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Fitness and health are two things most people strive to accomplish in their daily lives. However, the goal is often barricaded by poor mental discipline and a limited energy supply.
Finding new ways to promote full-body health and wellness is essential for surviving the chaos of this world. But many of the solutions seem to almost add to our anxieties. Sometimes, it can feel like staying healthy is more stressful than rewarding.
Gyms can be expensive or far away from home, and attempting to eat a diverse diet is often stunted by bad consumer habits and a lack of nutritional information. All of these things can put us off the desire to stay healthy. However, giving up does more damage in the long run.
One simple step anyone can take towards a healthier state of being is sitting right under our noses: breathwork.
Breathing exercises have proven to be highly effective in calming down the nervous system and laying down a solid foundation for other modalities of well-being.
Breathing masterfully doesn’t cost a thing, and you can do it anywhere, from in bed, to the office bathroom. To help you breathe better, we’ve delved deeper into the various benefits of breathwork and how it can help you reach your fitness and health goals.
First things first. What is the science behind breathwork? Deep breathing (known in the scientific world as diaphragmatic breathing or paced respiration) is categorised as any conscious breaths you take which last longer than 3 seconds per inhalation or exhalation (although there is no official time frame for what is considered a single “deep breath”).
A full, deep breath occurs when the air coming into the nose fully fills the lungs, causing the lower belly to rise before release. Ironically, many people feel resistance towards deep breathing because it interferes with the Western ideal of having a flat stomach.
Most people only utilise chest breathing (also known as shallow breathing) which does not allow oxygen to fully reach the extent of the lungs, subsequently increasing anxiety.
When we engage in deep, abdominal breathing, the body experiences a full oxygen exchange, resulting in several positive physical shifts:
The combination of these shifts allows us to release unnecessary physical tension and experience a grounding moment of peace within our bodies. Conscious, deep breathing provides us with an opportunity to be present and disengage with stressful or distractive thoughts and feelings.
The process of deep breathing is not something many people in our culture are familiar with. And yet, it is something our bodies instinctively return to in moments of physical intensity. Women going through childbirth are encouraged to use breathwork as a tool for coping with pain, and Arctic diver Wim Hof is globally renowned for using it as a technique for surviving freezing temperatures.
But despite our natural predisposition to deep breathing in moments of survival, our everyday lives do not often provide us with opportunities to exercise it.
So, what are the basic steps for breathwork that anyone can follow?
There is no exact length of time you should be inhaling and exhaling. The aim has more to do with deep oxygen exchange than following a routine. Everybody is different and following your natural breathing pace is key to experiencing the positive benefits of breathwork.
Now that you understand why and how deep breathing works, let’s get into the many benefits it can bring into your life. Both mentally and physically, breathwork is the key to unlocking an optimal level of wellness and vitality.
When we breathe deeply, our brains receive the message that there are no immediate threats in our environment. This causes the body to go into a state of relaxation, lowering cortisol levels and releasing any needless tension from our muscles.
Slow, deep breathing has proven to activate the vagus nerve, which is a part of the parasympathetic nervous system. The role of the vagus nerve is to support and measure the activity of internal organs, allowing them to function at an optimal level.
In turn, this slows the heartbeat down to a regular pace and removes taxation on blood pressure. The overall effect of these two processes results in a much calmer and more comfortable physical state.
Naturally, deep breathing exercises strengthen the lungs and drive their capacity up to a healthy level. People who smoke tobacco or have inherited weak lungs can especially benefit from this aspect of deep breathing practices.
As the lungs become stronger and muscles receive more oxygen, exercising may become less exertive for the body. By training your body to take deep, oxygen-filled breaths, you can facilitate better physical longevity and endure more high-intensity workouts.
There have been numerous studies on the effects of deep breathing on sleep dysfunctions like insomnia, and the results indicate a positive response. Regular diaphragmatic breathing induces a state of calmness and relaxation that you can funnel into your bedtime routine for a slow, intuitive-feeling transition into a deep sleep.
By keeping stress at bay and enhancing your natural energy levels, deep breathing allows people the time and space to reconnect with their bodies and access that much-needed sense of inner calm.
Even if it’s just for five or ten minutes each day, carving out the time to sit down and simply breathe is a powerful act of self-care that we can all benefit from.
The benefits of mastering your breath are numerous, and learning how to do so can help you in so many ways. From correctly practicing pranayama deep breathing in Yoga to knowing how to regulate your breath when pedaling your bicycle uphill with a full backpack, breathwork is key.
While breathing is something we do naturally, the way we breathe when exercising can be done with intent.
Article contributed by Ellen Klein, Editor at Sleep Junkie