being—whether that be running a marathon, or enjoying a good book—we can maintain awareness and make conscious adjustments to our breath accordingly.


For instance, if we are feeling sluggish in the mornings, we can induce more sympathetic activation via an energy-activating pranayama such as Breath of Fire or Khapalbati Pranayama. This will push our natural accelerator pedal down a bit so we can start the day with energy and focus rather than relying on coffee or energy drinks to do the same.


If we are hit with another deadline and feel our heart rate increase, our hands get sweaty and start feeling overwhelmed, we can introduce a calming breathing pattern like Box Breathing to introduce a more calm, relaxed breath which will signal the body to slow down sympathetic activation and come back to rest and digest.


Therefore, we can utilize breathwork as a first-line barometer to scan for changes in our nervous system and restore balance according to our desired activity.


Below, you’ll find active, conscious breathing techniques that promote more sympathetic, parasympathetic or achieving equilibrium within the breath.


DISCLAIMER:

Any breathing exercise is a powerful process, and not one technique will be right for everyone. It’s important to take things slow, to see how your body reacts.


Imagine breathwork like strength training. We leave our ego at the door, and we go 5-10% more every 2-4 weeks. If we try and outdo ourselves, then we may cause more harm than good by introducing a pattern of overperforming or putting too much stress on our nervous system, eventually all leading to eventual exhaustion.


Before starting any breathwork practice, we recommend any breather to have a look at the blog: Establishing Breath Fundamentals to establish the core foundations of a healthy breath before continuing onto any breathwork or pranayama. Knowing how to optimally breathe is essential and unfortunately without this knowledge, breathwork can become a challenge and set up maladaptive breathing patterns that can be counter-productive to your intentions in the short- and long-term.

 

Parasympathetic Activating Breathwork

Box Breathing

The Box Breath is so-called as the breath represents a box of equal sides. We breathe in, hold the inhale, breathe out, and hold the exhale all to the same count.


How to Box Breathe

It is recommended you sit upright or lie down on your back, with one hand on your chest and one hand on your stomach.  If you are sitting, make sure your back is supported and your feet are on the ground.  We are going to start with a count of 4 seconds.


1.​ Put your hand on your belly to help you direct the breath into the belly and lower lungs first

2.​ Breathe in counting to four slowly. Feel the air enter your lungs, into your belly and up into your chest

3.​ Hold your breath for 4 seconds, softly. Softly meaning you are comfortably holding the breath without straining

4.​ Slowly exhale through your mouth for 4 seconds

5.​Hold your breath for 4 seconds, softly

6.​Repeat steps 2 to 5, for at least 4-7 times

 

It is recommended to start at 4 seconds, but if you are struggling or straining at any point, decrease by a second to 3, or even 2 seconds per step. It is an effective practice, and so it is recommended to only increase the count very slowly.

 

Nadi Shodhana

Nadi Shodhana, or “alternate nostril breathing,” is simple and powerful technique to balance the nervous system, body, mindand spirit.  There is a lot of information on the internet regarding this practice—the best thing you can do is to do it a few times and feel the effects for yourself


How to Perform Nadi Shodhana

  • Take a comfortable seat, making sure your spine is straight

  • Bring your right hand to your face, with index, middle finger resting between your eyebrows as an anchor. The thumb and ring finger is used to articulate the nostrils open and closed. The left hand is placed comfortably in your lap

  • Close your right nostril with your thumb.  Inhale through the left nostril slowly and steadily

  • Close the left nostril with your ring finger so both nostrils are held closed; retain your breath at the top of the inhale for a brief pause

  • Open your right nostril and release the breath slowly through the right side; pause briefly at the bottom of the exhale

  • Inhale through the right side slowly

  • Hold both nostrils closed (with ring finger and thumb)

  • Open your left nostril and release breath slowly through the left side. Pause briefly at the bottom


Repeat 5-10 cycles, allowing your mind to follow your inhales and exhales.

Steps 3-8 represent one complete cycle of alternate nostril breathing. If you’re moving through the sequence slowly, one cycle should take you about 30-40 seconds.

 

Bhramari Pranayama

The Bhramari Pranayama is deeply relaxing and can be used to regulate activated stressed states, or before sleep.


If you also find it hard to meditate, this pranayama can be used to help reach a meditative state or in-place of meditation whilst you build up your tolerance to meditation.


  • Find a comfortable seated position.

  • Close your eyes, or half-close and relax the face and jaw

  • Gently press your pointer fingers on the cartilage of your ears just below your cheek bones, blocking out any external sound. Or you can use the Shanmukhi mudra as shown in image.

  • Keeping your ears blocked, take a deep breath in through your nose and exhale through your nose. On your exhale, make a humming or buzzing sound.

