The Transformative Power of Breathwork

The Transformative Power of Breathwork


Feeling overwhelmed by the daily grind? It's time to breathe deep and transform stress into serenity. Breathwork isn't just ancient wisdom; it's your secret weapon against the modern world's chaos. Breathwork is any type of intentional and controlled breathing exercise. It can be as simple as taking a deep breath after a stressful meeting. It’s one of the most accessible and inclusive wellness tools available and can benefit mind, body and spirit, making it truly a facilitator of whole-body health.

Most of us may not be intimately acquainted with the intricate network of nerves interwoven throughout our body. They facilitate the constant communication between brain and body including your “fight or flight” stress response. In the hustle of modern life, our bodies often linger in a state of constant alert, our stress response triggered by everything from work pressures to digital overload. This primal reaction manifests through those familiar feelings of stress, with physical hallmarks including a racing heart rate, rapid breathing, sweaty palms, flushed skin, digestive disruption and blood sugar spikes. These responses are all designed to prime you for your fight, flight or flee for survival in the face of perceived danger.

The stress response is coordinated by your sympathetic nervous system (SNS), as an evolutionary mechanism that primes you to react when danger strikes. It's part of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), the arm of your nervous system that takes care of you automatically, without conscious thought. The ANS has been keeping us humans alive since the dawn of time. However, when the SNS arm is triggered too frequently or remains activated for prolonged periods, it begins to take a heavy toll on our physical and psychological well-being.

In our modern world, the SNS is often activated by stressors of a less immediate nature. Pressures of work and relationships to financial worries or the constant barrage of information and expectations facilitated by digital connectivity. Each triggering our SNS, flooding our bodies with stress hormones which, over time, can lead to a myriad of physical and mental health issues.



Breathwork as a beacon of hope

Understanding the fight or flight response and recognising its signs is the first step toward mitigating its potential impact on our health.

By recognising how the physical signs of stress manifest in your body (e.g., increased heart rate, rapid breathing, butterflies in the tummy or muscle tension), known as interoception, we can begin to understand our body's reactions to stress.

Interoception is physiological listening. It involves noticing the internal state of the body, giving us direct insight into the physical sensations that accompany our mental state. This can help us access our thoughts, emotions and the deeper aspects of our consciousness. Ultimately, enabling a better understanding of how we experience stress, opening the door to move through the response and close the stress loop. 

In practical terms, many practices like yoga or meditation can, over time, help us pay close attention to bodily sensations. Here, the ancient practice of breathwork stands out for its accessibility and simplicity as a tool to navigate the stresses of modern life. Unlike yoga or meditation, which may require specific postures, environments, or extended periods of practice to feel their benefits, breathwork can be practised almost anywhere and by anyone. 

The breath is a bridge between our conscious and unconscious, voluntary and involuntary. It flows seamlessly through our lives governed by our subconscious, yet at a moment's notice, we can seize its reins and take conscious control. This offers a direct pathway between body and mind and a tool to allow us to transition from a state of tension to one of relaxation. By consciously controlling our breath, we can take back control, switch off the stress response and signal safety to our body and brain. This allows us to re-engage with our body's natural state of calm. 



The lungs as a sensing system

While you might just think your lungs are the passageway to sift air in and out they are also peppered with neural intelligence courtesy of your vagus nerve. This means your lungs are a sensory organ, with the potential to influence the nervous system. The vagus nerve is in charge of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), the counterbalance to the SNS. 20% of vagus nerve signalling from the body to the brain is dedicated to the lungs alone. This means breathwork offers a huge opportunity for us to intervene in the stress response and regain control. By consciously manipulating our breathing patterns, we can signal safety to our body and brain, counteracting the surge of stress hormones and transitioning from a state of high alert to one of calm and relaxation. 


The breathing cycle and the energetic cost of breathing

Every breath we take can be divided into 4 parts: the inhale, suspension (the moment after the inhale before the exhale begins), the exhale and vacation (the moment after the exhale before the inhale begins). The duration of each of these parts depends on the stresses you are experiencing. 

When we inhale our diaphragm moves down which gives the heart space. In terms of our nervous system, this part of the breath cycle is more sympathetic. At the end of the inhale (suspension), the brain sends a signal to slow the heart, and we enter a more parasympathetic state. When we exhale, our diaphragm moves up, making less space for the heart. At the end of the exhale (vacation), we move back into the sympathetic state, and the cycle repeats. Just think about the last time you were startled. Did you gasp (a quick and large sympathetic inhale)? When you are very relaxed (think of a giant yawn); it’s often a prolonged exhale followed by a pause.

When faced with stress, the body instinctively prepares for action. A central aspect is increased breathing rate, taking more breaths per minute. We tend to start ‘stacking breaths’ which means we focus more on the inhale, not completing each exhale fully and losing the pause before starting the breath cycle again. This reaction is designed to serve a critical short-term purpose: it increases oxygen intake, preparing the body to respond to the perceived threat. However, this heightened respiratory activity comes with an energetic cost to the body. Under normal circumstances, the energetic cost of breathing is relatively low, accounting for only a small fraction of our body's total energy expenditure. However, during periods of stress, breathing rate is increased and the energy required for this process can significantly rise. Unless the stress is resolved quickly, this increase in energy expenditure will lead to a feeling of fatigue, your body diverts resources away from other functions to support the heightened respiratory effort. It's that familiar feeling of getting to the end of the day exhausted, even though you haven't done anything particularly physical. Over time a constant high demand for energy to support our increased respiratory activity can contribute to a state of chronic exhaustion, affecting overall well-being and quality of life.





Ancient wisdom meets modern science

This intricate interplay between breathing patterns and the nervous system's response is not a new discovery. The journey of breathwork stretches back thousands of years, weaving through the tapestry of human history. Ancient wisdom and modern science converge on the significance of regulating our breath to influence our mental and physical well-being. Slow-paced breathing with an extended exhale, known for its capacity to regulate our nervous system, echos through time. Two thousand years ago, the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali suggested that “expiration is linked to mood stability”. Ceremonial rituals of indigenous cultures have revered the breath as a vital force of life and healing. This ancestral wisdom, emphasising the breath not merely as a physical necessity but as a profound instrument for the human condition, has been corroborated by scientific research in the mid-20th century when scientific publications began to support the benefits of breathing at a low rate for mental health. 



A real-time tool and daily ritual

In the ebb and flow of daily life, where stress often seems like an unwavering constant, mastering the art of breathwork offers a powerful sanctuary. By observing our breath and taking conscious control of the breath cycle, we have the power not only to interrupt the stress cycle but resolve it, signalling to our body and brain that we are in a safe space. This act of taking control can transform our internal landscape, moving us from a state of hypervigilance to one of calm, enhancing our resilience against the onslaught of life's demands.

Integrating breathwork into your daily routine need not be a time-consuming task; it's about making mindful pauses. Remember that your lungs, enriched with neural connections, are not merely conduits for air but sensors that can guide your inner state. Make breathwork part of your daily ritual with simple steps. Allow yourself moments throughout the day to pause and connect with your breath. Observe its flow, its depth, and its rhythm. Start to extend the exhale to lean further into that parasympathetic state. Just a few minutes dedicated to slow, deep breathing can unfold a profound sense of peace, equipping you with the clarity and calm needed to navigate life's challenges. 

While breathwork can be therapeutic, it isn’t meant to cure anxiety conditions or eliminate stress symptoms completely. View it more as one of the simplest and most readily available tools to add to your modern-day well-being toolbox. What’s special about it is how it honours the synergy between the mind and body, making it a truly holistic approach to whole-body health.

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