The Benefits of Breathwork
By Alex Tan | Straight Bamboo TCM Clinic
To breathe is to live. We can survive for weeks without food, for days without water, but only minutes without breath. Breathing is a master key to the self-healing.
When we learn about respiration in Western health sciences, we are informed about the anatomy and physiology of the respiratory system along with the most common diseases of the respiratory system. But little is discussed about the dynamics or methods of breathing well to maximise the efficiency of these systems. Ancient Eastern medicine however, provides detailed and practical advice regarding breathwork, with exercises and methods for improving and maintaining health via proper respiration. In the Orient, breathing is regarded both as a science and an art. China has Qi Gong and India has Pranayama, and each acknowledges that the nutrition – both physical and spiritual – provided by air through breathing is even more vital to health and longevity than that provided by food and water through digestion.
The benefits of breathwork include: centering the mind, being more efficient at work, dealing more positively with life’s challenges – and the best part is that it is easy to do, requires very little time and no equipment. Regular practice for just a few minutes a day will create real changes in energy levels, sleep patterns and circulation. Out of all the spiritual practices I know, breath-work is the easiest, least time consuming and most rewarding. This is truly a low-tech, low-cost method to higher states of health and wellness that we can all do and experience ourselves.
As you read through this article, we will explore the following ideas, both historical and modern, in regards to breathing and breath-work:
- Breathing as the link between the conscious and unconscious mind
- Breath as the doorway to control of the autonomic nervous system
- Breath as a technique to regulate anxiety and control mental states
- The movement of Spirit in the body through the breath
- The science of breathing in China
- Practice tips
- Interesting points
Breathing as the link between the conscious and unconscious mind
Breathing is the only vital function of the body that straddles the border of voluntary and involuntary control. Left unattended, breathing occurs as spontaneously and naturally as heartbeat. When controlled by mind, breathing becomes as deliberate as walking and can be made to regulate many other major functions, including pulse, blood pressure, digestion metabolism and more. The respiratory system has both voluntary (sympathetic) nerves and muscles and involuntary (parasympathetic) nerves and muscles. Breath is considered the only voluntary function in the body that can influence the involuntary nervous system. Breath forms the bridging connection between mind and body.
Breath as the doorway to control of the autonomic nervous system
Imbalances of the involuntary nervous system underlie many common disorders. Let’s explore this idea further.
There are two parts to the autonomic nervous system:
1. Sympathetic – commonly known as ‘fight or flight’ – for emergency situations, it injects adrenaline into the bloodstream, speeds up heart rate, increases blood pressure, slows digestion, diverts blood flow away from the digestive organs and into the brain and major muscles of the limbs. Immediately non-essential functions like digestion and peripheral circulation are shut down. This makes complete sense as in an emergency blood flow to brain is most crucial, along with the major muscles for fighting the attacker or running away. Blood flow to the extremities (hands and feet) is restricted, both to reserve the blood for the major muscles and to reduce bleeding if an injury occurred as a result of the incident. You can see how in the short-term this is useful for survival, but also how long-term stress can cause digestive and circulatory problems.
2. Parasympathetic – commonly known as housekeeping – is the body’s antidote to stress. It has exactly the opposite effect, bringing into play the body’s ability to unwind, relax and return to equilibrium. The peripheral circulation and digestion are returned to functioning smoothly and the self-healing capabilities of the body are running at full capacity.
Normally these two systems are in balance, but modern lifestyles have tended to create a situation where we are held in the sympathetic, fight-or-flight, mode for much longer periods of time. It is as if the body is reacting to an external threat that it perceives is never going away, which leads to an imbalance in nervous system function. This is often referred to as ‘over sympathetic tone’ and it is used as a formal diagnosis in Japan. Let me say here that stress is not a new problem, human life is about stress and we need to explore ways to neutralize and manage it in order for our body to achieve optimum health. It may simply be that shallow breathing combined with much longer periods of mental activity in the average day, where more oxygen is being consumed by the brain, is the cause of this imbalance. Stress, or imbalanced mental activity can be considered an aggravating factor in all imbalance and disease, while relaxation benefits the body’s ability to self-heal.
Many of the common health problems in society involve the nervous system imbalance at their root: high blood pressure, heart problems, poor digestion, anxiety, imbalanced mental states and the whole host of growing autoimmune disorders. For this reason, we need to understand the benefits of breath work more holistically. Think about it like this: anywhere where we have nerves (ie the whole body) is connected in to the main grid of the nervous system – and we can use breathwork to influence nervous system function, therefore we can use breathwork to affect all parts of the body and its function.
Western medicine usually deals with conditions of the nervous system by blocking the undesirable functions of the nervous system using pharmacological suppression. This type of intervention can be necessary in severe conditions or emergency situations that require immediate effects, however, using these methods long-term have many complications.
Breathwork, however, is a positive intervention – it is free, non-toxic, requires no equipment and is literally right under our nose. Relaxed breathing increases parasympathetic tone over time. Results are slower and non-toxic, are long lasting and are generally better over time. The key to this type of positive intervention is regularity and a degree of self-responsibility. Attempting to change rhythms in your nervous system requires consistency of input and is going to produce positive changes over a longer time-scale than western pharmaceutical intervention.
