We’ve all experienced days where nothing seemed to go in our favor: the house keys couldn’t be found, coffee spilled on our shirt, and the car had a flat tire — all before 9 a.m. Whatever the situation, conventional wisdom has long encouraged us to “take a breath” during these moments of stress and overwhelm.
For those unfamiliar with the practice of breathwork, this may seem like overly simplistic advice. Given that breathing is a fully automated physiological process, it isn’t something that most people put a lot of thought into, particularly in Western culture. However, a growing body of scientific research is verifying that controlled, mindful breathing delivers myriad benefits for both body and mind.
Read on to learn about the importance of breathwork and how to incorporate it into your everyday rhythms.
What Is Breathwork?
Whether you choose to call it slow breathing, breath control, mindful breathing, paced breathing, or breathwork, the practice involves deliberately controlling your breathing, often by counting the length of your inhalations and exhalations, for the purpose of changing your physical, mental, and emotional state.
According to Scientific American, when we’re feeling calm and safe, our breathing slows down and deepens. Slow and deep breathing increases the activity of the vagus nerve, which is part of the body’s parasympathetic nervous system. UCLA Health explains that diaphragmatic breathing — when the diaphragm contracts while inhaling and relaxes while exhaling — “stimulates the vagus nerve and activates the relaxation response of the parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system.” This in turn positively benefits the body in numerous ways, including reducing anxiety, depression, constipation, and enhancing digestion and motility.
In contrast, when we’re scared, tense, or in pain, our breathing speeds up and becomes shallow — the latter being a function of the body’s sympathetic nervous system, which is activated by stress. Panic attacks, for instance, often involve hyperventilation, which can perpetuate a vicious cycle, physiologically speaking: fear causes us to breathe faster, and rapid, shallow breathing can further increase fear.
The Benefits of Breathwork
The right breathing exercises, according to Harvard Business Review, can help us learn to calm our physiological responses to stress and equip us to better handle anxiety and manage negative emotions.
Breathwork involves both neurobiological and psychological mechanisms. As noted above, slow and deep breathing stimulate the vagus nerve, which calms the body. Heart rate slows, blood pressure decreases, and muscles become relaxed. Some research, Scientific American reports, suggests that breathwork may even have effects on the central nervous system, and possibly upon the brain itself.
These changes in the body, in turn, increase one’s sense of calm and well-being.
A study run by HBR’s research team at Yale placed participants randomly in one of three programs: one involving breathwork, the second involving a meditation technique, and the third involving techniques to improve emotional awareness and regulation. The study determined that those who undertook the breathwork practice “experienced the greatest mental health, social connectedness, positive emotions, stress levels, depression, and mindfulness benefits.”
Starting a Breathwork Practice
There are a number of free resources available that can introduce you to various breathing techniques.
Free YouTube tutorials, like the one-minute breathing exercises below, and are a great way to be guided through various techniques until you find one (or more) that resonates with you
Smartphone and tablet apps like Calm and Headspace offer users breathing exercises along with other techniques, including guided meditations, sleep stories, and other tools for relaxation. There are also many apps devoted exclusively to breathwork, such as Breathwrk, iBreathe, Breathing Zone, and more. Many of these apps have free versions along with upgraded subscription versions. Should you decide to embark upon a consistent breathwork practice, apps are a great way to lend structure to your efforts.
As Western science continues to deepen its understanding of how and why breathwork is so good for us, the fact that a mindful breathing practice can be undertaken by anyone, anywhere, for free, makes this an invaluable tool in anyone’s self-care toolbox.