  • You should feel a deep vibration within the sinus/throat/nose area

  • Continue for at least 6 cycles of breath, or as long as you like.

 

After completing Bhramari breathing, take a few moments to sit in silence and allow yourself to breathe naturally.



The 4-7-8 Breath

The 4-7-8 breathing technique is a breathing pattern developed by Dr. Andrew Weil and is a proven method used by therapists and breathwork practitioners to induce a relaxed state of being. How this occurs is by bringing our mind’s focus on our breathing, thus disengaging with current life stresses, providing a reprieve of peace and silence. On a physiological level, short retentions and extended exhales increase the blood concentration of carbon dioxide which is a powerful vasodilator and is important in triggering the body’s relaxation response.

How to perform the 4-7-8 breathing technique

Find a comfortable seated position, or if you are using the practice to fall asleep, prepare yourself in bed.

Exhale through the mouth, making a slow whooshing sound through pursed lips

Inhale slowly through the nose to a count of 4

Gently hold your breath for 7 counts

Exhale again through the mouth, for a count of 8, making the whooshing sound

Repeat 4-7 times

You can extend the times whilst maintaining a ratio of 4-7-8. For best results with any breath practice, repeat daily. Do not practice this in a situation where you will have to be active and alert immediately after the breathing technique.

Sympathetic Activating Breathing Techniques

Disclaimer: Before moving onto activating techniques, we recommend establishing proficiency in the relaxing techniques. Most people in western society are already stressed and are goal-orientated toward achieving more, thus, most people would benefit from expanding their skills in relaxing breathwork before moving onto the practices below.


Kapalbhati Pranayama (Breath of Fire)

How to do Breath of Fire:

Start in seated position with hands on your knees. Use a bolster under your bottom for comfort if you have tight hips or need elevation to sit comfortably

Breathe in and out of your nose. The exhale is active, sharp and rapid, whereas the inhale is passive, allowing the breath to flow back into you

With every exhale, contract your belly button towards your spine to push the air out. With every inhale, allow your belly button to drop back into a relaxed position

Continue this for as long as feels comfortable. If you need a rest, slow down the breath and take a few long inhalations and exhalations. When you feel ready, resume the Breath of Fire breathing practice again

To end, finish with a long exhale, suspend the breath, and pump the diaphragm and abdomen (i.e. your stomach continues to pulse in and out). Hold for 10 seconds and breathe in with a controlled manner. Once you become used to it, you can start increasing the duration of the hold.

Please be careful. As you start increasing, make sure you have a safe place to land backward in case you faint. When you are beginning to feel the tightness of breath, breathe in with a controlled manner, and hold for 10 seconds before letting go.

 

Ocean Breath

The Ocean Breath is simple, yet amazing to utilize at any point in the day. It can be very calming, yet simultaneously energizing and promotes focus. This is modified to better suit the optimal resonance breath of 6 breaths per minute. To perform the Ocean Breath:

1. simply breathe in slowly, nice, and gently through the nose into the belly to a count of 8, allowing the ribcage to expand comfortably

2. then, with only a slightest pause, relax the exhale through the nose, allowing it to fall out at any speed it wishes, without restriction or pushing it out

3. bring in the next breath as soon as you’re empty, with only a slight pause

4. Repeat for at least 3 minutes, or turn it into a 10-15 minute meditation.

If you have your eyes closed, imagine the breath sounding like the waves breaking on the shore, with a slow build-up and then an effortless break of the breath on the shore.

20 Conscious Connected Breaths

This is an advanced practice shared by Dan Brule that is only recommended once you are comfortable with all the techniques listed above. This is a simple practice to really build energy into the body quicky, to purify and clear stagnant energy in the body.  The effect of this breath is immediate and powerful, so please be careful—do it laying down, or sitting in a position surrounded by cushions where you can land softly in case you feel dizzy or faint.

For this practice, breathe in and out through the nose with an easy inhale (aim for your inhale to be like a satisfying, easy sigh) and a relaxed exhale. During inhalation, only the diaphragm and ribs should really activate during the breath—let everything else be relaxed. The exhalation is to be completely relaxed.

1. Sit in a comfortable upright position, or lay down on a soft mattress or yoga mat, preferably with little cushion under the head to keep the throat open

2. The sequence of breathing is a total of 20 breaths, with every 5th breath being an extra deep breath. The speed is whatever feels comfortable at the beginning. Over time, you can play around with the speed, ensuring you maintain a vibrant inhale and relaxed exhale

3. At the end, breathe out and hold the exhale for 30 seconds (you can extend this progressively but lie down if you do this)

4. Return to normal breathing for a moment until you feel your breathing stabilize

5. Repeat 3x

For advanced breathwork practitioners, you can change from breathing in and out through the nose, to breathing through the mouth.

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