It may sound like new age nonsense, but there appears to be some well-founded scientific claims behind the benefits of breathing exercises.
Obviously, breathing is our very existence. But nobody stops to look at the quality of breath, whether it is during the day, at night, when we are exercising or stressed. There are patterns to breathing, with healthy and unhealthy consequences.
One study discovered a phenomenon known as ‘email apnoea’, where subjects repeatedly and unconsciously stop breathing for short periods whilst trawling through their morning emails. This is one small example of several unhealthy breathing patterns we may be oblivious to.
The rate and depth of breathing can influence our involuntary (autonomic) nervous system. Fast/shallow breathing for Sympathetic (fight or flight response) and slow/deeper breathing for Parasympathetic (relaxation and digestion). Various types of ‘breathwork’ can hack these autonomic systems and in turn, improve blood pressure, mood, anxiety and immunity.
A well known breath expert, Wim Hoff ‘The Iceman’, repackaged ancient techniques to develop a series of breathing exercises to enhance physical resilience, immunity and wellbeing. In one experiment, he fought off an E.Coli infection which had been injected into his blood stream. He faces the extreme cold by harnessing ancient Buddhist ‘Tummo’ breathing techniques to control his body’s thermoregulation. His 26 world records include running a marathon in shorts through Arctic conditions and sitting in an ice bath for almost two hours.
Despite the typical adult respiratory rate of 12-20 breaths per minute, studies have shown the optimal breath rate to be much slower, at around 6 breaths per minute, or 5.5 seconds in, and 5.5 seconds out (ideally through the nose). Surprisingly, ancient wisdom and spiritual practices have been inadvertently utilising these techniques well before scientists could prove their benefits. Mantras and prayers from Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, Navaho Indian and Chinese origins, usually take around 6 seconds in and 6 seconds out, mirroring our physiological optimisation.
We have also changed how we channel our breath, which historically, was predominantly nasal. Our anatomy has altered, with evolutionary changes to the shape of our skull and jaw, in response to our feeding habits and the dawn of agriculture-led, cooked, softer and more processed foods. Our primitive skulls had perfectly aligned jaws and teeth, but in the past few thousand years, our skulls have compacted with smaller jaws and narrower nasal passages. This has led to crooked teeth and restrictive nasal breathing, most likely contributing to the surge in obstructive sleep apnoea (inadequate and interrupted mouth-breathing during sleep). Nasal breathing is important for the quality of the air and efficiency of that air, in reaching our lungs. Nasal breathing purifies, heats, moistens and pressurises the air received by the lung tissue, increasing oxygen absorption by 10-15 per cent. We now see up to 50 per cent of adults mouth-breathing and almost 25 per cent have sleep apnoea. Many of whom are unaware of the harmful effects, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, mood disorders and general fatigue. One small but easy attempt to avoid this (if you are a mouth breather) is to place a small postage-stamp sized piece of surgical tape over your mouth at night, which should re-train your nasal breathing.
If you snore, choke or stop breathing for short periods in the night and you feel tired through the day, you should undergo a sleep study to help diagnose sleep apnoea. Depending on the severity, there are helpful treatment options.
Breathing exercises come in many styles and forms, but if you wanted to reap some of the benefits, you could try punctuating your day with just 2-5 minutes, aiming for 5-6 second breaths in and out through the nose. For additional relaxation, breathing out for a couple seconds longer than the in-breath. Engaging one’s diaphragm can increase your lung capacity and improve the Parasympathetic ‘rest and digest’ function. ‘Belly breathing’ can help train the breath and hijack the negative feedback loop of shallow/faster breathing seen in anxiety.
It is no surprise that the longest living animals, such as the tortoise and elephant, have slower heart rates and slower breaths – around four breaths per minute, suggesting that lower breaths may play a role in longevity. The yogis have been known to say that a person’s life is not measured in their years, but by their breaths. Maybe modern science has finally caught up with ancient wisdom.
If you are interested in this article, I would highly recommend the book Breath by James Nestor.