There’s nothing new in the concept of taking a few deep breaths to help calm the mind and body; but over the past couple of years, breathwork classes have been springing up at gyms and spas across the country, as well as online via sites such as thebreathingroom.co.uk, teaching specific breathing practices and techniques for those looking to quickly de-stress. Devotees claim training themselves to breathe more effectively is significantly improving their physical and mental well-being.
Luke McSwiney (breathguide.co), a breath guide and yoga teacher, has been running breathwork classes and one-to-one sessions for seven years, and has always had a steady flow of interest. Since the start of the pandemic, however, there has been far more demand for his online classes and one-to-one sessions than he can possibly manage, which he puts down to an increased interest in practices such as mindfulness and breathwork as a means to combat anxiety – along with a natural interest in the breath at a time when we have been in the grip of Covid.
Once people understand the science behind breathing practices, he says, the benefits begin to make sense. As he explains it, “There are two main branches of the nervous system: the sympathetic, which is fight-or-flight mode, and the parasympathetic, which is the rest-and-recovery mode. How we breathe is an indicator of which one we’re in; but also, we’re able to control which one we’re in if we change the way we’re breathing. Rapid breathing through the mouth and into the chest indicates fight-or-flight, while slower breathing through the nose and into the belly indicates rest.”
In his 2020 book, Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, science journalist James Nestor looked at the history of how humans have shifted from naturally breathing through the nose to chronic mouth-breathing. He attributes this partly to a modern diet of soft, processed food that requires less chewing and has gradually resulted in changes to the structure of the mouth, due to weaker jaw muscles and receding chins. His research, undertaken over 10 years, links mouth-breathing to increases in conditions such as snoring, sleep apnoea, asthma, autoimmune disease and allergies, and cites scientists at Stanford University who suggest that teaching yourself to breathe through the nose will improve your health.
As McSwiney sees it, these physiological reasons for mouth-breathing are exacerbated by outside stimuli that can bring us into a stress state, when we naturally breathe rapidly through the mouth, which most of us lack the awareness to bring ourselves out of. “When we breathe through the nose, automatically we breathe more deeply, into the diaphragm, which massages the vagus nerve – the main component of the parasympathetic or rest branch of the nervous system – which helps bring us into the restful state more quickly.”
Add to that the presence of nitric oxide within the nasal cavity, which relaxes the blood vessels and the airways further, and also acts as a first defence against bacteria and viruses, and the case for breathing through the nose grows even stronger.
The biochemical exchange, or the balance between levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the body, is also key to which nervous state we are likely to be in: “The more carbon dioxide we have in our system, the more likely we’ll be in rest because carbon dioxide is what allows oxygen to be metabolised by the body,” says McSwiney. “We’ve always got 95-99 per cent blood-oxygen concentration, no matter how we’re breathing, unless we have some sort of respiratory problem, but how we breathe affects our carbon dioxide levels, and that affects how well we’re metabolising the oxygen. If you’re breathing fast, particularly through the mouth and into the chest, you’re going to have very little carbon dioxide in the system because you keep rejecting it, so it has no time to build up, which means you’re not going to be absorbing it very well. That’s why the old advice to someone having a panic attack is to blow in and out of a paper bag: to help build carbon dioxide.”
As well as acting in this way as a catalyst for oxygen absorption, carbon dioxide also helps to relax the blood vessels and the airways, allowing us to breathe more easily, and the blood to flow more freely. The slower and deeper we breathe, the better our ability to retain carbon dioxide; and if we practise breath techniques where the breath is held, or the exhalation is extended longer than the inhalation, the longer still we are able to keep it within the body.
For Charlotte Semler, who co-founded natural fragrance brand Verden last year in the midst of the pandemic, guided breathwork proved an invaluable tool that helped her to manage anxiety during a stressful time. “Initially I tried meditation apps, which were helpful,” she says, “but I felt like I wasn’t doing it right, or getting the most out of it. I find it very difficult to ‘empty my mind’, and my brain kept snagging on one thing the meditation instructors kept saying, which was ‘Focus on the breath’. I kept thinking, what am I supposed to be doing?”
A bit of online research took her down a rabbit hole of breathwork techniques, and the physiology behind the practice. “I was amazed by how much I didn’t know,” she says. “Of course, like anyone else I thought I knew how to breathe, but I didn’t know what a difference it can make simply to shut your mouth and breathe through your nose. I also found breathing into my diaphragm difficult at first.”
After starting with 10 minutes’ practice each morning and night, she started to see improvements in the length of time she could hold her breath, as well as extend her exhalation, within a few weeks. Eighteen months on, she continues to practise breathwork, and has helped to design a free guided-breathing app, Verden Breathwork, with simple exercises to help get others started on their own practice. “I sleep far more deeply when I’ve done it, and I find it really helps with general aches and pains too,” she says. “I do yoga to help with muscle pain, but I’m amazed by how much doing my breathing practice gives me much the same benefits for far less effort. I also find it much easier than meditation, yet it gives very similar results. From a mental health point of view, I think it’s the easiest thing you can do to make yourself feel better.”
According to McSwiney, and the people he has worked with, it’s a case of “life before and after breath awareness; the difference is huge. It’s a vital tool.” For those who want to dip a toe in for help with general physical and mental health, he suggests establishing a daily practice, beginning with five minutes of breathwork two or three times a day, which you can do lying down in bed. Here are three exercises to try. Remember to breathe through your nose.
To help to calm yourself if you’re feeling stressed or anxious.
Breathe in for four seconds; pause for seven seconds; breathe out for eight seconds.
To help you drift off to sleep, and sleep more deeply.
Breathe in for five seconds; hold for five seconds; breathe out for five seconds; hold for five seconds
To connect mind and body and bring a feeling of balance.
Breathe in for seven seconds; breathe out for seven seconds.
To try guided breathwork exercises, download the Verden app