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Breathwork 101: Your Guide To Optimal & Healthy Breathing

Article published in SASSY HONG KONG on 12 January 2021, by Liza Rosén


Breathe easy with these breathwork training exercises from an expert…


Inhale. Exhale. Repeat. Thousands of times per day. Are you doing it right? How we take air in and exhale it out again plays a crucial role in our health, longevity and wellness. However, most of us today are breathing inadequately, resulting in a series of underestimated health problems. Optimal and healthy breathing, on the other hand, can help address and enhance the way our body deals with a range of health conditions, including stress and anxiety, digestive issues, poor sleep, endurance, respiratory diseases, mental clarity, shoulder stiffness and more. It’s no wonder breathwork training is becoming an increasingly popular practice among health-addicts, wellness and yoga studios, and even corporates, all searching for the natural remedy of breath to unleash the full human potential.


With this in mind, we’ve tapped an expert breathwork coach to give us a few pointers on healthy breathing. Keep reading for four quick and easy breathing exercises to try today, and embark on your optimal breathwork journey now…



Exercise 1: Breath Awareness


How do you naturally breathe? Have you ever consciously focused on your daily breathing habits and reflected on how they may be affected by (and are affecting) your mood, emotions and activity? If the answer is no, then it’s time to start practising breath awareness.


The idea here is simple: create a general awareness around your breathing patterns to identify sources of dysfunction and areas of improvement. This first breathwork training exercise is intended to help you become aware of your own breathing, and of everything occurring in your body with every single inhale and exhale you take.


Exercise


Sit on a chair or cross-legged on the floor. Place one hand on your upper chest and the other hand on your belly (just beneath your lower rib cage).


Close your eyes and continue breathing in your natural way.


Feel, watch and listen to your own breathing and ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is moving on every inhale and exhale? Is it your chest or your belly? Are both moving, or maybe nothing is moving much?

  • Are you breathing through your mouth or through your nose?

  • Is your breathing fluid, regular and silent – or constricted, uneven and noisy?

  • During the day, do you sometimes find yourself unconsciously holding your breath (breath apnea), tensing up your shoulders or taking big breaths?

  • How does your breathing alter when you are performing a physical activity (running, walking up stairs, practising your favourite sport, etc.) or experiencing an emotion (anger, joy, fear, surprise, sadness)?


Exercise 2: Engage Your Primary Breathing Muscle


Pop quiz: what is the main breathing muscle in your body? The thoracic diaphragm!

The majority of people have either stopped using or are under-using their diaphragms to breathe. About 90% of adults breathe inadequately, engaging their auxiliary muscles (upper chest, neck and shoulders) instead, resulting in disastrous health effects.


Also known as the “second heart”, the diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle located at the base of your lower rib cage, separating your thoracic cavity from your abdominal cavity. The diaphragm is your main breathing muscle – in addition to a set of other primary breathing muscles, such as your core, intercostals, obliques and pelvic floor.


When functioning effectively, the diaphragm contracts and flattens on the inhale (expanding the belly), creating a vacuum effect that pulls air into the lungs. On the exhale, the diaphragm relaxes back up to its initial dome-shape (narrowing the belly), pushing air out of the lungs.


This next breathwork training exercise works on unlocking and strengthening your diaphragm, creating rib cage flexibility and engaging all other primary breathing muscles.


Exercise


Sit on a chair or cross-legged on the floor, and place both hands on your belly. Keeping your neck and shoulders relaxed (not moving), practise slow breathing while engaging your diaphragm.


On the inhale, expand your belly and lean forward. Make sure to rock forward using a subtle hip-tilt movement – imagine “pushing” or “releasing’ your belly out.

On the exhale, lean back, contracting your belly and core whilst narrowing your waist (imagine your belly button touching your spine!). Exhale until you’re completely empty.


Repeat 20 times.


Exercise 3: Nasal Versus Mouth Breathing


Should you breathe through your nose or through your mouth? The nose knows best! Just remember this simple rule: we breathe and smell through the nose, and eat and talk through the mouth.


The nose filters, heats and moistens the environmental air that enters our lungs. During nasal breathing, nitric oxide – a powerful natural anti-viral, anti-bacterial and anti-allergen vasodilator produced in the paranasal sinuses – is inhaled into the airways, playing an important role in the body’s immune system defence and optimal blood oxygenation. Additionally, nasal breathing tends to engage the diaphragm as well as contribute to slower breathing – both of which activate the body’s parasympathetic response, or the vital “rest & digest, restore & repair” functions.


