When someone’s anxious, our automatic response is to tell them to take a deep breath. Just breathe. It’s intuitive. Gut instinct. And just as modern research is now beginning to understand how your gut really does function as a 'second brain' (thanks to the bacteria in your digestive tract), it’s also unpicking the relationship between respiration and relaxation.
There’s a growing trend for breathwork, but why are people taking lessons for something that we all do automatically – as many as 25,000 times a day and 700 million times in our lives?
You don’t need to be told to breathe, but you might need reminding how to do it properly, according to journalist James Nestor in his book Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, published earlier this year. Breathwork – the literal translation of qigong, the Chinese system of exercise and meditation dating back thousands of years – isn’t new. Breathing is foundational to our existence, and affects us at the cellular level.
'You can’t switch it on and you can’t switch it off,' says Chris Connors, a meditation teacher and creator of the OPO mindful soundscape app, who has consulted on TOG's purpose-built meditation spaces.
For Nestor, the phenomenon of 'continuous partial attention', caused by flitting between, say, a task, your inbox, Twitter and WhatsApp, can lead to short breathing and even so-called 'e-mail apnoea', with similar harmful effects as the sleep variety.
Supervised by Stanford University researchers, Nestor experimented by breathing only through his mouth – a habit many of us have unconsciously adopted – for 10 days. His blood pressure went up, tipping him into hypertension, and his blood oxygen went down. His stress level rose. He developed sleep apnoea. He went from snoring three minutes a night to four hours. He was tired and couldn’t think clearly. When he switched to breathing, as nature intended, through his nose, the symptoms cleared up. Breathing through your nose is more efficient, and filters, heats and treats the air, so Nestor says he now routinely tapes his mouth shut before bed.
Breathing may be essential to life, but Nestor presents compelling anthropological evidence in his book for why humans are 'the worst breathers in the animal kingdom'. The invention of tenderising tools and fire enabled us to extract more nutrients from our food, expend less energy digesting and grow bigger brains, which took up space at the expense of our airways. Agriculture further softened our diet. We’re now the only animals that can choke easily, including on our own bodies when we snore, and routinely have crooked teeth, because our jaws have shrunk.
Most of us are not breathing at full capacity, says Connors. When you’re anxious, your breath shortens, activating your sympathetic nervous system: your fight-or-flight response. (And, as Nestor writes, breathing – or rather lack of it – triggers anxiety, even in people with brain conditions who don’t otherwise feel fear.) Your heart rate increases and blood flows away from organs not immediately required, like your stomach, to your muscles. You’re wired. This emergency state is not meant to be a default.
Many of us also breathe with our chests, resulting in shallow breaths, and sit too much – both of which tighten key muscles. We wear restrictive clothing to look fashionable and suck in our stomachs to look thinner. Conversely, breathing properly, slowly, deeply activates your parasympathetic nervous system, or rest-and-digest mode. 'You have more clarity, more focus, more attention,' says Connors. 'There’s a very functional, mechanical side as to why breathwork is really good for you, and why people are waking up to that.'
Dutch extreme athlete Wim ‘The Iceman’ Hof famously uses breathing as a lever for changing physical states. He credits his unique combination of breathwork, meditation and cold exposure for his frigid feats such as spending nearly two hours in an ice bath and running through Mount Everest's 'death zone' wearing just shorts. When scientists injected students of his methods with a dead strain of e-coli to provoke flu-like symptoms, they were seemingly able to ramp up their immune system on cue – something previously thought impossible.
But most, breathing converts have less ambitious goals. 'People want to relax the intensity of their thought processes,' says Connors. He frequently works with business leaders who are overwhelmed by demands for their attention and responsibility for their organisations. Breathing creates a space in which they can observe their thinking, rather than just be lost in it, and find new perspective: 'It’s very subtle, but it can be very profound.'
The practice of awareness is central to meditation – as is breathing. And observing how you’re breathing can lead you to awareness, says Connors. To him, meditation and breathing are 'one and the same'. But breathing, which is also the foundation of yoga, is increasingly being practised as its own discipline, and moving from the spiritual realm to the secular.
Meditation has also become a performance-and-productivity hack. But breathing is perhaps more accessible, and less frustrating. 'People think they can’t meditate, because their mind is wandering off looking for tasks,' says Connors. In some forms of meditation, focusing on the breath is an anchor for the mind – which still wanders. But in breathwork, breathing is a task, occupying and therefore 'soothing' the mind. It’s immediate and impactful enough for Navy SEALS, who deploy box breathing – inhale for four, hold for four, exhale for four, hold for four, repeat as required – to stay calm in pressure situations.
Breathing can go even deeper. Connors discovered meditation after his mother died of the lung disease emphysema. He became fascinated by the power of breathwork and, as a trained psychotherapist, has experimented with holotropic breathing – accelerated breaths, typically done in a dark room to loud music, which can elicit hallucinations, psychological breakthroughs and even spiritual awakenings. It isn’t, he warns, something that you should try at home.
But what you can do at home, especially during a global respiratory disease pandemic, is remain level-headed. Breathing might not be the cause of your stress, or the cure for it, but it can help to reduce anxiety and boost immunity. A resource and a refuge. Says Connnors: 'It's what actually shows us that we’re alive.'
One simple breathwork exercise Connors recommends newcomers try at home is what he calls ’the two-four’: breathing in for two and out for four.
As a general principle, extending your exhale promotes a greater parasympathetic or relaxation response. Similarly, Nestor advocates a variation of box breathing – inhale for four, hold for four, exhale for six, hold for two – when you’re trying to fall asleep.
Connors suggests 10 sets of two-fours, ideally in the morning, to build a regular practice and establish a baseline, which you’ll then be more conscious of deviating from throughout the day. And he’ll often do three sets at any point if he notices that he’s trapped in a thought loop.
Jamie Millar is a contributing editor to Men’s Health, and writes for a number of other publications about subjects ranging from fashion to fitness and football
Explore wellness events available for TOG members here