From “Iceman” Wim Hof helping us breathe past discomfort to scientists studying the effects of breath holding during sprints, breathing techniques are popping up everywhere. So if we’re not breathing our way to (as one breathing coach calls it) “a cosmic orgasm,” are we missing out?
Richard Godwin recently wrote in The Guardian, “The notion that breathing is good for you is one of the least controversial things you could say about the human body.” It’s also one of the least novel. If you’ve ever dabbled in yoga, chances are you’ve been guided through some form of breath work that’s hundreds of years old.
In fact, most of us have learned some breathing techniques already, whether we called them that or not. Ever taken swimming lessons? Efficient strokes rely on timing our breathing: holding our breath until we can take another without getting a mouthful of water.
Or maybe you like to sing? Whether you do it in the church choir or alone in your car, singing is an excellent way to train breathing because it requires good control of our out breath and, like swimmers, well-timed inhalations. According to this article, early in his career, the Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic consulted an opera singer to help him improve his breathing during play.
And if you had a baby in the past 50 years (or watched the “Friends” episode when Rachel has a baby!), you probably encountered the Lamaze or Bradley methods that use rhythmic breaths and deep relaxation breathing to help women manage pain in labor.
What all breathing techniques have in common is the conscious control of our breath to encourage a particular physiological state, usually one of relaxation. In this NPR article, Cleveland Clinic physician Mladen Golubic, M.D., Ph.D., says, “You can influence asthma; you can influence chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; you can influence heart failure. … There are studies that show that people who practice breathing exercises and have those conditions—they benefit.”
Breathing techniques can benefit recovery and stress management, too. Here, we’ve chosen two of our favorites.
How to do it: Take a deep breath in through your nose for three to five seconds. Breathe out from your mouth in short bursts, pushing the air out with strong pumps from your stomach.
When to try it: You can do this technique between sets during a workout to help your heart rate and breathing return to normal. Also, it’s good after a stressful presentation or an argument to help you calm down.
Why it works: Vigorous exercise burns a lot of energy and produces a lot of carbon dioxide and lactic acid (if we’re working hard enough). Both these waste products are acids that lower our blood pH, putting us into acidosis. When chemoreceptors in the heart are stimulated by the increase in acidity, it triggers faster breathing to help us expel extra carbon dioxide via the lungs. Strong, purposeful exhalations in this exercise help us blow out even more C02 and return to normal faster.
High-stress situations, like a dispute with a friend or family member, increase activity in our sympathetic nervous system. When this happens, our bodies often tense up to increase our physical stability. The forceful belly actions also strengthen certain breathing muscles, like the intercostal and multifidus muscles, which play a significant role in spinal stimulation. The stress of conflict also triggers elevated breathing and heart rates, much like during a workout, and the percussive exhalations can help us literally blow off steam afterward.
Brief breath holds
How to do it: Take a deep, belly-expanding breath in through your nose for three seconds. Hold your full breath (and belly) for three seconds more before exhaling through your mouth for three seconds and squeezing all the air out with your stomach. Hold at empty for three more seconds, then begin again with a three-second inhale. Gradually progress to four to five seconds per action.
When to try it: Also called “tactical breathing,” this technique is used by members of the military and first responders to help them focus and relax in the high-stakes and high-stress situations they face. Try it the next time you’re feeling nervous on your way to a job interview or struggling to keep your cool when your teenager dents the car.
Why it works: This is really a three in one. The slow, steady in and out breaths are similar to many other relaxation breathing techniques.
Holding our breath mimics the involuntary breath holding we tend to do when we’re stressed, under threat or trying something new. By holding a fully expanded diaphragm, we stimulate the vagus nerve, which helps calm down our stress response.
Holding the complete exhalation, on the other hand, activates and strengthens the secondary breathing muscles we mentioned earlier that increase spinal stability.
Photo credit: Henri Pham, Unsplash