Improve focus, circulation, blood pressure and mental health, claim the pros.
If you caught any of Glastonbury festival last weekend - or were lucky enough to be there IRL - you'll likely have noticed Billie Eilish raving about the benefits of breathwork training to her crowd. Not only that - she actually got the 100,000 audience members to try the practice with her, raving about its stress relieving properties.
You'll likely have heard of meditation, yoga classes and manifesting and, sure, we all breathe every single day, but did you know training your breath can boast a whole heap of health benefits - specifically, lower chronic stress, stabilised blood sugar and improved metabolism?
Celebrities like Eilish, Fearne Cotton, Selena Gomez, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Giselle Bundchen reportedly swear by the ancient practice. So - what does it entail and how can you tap into that unlocked potential yourself? All good questions - for the answers, keep reading, and don't miss our guide to self care ideas, while you're here.
Breathwork training: your guide
What is breathwork?
According to Niraj Naik, a certified UK pharmacist turned holistic wellness, brain-training and breathwork expert at SOMA Breath, breathwork training is a technique done with conscious effort. "By intentionally changing your breathing pattern, you can experience many physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual benefits," he shares.
Breath coach, CEO of AMCK Dance and Fit and former GB commonwealth gymnast Aicha McKenzie agrees, adding that it's one of the simplest, cheapest and most effective ways to optimise your wellbeing. "It's simple yet so transformative," she explains. "Simply put, it's a practice centred around the mind-breath-body connection."
If you're stressed, you'll likely hear "just breathe." Hurt yourself? "Breathe, breathe, breathe." Giving birth? "Keep breathing." When you start to think about it, you realise that so many calming or soothing rituals focus on your breath and utilising its power without you even realising. McKenzie reckons it's the lowest common denominator in all approaches to calming body and mind.
"When we’re feeling calm, relaxed and safe, your breathing deepens and slows right down - you've slipped under the influence of the parasympathetic nervous system, which has a relaxing effect," she shares.
A bit of background first - breathwork training, otherwise known as conscious breathing, is an ancient practice with roots beginning in the East explains McKenzie. "In tandem with yoga, tai chi and Buddhism, for over five millennia, yogis have believed that expanding your breath, in turn, expands your life," she shares.
Research shows breathwork can improve both your physical and mental wellbeing, including:
- Improve stress response
- Improve and stabilise blood pressure
- Slow heart rate
- Stronger immune system
- Improved quality of sleep (read our guides to how to get to sleep and insomnia treatments, here).
- Positive changes in our mindset
- Mental stillness/clarity
- Emotional regulation
- Awaken dormant functions of the brain
- Enhance creativity
- Create heightened states of consciousness and inspiration
- Improve brain function and mind power
- Cleanse and purify the bloodstream and lymphatic system
- Activate stem cells
- Stimulate self healing
- Reduce depression/anxiety.
How does breathwork actually work?
Another good question. You might be scratching your head thinking that you breathe all the time anyway.. but as the experts have explained, breathwork training describes specific techniques of breathing that then unlock health benefits.
Feeling overwhelmed? Don't. It's super simple and will only take ten minutes from your daily routine, stresses McKenzie. Unsure how breathing can do all of the above? Let her explain.
Switching to your parasympathetic nervous system
Deep breathing decreases stress by increasing your calm, she shares. "When you become stressed or anxious, your brain releases the stress hormone called cortisol and your body kicks into the sympathetic nervous system which induces flight, fight or freeze mode. By taking deep breaths with a long exhale body switches to the parasympathetic nervous system, which communicates with the brain to relax and releases your endorphins, aka feel-good chemicals."
Muscles relax and blood vessels dilate
Similarly, deep breathing lowers blood pressure. "As your muscles relax, this allows your blood vessels to dilate, which improves circulation and lowers blood pressure. Deep breathing also slows and regulates the heart rate, which also helps with lowering your blood pressure," the expert explains.
Fully oxygenated blood = better body function
"To a point, the more oxygen that is in the blood, the better our body functions," shares McKenzie. "It also improves our stamina." And did you know? When your blood is fully oxygenated, it carries and absorbs nutrients and vitamins more efficiently. "Essentially, the cleaner the blood, the harder it is for illnesses to stay put in your system," she shares.
Another fun fact: your breathing manages 70% of cleansing the body of toxins (the other 30% is through bladder and bowels, shares the expert). "If you don't breathe fully, your body needs to work overtime to release these toxins," she shares.
"The diaphragm is the main muscle used to breathe and gives your internal organs a massage when used fully. The deeper you breathe, the deeper the massage and the healthier blood flow you will produce, which in turn promotes your organs to function more effectively, including your intestines."
Breathwork techniques: 6 to try
Ready to dive in and give breathwork training a try at home? Give the following a go.
1. Box Breath
This is a technique where you’ll be taking slow, deep, even breaths, shares McKenzie. "This practice can improve performance, energy and concentration, and it’s also quite a powerful stress reliever," she explains.
Step one: Slowly exhale through your mouth for a count of four. Focus on your breath - if any other thoughts enter your mind, don’t worry, don’t judge, just try and get that focus back to your breath and emptying your lungs.
Step two: Slowly inhale through your nose this time, for another count of four. Can you feel the air in your lungs? Can you feel your belly rising? This is perfect: always try to breathe from your belly, not your chest.
Step three: Hold that breath in for another count of four.
Step four: Exhale again for four. Because all of these steps are for the same count (four) this works as a cyclical exercise, so you can repeat it as much as you need.
2. Savitri Pranayama and Slow Rechaka
This technique has powerful relaxation effects on the body and mind, shares Naik. Read the how-to here or breathe along with the video.
Step one: Sit comfortably with your back straight, in an upright position. Inhale fully through the nose into your diaphragm for 4 seconds, filling your lungs with air. Place your hand on your abdomen to ensure that it rises before your chest.
Step two: Without using any force, exhale fully through the mouth for 8 seconds. When you have exhaled, breathe in fully again, with no force. Create a continuous and smooth rhythm.
Step three: Repeat this 20 to 30 times and then take a full inhale, purse your lips gently, allowing the air to escape from your mouth as slowly as if you were breathing out through a thin straw. Do a body scan to make sure that you are not tensing any of your muscles whilst exhaling.
Step four: During the exhalation, visualise an ocean wave of relaxation, cascading down the front of your body, from the crown of your head to the tips if your toes.
3. Tummo Breathwork
Watch along for full instructions.
4. Wim Hof breathwork
Watch the video to try.
5. Alkaline breathing and breath of fire
Watch the video to try.
6. Fearne Cotten x The Breathing Tree breathwork
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Ally Head is Marie Claire UK's Health, Sustainability, and Relationships Editor, eight-time marathoner, and Boston Qualifying runner. Day-to-day, she works across site strategy, features, and e-commerce, reporting on the latest health updates, writing the must-read health and wellness content, and rounding up the genuinely sustainable and squat-proof gym leggings worth *adding to basket*. She regularly hosts panels and presents for things like the MC Sustainability Awards, has an Optimum Nutrition qualification, and saw nine million total impressions on the January 2023 Wellness Issue she oversaw, with health page views up 98% year on year, too. Follow Ally on Instagram for more or get in touch.