As adults we take around 19,000 to 27,000 breaths each and every day but, like walking or talking, breathing is one of those things we just seem to take for granted.
While many ancient cultures and civilisations have long understood the importance of proper breathing, it’s taken a global pandemic, when respiratory problems have been front and centre, for many people to finally start paying attention to their breathing technique.
Learning to breathe properly can transform your life, helping to improve everything from athletic performance to digestion, concentration to sleep – it can even help you lose weight.
For James Nestor, author of Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, it was the change he needed in his life.
Despite being relatively fit and healthy, Nestor had been wheezing for some time and was prone to getting sick. But after a course of ‘breathwork’ classes, the wheezing stopped. “The answer from my doctor was ‘here’s some more antibiotics’ or ‘here’s a spray’ and I thought this can’t be right,” he says.
But as Nestor adds, just breathing well isn’t going to solve all of your health problems, but it is part of the foundation we all need to make things better. “You can exercise all you want and go to the gym four hours a day, eat vegan, paleo, keto or whatever but if you are breathing dysfunctionally you will never ever really be healthy,” he says.
He’s right. According to breathwork guru Richie ‘The Breath Guy’ Bostock, the benefits of better breathing will affect every aspect of your life.
“The interest in optimal breathing and what it can do for your physical, mental and emotional health has exploded because of its simplicity and effectiveness,” he suggests. “You don’t have to have had experience meditating or practicing mindfulness. You can do it anywhere and at any time. Within a few minutes of consciously breathing, you’re affecting all the physiological systems inside of you, improving your physical health, how you think and how you feel.”
By all accounts, modern humans have evolved to become arguably the worst breathers in the animal kingdom. Skeletal records of ancient humans have revealed that they mostly all had perfectly straight teeth, bigger sinus cavities and larger mouths. In short, all the things you need to breathe better.
Today, humans are beset by respiratory issues like sleep apnoea and sinusitis, the result, in part, of key anatomical changes to the human skull over time. Our mouths, for example, have become smaller, meaning our teeth no longer fit as they should. That means smaller airways and inevitable breathing issues.
Modern life is not good for our breathing either. Sedentary lifestyles, sat hunched in front of computer screens, means our posture has got worse and the ability to take much-needed deep breaths has been compromised. Even the clothes we wear can restrict our breathing if they’re too tight.
Then there’s pollution. In 2019, research from Public Health England (PHE) revealed that long-term exposure to air pollution contributed to between 28,000 and 36,000 deaths each year in the UK, with it exacerbating asthma and causing respiratory disease and lung cancer. But as Nestor explains, it’s a man-made problem that’s killing us.
“The further humans move away from industrialised society, the healthier we get,” he says. “If you look at the few hunter-gatherer tribes still left, you’ll find there’s little to no asthma, chronic allergies, hypertension, obesity, heart disease, and significantly fewer disorders of the lungs. Then come back to the modern world, our world, and you have an environment where people subsist on artificial food, are bathed in artificial light all day and all night, they don't move enough, their breathing is obstructed or dysfunctional in some other way — it’s a recipe for disaster.
“This isn't some flakey New Age theory, but a scientific fact I learned from leading experts in the field. Just look at the escalating rates of dozens and dozens of diseases over the past century. These are diseases modern humans have essentially created; they are diseases of industrial civilisation.”
Our widening waistlines are also playing havoc with our breathing with 63% of UK adults, or around 35 million, now classed as overweight or obese, according to data from Cancer Research.
Having too much fat inhibits your ability to breathe properly as it restricts your airwaves and lungs but it also means that as there is less oxygen going in you won’t be able to burn that fat as effectively. It’s why overweight and obese people are prone to mouth-breathing, whereby they tend to breathe from the very top of their chests, leading to increases in heart rate and blood pressure.
For Bostock, the most common breathing problem he encounters is a chest or clavicular breathing pattern, which tends to manifest itself in people that are stressed or anxious. Not only can it lead to back, neck and shoulder pain but as this style of breathing is only meant to be used in short bursts (e.g. when we need to catch our breath after vigorous exercise) it can trigger your sympathetic nervous system, sending your body into the kind of stress response that it doesn’t need.
Breathing techniques to try
Bostock suggests trying ‘coherence breathing’ and learn to breathe through the diaphragm. Try taking five deep breaths per minute for a few minutes. The slower cadence will help balance the nervous system and promote a range of benefits, including better digestion and improved sleep, as well as a sense of calmness.
“When it comes to correct breathing, the only place to start is with your diaphragm,” he insists. “It’s the most important muscle in the movement of breathing.”
Nestor, meanwhile, advocates breathing through your nose as often as you can and, also, breathing slowly, rhythmically and lightly.
“It seems so simple, right?” he says. “But then eating your vegetables is simple too and not enough people do that.”