“If we learn to use our breath correctly we will develop more inner awareness, we will sleep better, feel better, be able to let go of negative emotions, and feel more in control of our lives.”
By: Maria Beider
“Breath is the epicentre of human function.”
“Get out of your mind and get into your breath because your breath is the life force.”
Did you know that we breathe on average between 20 000 to 26 000 times a day, and most of the time we are unaware of it. We will breathe from the moment we are born into this world until the moment we leave it, and yet how often do we actually pay attention to our breathing? We take it for granted most of the time. There is more and more research available to us in this generation about the benefits of conscious or mindful breathing. We often hold our breath when we are tense or breathe too fast when we are anxious, inhibiting the amount of oxygen that our brain and bodies need, which is detrimental to our health. If we can learn to breathe correctly, it can have transformative effects on our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual states. After all, breath is the epicentre of human function. Conscious breathing has its main roots in Eastern practices like Yoga, Tai Chi, and Buddhism, however other cultures such as Judaism have also been using breathing practices for millennia. Breathwork or conscious breathing techniques practised widely today really only became popular in the West during the 60s and 70s. According to meditation and breathwork experts, if we learn to use our breath correctly we will develop more inner awareness, we will sleep better, feel better, be able to let go of negative emotions, and feel more in control of our lives.
What is absolutely fascinating to me is that if a person is emotionally dysregulated, whether raging or in panic mode, being told to just breathe (whilst it can be irritating) is actually extremely sound advice and has its basis in brain research. A mindful focus on one’s breathing can bring about emotion regulation. According to Austin, as cited by Wallin, ‘breathing out reduces firing in the amygdala and thus quieting the brain and calming the body.’ Research shows that those who meditate regularly, focusing on their breathing, show cortical thickening particularly in the insula which links the cortex to the limbic system. In other words, attending to the breath facilitates greater access to our emotions and deepens empathy.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, a renowned doctor who has successfully introduced mindfulness and meditation for the purposes of healing to the Western world, explains how instrumental breath can be in the act of meditation and in healing from chronic pain and stress-related disorders. “Breathing is an incredibly powerful ally and teacher in the work of meditation.” Conveniently, our breathing is always readily available to help support a mindful awareness in our daily lives. If we tune into it, it has the ability to anchor us in the here and now. Kabat-Zinn explains that focusing our awareness on our breathing is the easiest way to cultivate a mindfulness practice and is the universal foundation of meditation.
There are different places in the body we can use to provide a focus for our breathing. For example, we can notice the sensation of the breath flowing in and out of our nostrils; the expansion and contraction of the chest or the rising; and falling of the belly. Kabat-Zinn recommends focusing on the belly because doing so is particularly relaxing and calming in the early stages of meditation practice.
There are many contemporary personalities in the field of health and wellbeing who are bringing our attention to breathwork. One of the most controversial is Wim Hof aka Ice Man who has gathered a lot of attention in the press over the last few years for his baffling feats of sitting for extended periods of time in ice cold water or climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in shorts. According to Wim Hof, if we breathe properly, we will have more energy, experience less stress, develop a stronger immune system, sleep better, improve our cognitive and athletic performance, and our anxiety levels will be alleviated. Hof recommends going into cold water which forces one to breathe more deeply and more consciously. Like Kabat-Zinn, he also teaches to breathe fully and deeply from one’s belly in order to fill up the lungs completely. One of Wim Hof’s breathing exercises requires one to breathe fully inhaling and exhaling like this about thirty or forty times. You will start to feel lightheaded and tingly, and then you are required to hold your breath for as long as you can. Due to the deep breathing, you now have less carbon dioxide which, in turn, results in the alkalinisation of blood. Hof suggests going through four rounds of this kind of breathing. He claims that there are untold health benefits in this technique, both physical and spiritual, such as re-balancing of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, bringing biochemical and hormonal balance to our systems. Hof explains that “through the breath, we become alkaline and oxygenated and become more able to regulate our nervous system. Through the cold, we are able to activate the blood flow and get it within our wilful control.” Hof’s philosophy is ‘Get out of your mind and get into your breath because your breath is the life force.’
If all this sounds rather daunting, and you are not one of the growing Wim Hof followers of early morning swimming on the beaches of Cape Town, there are tips for us beginners too. Try turning your shower to cold for the last fifteen seconds and gradually increase it to thirty seconds over a few weeks. The muscles in the vascular system start to awaken, closing up and opening again and again. As a result, the tone of the vascular muscles improves, which means better blood flow and ultimately more energy. The Rambam also recommended this almost a thousand years ago!
Wim Hof has developed his own philosophy known as the Wim Hof Method, which stands on three pillars: Cold, breath, and mindset. Mindset means developing confidence and conviction in oneself in which one must be fully committed and mentally invested. He says the goal is stillness of the mind. With practice, this will bring control over the mind. He believes autoimmune diseases can be reversed and that we have the power to prevent illness by practising his methods daily. His mission is to change the prevailing attitude to disease by using his method to consciously influence our immune, lymphatic, and nervous systems. Since I was a little sceptical, I checked in with local endocrinologist, Dr Brad Merwitz, who confirmed that there is a growing body of evidence supporting Wim Hof’s claims that these methods can help to improve our health.
Judaism also has a rich and deep tradition of meditation. One basic method according to meditation expert, Rabbi Dov Ber Cohen (Mastering Life), is hashkata, which means quieting the mind, and is done most simply by focusing on the breath. He suggests breathing deeply in through the nose and out through the mouth, concentrating on the breath as it moves in and out. As your mind starts to wander, smile as you catch yourself, notice it, and bring it back to refocus on the breath.
Deb Dana, a therapist who integrates the polyvagal theory into her work, says that breath is a powerful tool and the most direct route to our autonomic nervous system and to regulation. However, whilst breath can be a regulator for many, she warns that it could also be dysregulating for someone else’s nervous system. In my private practice, I utilise a variety of breathing techniques with my clients which they can take home and use by themselves. (It is important that they find what works for them.) One simple favourite of mine is the 3-6 or 4-8 technique, which is to breathe in for 3 counts and out for 6 counts. The idea is to put the brake on the sympathetic nervous system which is usually activated when we are feeling anxious. By exhaling for double the length of the inhale, we are actively bringing ourselves into a calm state of the parasympathetic.
If you are interested in enhancing your health and alleviating stress, I recommend checking out the Insight Timer App on which there are many meditations and breathwork exercises.
Since we start the day thanking G-d for returning our life force, the breath of life (neshama), maybe we can start to develop a conscious awareness of the wondrous structure of our breathing (neshima) and the air that we breathe.
Let’s Get Practical
Here is a short exercise recommended by Kabat- Zinn (from his book, Full Catastrophe Living) to facilitate the mindful practice of breathing:
Tune into your breathing at different times during the day, feeling the belly go through one or two risings and fallings.
Become aware of your thoughts and emotions in these moments, just observing them with kindness, without judging them or yourself.
At the same time, be aware of any changes in the way you are seeing things and feeling about yourself.
Ask yourself and look deeply into whether your awareness of an emotion or thought that arises is actually caught in the feeling of the emotion or in the content of the thought.
Whilst Wim Hof has many different exercises, here is a simple one below which he outlines to be used to control stress. It is based on a humming technique which calms the sympathetic nervous system and taps into the parasympathetic nervous system:
Set a timer for one minute.
Settle yourself somewhere comfortable.
Breathe in deeply.
Breathe out with a sound like ‘Hum/Ah/Om’.
When you run out of air, breathe in deeply and let it out with another ‘Hum’.
Continue till the timer stops.
p 82 Attachment in psychotherapy ↑