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The Science Behind Breathwork and How You Can Use It to
Stay Positive in Uncertain Times

As we enter the third straight month of near-total economic and social shutdown in an ongoing attempt to curb the spread of COVID-19, mental health concerns may have taken a back seat to more pressing concerns over the virus.
The extended periods spent in the home, a lack of physical activity, and anxieties about both financial concerns and health concerns in terms of contracting the virus can all contribute to declining mental well-being.
Breathing is a fundamental biological activity with profound implications for physical and mental health.

One set of daily practices called "breathwork," easily incorporated into your daily routine, is proven to reduce the burden of stress and anxiety in its practitioners. Here is everything that you need to know about breathwork to get started.

What Is Breathwork?

The term "breathwork" refers to any activity where a person consciously influences his or her breathing patterns to achieve spiritual enlightenment and/or stronger emotional health.
The practice of breath control has a long and storied history, dating thousands of years to pranayama, the umbrella term for various ancient Indian yogic breathing techniques.

The Problem With "Shallow Breathing"

Many people are "shallow" breathers, meaning that they do not fully inhale on each breath. Shallow breathing is frequently referred to as "chest breathing."
Because the lungs absorb an inadequate supply of oxygen, various disorders have been linked to shallow breathing, including:

  • asthma
  • shock
  • pneumonia
  • anxiety disorders
  • depression

The vast majority of people who breathe shallowly are not aware that their breathing patterns may be affecting their well-being, especially their mental health.

The Benefits of Diaphragmatic Breathing

Diaphragmatic breathing, also called "deep breathing," involves the use of the diaphragm to achieve powerful inhalation. The diaphragm is a muscle that sits under the chest cavity. Ideally, breath should be drawn from the diaphragm to maximize oxygen intake.
As opposed to the rapid, incomplete action of shallow breathing, diaphragmatic breathing emphasizes slow, full breaths that originate from deeper within the body.

In this image, the diaphragm is the area in green.
In one study on deep breathing, researchers concluded that, in addition to delivering higher measurable oxygen concentrations throughout the body, the practice also showed evidence of " extending to cardiovascular function and autonomic function" in practitioners. So, in its role optimizing lung function, deep breathing also provides substantial benefits to the heart and brain.

How to Practice Breathwork in Your Daily Life

If you are interested in reaping the enormous potential health benefits and recovering your mental and spiritual well-being through deep breathing techniques, several options exist that you can choose from. One of the easiest methods to learn and practice is called the Wim Hof Method, which is itself an adaption of an ancient Himalayan technique called tummo breathing.
Learning how to perform Wim's breathing technique is straightforward. You can easily incorporate it into your daily routine, even if you are busy. Most people prefer to set aside 10 minutes a few times a day to relax, re-center, and recover their inner peace. All you need to begin is a comfortable space where you feel at ease and a stopwatch.
Here is how to practice Wim's breathing technique, in step-by-step instructions:

  1. Lay down or sit down. Do not perform this exercise standing up, driving, or any other potentially dangerous activity. You should ideally find a quiet space where you will not be interrupted for ten minutes.
  2. Inhale as deeply as possible through the nose. Focus on originating the breath process from the diaphragm, as we discussed earlier, rather than through the chest cavity.
  3. Exhale halfway, but not fully.
  4. Repeat the 2nd and 3rd steps 30 times through a silent count. You should imagine that you are riding a "wave" of inhalations and exhalations with smooth transitions between each one.
  5. On the 30th breath, exhale fully. At this point, you should feel a bit lightheaded. Many practitioners report feeling intense warmth spread throughout their bodies. This is totally normal, as your neuroendocrine system adapts to the influx of oxygen and resulting chemical reactions in vivo.
  6. Hold your breath as long as possible, until you feel involuntary contractions from the lungs, signaling the need to breathe. Advanced students of the Wim Hof Method are capable of holding their breath in excess of two minutes. If you don't make it that long, don't worry. You have plenty of time to practice.
  7. Inhale deeply and hold this breath for 15 seconds. At this point, you should feel the full effect of the exercise on your neuroendocrine system as newly-released "feel-good" hormones surge through your blood.
  8. Repeat steps 2 through 7 two more times for a total of 3 rounds.

The beauty of this breathing technique, and others, is that it is totally free and instantly effective. Anyone, in nearly any situation, can practice a few rounds of this breathing method to achieve immediate relaxation. As Wim Hof says, you can "get high on your own supply."
If you are skeptical, that's understandable. Just give it a try and see for yourself how profound the effects can be on your sense of well-being.
If you are interested in exploring the potential benefits of the Wim Hof Method, you can view a free tutorial to learn how.
Of course, dozens, if not hundreds, of other breathing techniques with free guidance accessible via the web offer similar benefits, so you can choose the one that feels right to you.
Although many things remain outside of your control in these challenging times, you have the power within yourself to potentially dramatically improve your quality of life through simple breathwork techniques that anyone can learn.