Breath as a technique to regulate anxiety and control mental states
The goal of breathwork is to make the breath deeper, slower, quieter and more regular over time. It is interesting to observe that if we are angry, afraid or upset we will experience the exact opposite; rapid, shallow irregular and noisy breathing patterns. An emotion is a physical response to a thought or feeling. We can all appreciate the difficulties of changing an emotional response, however by taking control of your breath we can positively influence the response. In other words, we can’t stop the flow of events and potential stresses that life brings with it, but we can change how we respond to the things that happen to us. By becoming more aware of the breath we effectively put the consciousness in neutral allowing our physical selves to support the most appropriate emotional response. Conscious breath-work can center the mind and positively help you deal with the challenges that life throws your way.
The movement of spirit in the body through the breath
Breathing spans the continents of mind and body. In many languages of the world, the word breath is the same word for spirit. For example: in Sanskrit – prana; Hebrew – ruach; Greek – numa; Latin – spiritis. In English we also have the linguistic link between breath and spirit in the words: ‘respiration’ – to exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen inside the lung cells, ‘refreshing the spirit’ as it were; ‘inspiration’ – to inhale or draw inwards, applicable to both air and ideas; ‘expiration’ – to breathe the last breath, and ‘conspiracy’, breathing together.
Rhythmic expansion and contraction connects us to all other living things. Alternation of positive and negative phases is the essence of all creation – day and night, cycles of the moon, tides, seasons, atoms oscillating and even the expansion and contraction of stars. The essence of breath is what connects us with everything around us. It can be considered the spiritual pivot of our existence, the non-physical essence. In many cultures, life begins with the first breath and ends with last. Spirit enters with the breath. In Islamic beliefs Allah allots a fixed number of breaths to each person before birth. The more we turn our attention to the non-physical world using breathwork, the more we raise spiritual awareness.
The Science of Breathing – China
Qi Gong (pronounced chee gong) means both ‘breathing exercise’ and ‘energy control’. Qi is a Chinese word, which has no direct English translation, but it roughly equates with the concept of ‘energy’ in the New Physics sense of the word. The Chinese word Gong translates as ‘work’ or ‘discipline’ or something that takes your full attention – so Qi Gong is a form of attentive ‘Qi work’. Qi Gong has been a formal branch of Chinese medicine for over 2000 years. Qi Gong and related disciplines of Tai Qi Chuan, acupressure and acupuncture are all Daoist arts designed to cultivate and balance energy enhancing physical health and mental control.
Daoist philosophy is rooted in the observation of nature. It is believed Daoist breathing techniques were adopted from observation of animals and newborn babies. Watch a dog or a cat breathe while resting, and you will notice that their abdomens, not their chests, expand and contract rhythmically. The longer they remain at rest, the slower and deeper these abdominal contractions become. The Taoists realised from similar observations how natural and fundamental to health abdominal breathing is and created exercises to use in everyday life.
What distinguishes shallow breathing from deep abdominal or belly breathing is the role played by the diaphragm. The diaphragm is a resilient yet flexible muscular membrane that horizontally separates the chest from the abdominal cavity. When the lungs expand they push the diaphragm downward, when the lungs contract they push the diaphragm up into the chest cavity.
Chest breathing employs the intercostal muscles between the ribs to forcibly expand the upper rib cage, thereby lowering air pressure in the chest so that air enters by suction. However, this leaves the lower lungs, which contain by far the greatest surface area, immobilized. Consequently, one must take about three times as many chest breaths in order to get the same quantity of air into the lungs as provided by a single abdominal breath.
Shallow breathing occurs commonly when anxiety or stress strikes and it follows that those who habitually breathe this way become prone to chronic anxiety. Next time you feel anxious or up-tight, you can easily prove the connection between anxiety and shallow breathing simply by observing your breathing patterns. When you realise you’ve become stressed and notice your breath has become tight and shallow, pause for a moment and then consciously expel the air from your lungs, all the way out, compressing your belly muscles long and slow. It should feel like you are giving yourself a hug with the muscles of your torso. Next, release the pressure and allow the air to refill your lungs effortlessly. Repeat this for a few breath cycles, noticing each time how the breath drops lower into your abdomen. Immediately you’ll notice your sense of anxiety reduces.
- Get into a comfortable position – standing or sitting is best, but you can lie down if you are very tired or weak – the main thing is that your back is straight. Feel the back of the neck long and the top of your head being pulled upwards through the crown. The skeletal system should be held in proper position and the muscular system should be relaxed. Visualize the muscular system like a coat hanging off the skeletal system that is the coat hanger.
- To begin: put your mind into a neutral place and initially just observe your breath. Become aware of the patterns your breath has absorbed from the day’s events. Perhaps you have been stressed and have been breathing shallowly; or perhaps you are already feeling relaxed and breathing easily, ready to deepen your meditation. Notice how the breath cycle does not start or end; it is a continuous cycle that forms one of the great mysteries of life.
