“I eat monsters for breakfast because: depression, cancer, ALS … because I think nature has all the solutions for that,” he said. “That healing power is within us.”
Unfortunately, there is no evidence to suggest breathing techniques or ice baths can cure or prevent cancer. If only it was that simple. Frank Marino, a professor of applied physiology at Charles Sturt University, says: “If that was the case and there was evidence then we are all saved and a Nobel Prize in the offing.”
Tony Blazevich, a professor of biomechanics at Edith Cowan University, adds that alkalinity can result from breathing: “However, blood pH is very tightly regulated, and I’m unaware of any interventions (dietary, breathing, etc.) that have shown longer-term changes in blood acidity levels.”
But, Marino adds there is no doubt controlling one’s breathing will affect our physiology and psychology.
So, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. What exactly is happening to us when we breathe slowly and fully? Why is it that before a massage, a yoga class or a stressful situation, we are told to take three deep breaths?
Self-autonomy is key to positive mental health, says Blazevich: “Breathing [techniques] can help to manage stress levels, which is key to minimising the systemic inflammation that can affect our health. So, it’s a useful addition to an overall health strategy.”
He adds that, by breathing more deeply, it may be possible to stretch the chest wall muscles: “Stretching our muscles appears to reduce sympathetic drive and this should reduce stress/anxiety.”
When Anna Tetlow was a dancer with the Royal Ballet, breathing techniques were never mentioned let alone taught. She wishes they had been.
“When I was dancing, it was extreme stress that we were under physically and mentally,” says the 49-year-old Melburnite. Had she known that slow breaths in and out through the nose could shift her from a sympathetic nervous system-dominated stress response to a parasympathetic nervous system-dominated calm she believes it would have helped her to emotionally regulate while under pressure.
“You cannot control cortisol, you cannot control most of those reactions from the brain that are associated with stress, but you can consciously control your breath.”
Tetlow, who is a Pilates teacher, says breathing techniques are now a primary part of her work with pain and rehabilitation clients, as well as with stressed out mums, professionals in high-pressure roles, elite dancers and athletes.
Breathing techniques can help us all perform and function better, she says, by teaching us how to relax certain parts of the body, while switching other parts on; by properly engaging the muscles of respiration and intrinsic core muscles; and by providing a tool to aid recovery.
For people living with chronic breathlessness, breathing techniques can also help, says Kylie Johnston, an Associate Professor in Respiratory Physiotherapy at the University of South Australia. “Strategies such as relaxed controlled breathing ... may help break the cycle of breathlessness – threat – panic,” Johnston explains.
So while breathing techniques may not cure cancer – or other diseases – they may help people living with those diseases to relax and cope with pain and distress.
For those of us who are well, they could also improve our stress response, lower cortisol, blood pressure and heart rate variability and may even reduce inflammation. There is also evidence taking deep, slow breaths can help us to focus better, relieve anxiety as well as improve our overall sense of wellbeing. And these exercises can, as Hof suggests, allow us to tap into systems of the body we didn’t realise we could to change the way we feel and, potentially, influence our overall health.
It doesn’t have to be complicated either, says Tetlow.
We can start to train our brains with slow breaths in and out through the nose for just two minutes when we are sitting in the car at the traffic lights, or just before we go into a meeting or have to perform.
Our breath is the first and last thing we do in life. Learning to use it and notice it is powerful, especially given the number of Australians experiencing high levels of stress or distress.
“When you start to recognise ‘my body is feeling stressed’, then be one step ahead by putting this breath in,” Tetlow says. “It’s like a window of opportunity, which if you train yourself in it well enough, then you have a small window where you can have some say in the response your body has. It’s training the brain to be able to connect to the parasympathetic nervous system when you need it.”
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