Today, 25 to 50% of the population are chronic mouth breathers. Mouth breathing is an unhealthy breathing habit as it bypasses all the benefits procured by nasal breathing and causes fast upper chest breathing that triggers the body’s sympathetic nervous system (the “fight & flight” response), contributing to stress, anxiety and depression. What’s more, it also provokes a series of health conditions like poor sleep, lack of concentration, brain fog, respiratory diseases, crooked teeth and facial malformations. As such, this next breathwork training exercise works to retrain your body to engage in proper nasal breathing.


Exercise


Close your mouth and breathe through your nose at all times during the day – while working, walking, watching a movie and even exercising.


Mouth taping can be a good solution: place a small strip of surgical paper tape across the lips while performing your usual activities (even at night time). At first, it may feel uncomfortable, unnatural or even straining to practise forced nasal breathing, but it’s an effective method of retraining that will yield quick results with practice and perseverance.


Are you unable to breathe through your nose due to chronic nasal obstruction? Then consult an ENT (Ear-Nose-Throat) doctor who will help identify the root of the problem.


Exercise 4: Exhale Is Key


Are you properly and fully exhaling? Most people are barely exhaling, let alone exhaling to their full capacity. Yet the benefits and transformative power of full exhalations are immense.

The main reason for exhalation is to release and rid your body of toxins and metabolic waste (i.e. carbon dioxide). If you are not fully exhaling, residual stale air remains trapped in the lungs, causing you to take a less-than-optimal inhale the next time round. Think about a water bottle: if you never empty your bottle entirely, old stale water will remain floating at the bottom, hindering you from filling up your bottle fully with new fresh water. The same goes for your lungs.


By training and strengthening your exhale breathing muscles, and by stretching and expanding your rib cage, you can both enable larger and heathier inhales of new fresh oxygen into your lungs, and efficiently cleanse your body of toxins.


On a more emotional level, exhales also allow you to express and release powerful emotions and tensions. Think about it: most vocalisations we make occur during exhalations – like talking, singing, laughing, sighing and yawning. So our capacity to properly exhale plays an important role in our ability to effectively vocalise and release feelings.


Exercise


Inhale slowly and fully through the nose (inhale and expand your belly).


Exhale through the mouth (exhale and narrow your belly), simultaneously counting aloud from one to 10, over and over (repeating 1,2,3…10; 1,2,3…10) until you have reached the very end of your exhale and are unable to vocalise anymore.


Repeat 10 times


Editor’s Note: For the purpose of this exercise, we intentionally exhale through the mouth (instead of nose). This is to better focus on the exhale, and also to stimulate the body’s parasympathetic response.



Your Quick Breath Takeaways


More than ever, we need to bring breathwork training and respiratory health to the front line. Remember, the way we breathe, our location of breathing and even our rate of respiration impact our overall health and wellbeing. Ultimately, our respiratory system is interlinked with the body’s other physiological organ systems (e.g. nervous, immune, cardiovascular, circulatory and digestive). The breath does not stop at the level of the lungs, it goes well beyond, making it a key component of your health and wellness.



Featured image artwork by Sassy Media Group with images courtesy of Alexandra Lammerink via Unsplash and cottonbro, Emre Kuzu and Mont Photographs via Pexels, image 1 artwork by Sassy Media Group with images courtesy of Devon Divine and Seth Schwiet via Unsplash and Gabby K and Karolina Grabowska via Pexels, image 2 artwork by Sassy Media Group with images courtesy of Elnaz Asadi via Unsplash and Eberhard Grossgasteiger via Pexels, image 3 artwork by Sassy Media Group with images by Andrea Piacquadio via Pexels and Rose Foos via Unsplash.



ABOUT THE AUTHOR


Liza Rosén is the first certified Breathwork BREATHE™ Coach in Hong Kong, having trained from The Breathing Class™ breathwork methodology. Liza provides breathwork training, workshops and speaker events to help people re-learn how to breathe optimally for life-changing health benefits. She has delivered breath workshops at PURE Yoga (amongst other) and has recently published an article in The Science of Coaching. Liza is also a qualified Certified Professional Coach (ICF & EMCC standards) providing Executive & Life coaching to help people grow, lead their best lives and achieve desired goals!


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