- Focus on exhalation not inhalation. Exhalation has far more control, the muscles are more powerful that control exhalation and the key to deeper, slower breathing lies in mastering exhalation. If you consciously compress the air out of your lungs, the in-breath will happen naturally without any effort.
- When breathing your belly should move outwards which is referred to as abdominal breathing. Many of us don’t let the abdomen expand when we breathe so ensure that you practice letting the belly move outwards.
- Timing is also important. The best hours to practice breathing are between 5am and 7am (metal phase), after waking up and before breakfast. However practice anytime of the day will have positive results, the key is regularity. It is advised not practice within the first hour after a meal and avoid all cold drinks for at least 20-30 minutes after a session. The other benefit of practicing early in the morning is that it refreshes the system for the day ahead along with the psychological benefits of completing the daily exercise regime before giving it a chance to weigh upon the mind.
- Regularity is the key to all these positive interventions. We need to recognize the superior results of small, repetitive inputs rather than large irregular bouts.
- Keep lips closed but don’t clench teeth. Tongue should be kept firmly pressed against upper palate, behind the upper teeth, throughout the exercises.
- In cold and/or dry climates, adepts should always exhale through the nose in order to replenish the heat and moisture borrowed from the turbinates during inhalation with heat and moisture from the lungs. In hot, humid climates, mouth exhalation is often preferable as a method to expel excess heat from the body.
- Whenever possible, practice outdoors, preferably barefoot. Avoid exposure to cold breezes. Practice near abundant vegetation is very beneficial because plants enrich the air with oxygen and exude their own variety of Qi.
- Prior to practice, remove all jewelry, watches and glasses, and loosen belts and collars. Avoid any constrictions against the surface of the body, especially the waist and try to avoid synthetic materials that might insulate you from the earth’s magnetic fields.
- The nose is the only organ in the entire body to other than the sexual organs and breasts that contains erectile tissue. This nasal tissue expands and contracts during the cycles of the day to control the opening and closing of the left and right nasal passages in a way we don’t yet fully understand.
- Daoists measure life span not by counting birthdays but by counting breaths and heartbeats: every breath and heartbeat saved now prolongs life later.
- Each lung contains some 1.5 billion air sacs called alveoli. If the lining of the alveoli could be stretched out flat, it would cover a tennis court.
- The interesting thing about stronger breathing exercises is that when you are finished, you feel the pores open, a slight sweat, the circulation has increased but the body is not out of breath. This is a unique type of exercise where the body is not short of oxygen. That is one reason the ancients believed breathing exercises to be so closely linked to longevity.
- It takes about 150% more effort to breath through the nose than through the mouth, but this has some very important functions in inhalation including; filtering, warming and moistening air for the delicate linings of the lung.
- The Chinese believe that each plant/tree exudes it’s own Qi. If you visit the temples and palaces in China you will see they consider ancient pines as the best for the practice of Qi gong and health cultivation.
- Studies in China show that most beginners in deep breathing exercises increase the stretch of their diaphragms by an average 4mm after only six-twelve months of practice, which means that in less than a year they increase lung capacity by 1000-1200ml.
- The goal of breath-work is to create a respiratory system that is working more efficiently. The breath should become deeper, slower, quieter and more rhythmic over time.
- People who regularly practice abdominal breathing have excellent circulation and lung function, their speech is unhurried and they breathe naturally. Their voice is firm and naturally commands attention.
- At the core of the entire breathing process lies the mind. The mind is a slippery little fish with a very short attention span and a strong tendency for drifting aimlessly in thought and fantasy. Chinese Daoists call it a ‘playful monkey’ and Indian yogis compare it to a ‘wild horse’ that refuses to be tethered. If the mind is absent during breathing exercise, energy has no commander and strays about aimlessly, scattering and leaking instead of gathering and circulating. Try focusing on your breath or the lower abdomen.
- Think about the word for breathing in Chinese, huxi – ‘hu’ means exhale and ‘xi’ means inhale. Exhale is first and considered more important and it is useful to conceptualize the beginning of the breath cycle with exhalation, ending with inhalation
- If we identify the links between breath and spirit and use breathwork to gain access to higher states of spiritual awareness, then if you do a second more of breathwork today than you did yesterday you will have made spiritual progress.
- In many of the ancient Indian texts there are warnings about the dangers about working with breath without a guru as breathwork has the potential to unleash powerful forces in the body. The Chinese also have writings about the dangers of Qi gong psychosis. There is something in this but we are advocating here a very gentle technique that is very safe and has been used by thousands of people without negative effect.
- In principle breathing is a science, but in practice it is an art.
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Kohn L. 2005. Health and Long Life – The Chinese Way. Three Pines Press. Cambridge, Mass.
Reid D. 1989. The Dao of Health, Sex & Longevity. Simon & Schuster. Sydney
Weil Dr A. Audio book. Breathing – Master Key to Self-healing. Sounds True.