[As published in September/October BayBuzz magazine.]
In the cracking read – Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art – scientific journalist James Nestor estimates 80% of the world’s population is not breathing correctly. It therefore might seem ironic that most folk take breathing for granted. I mean why not? It’s the first thing we do when we come into the world and the last before we leave and unless you are gasping it is easy to overlook.
I must admit I am the opposite. I am an unashamed breathing obsessed nerd. I’ve read that many books and done a swag of breathing training. In fact, as I write this, I’m in Auckland doing a Buteyko Breathing course with New Zealand’s leading authority Glen White. I mean how many breathing certificates does one girl need?
If I were on the psychiatrist chair it would probably stem back to a near drowning when I had just learnt to crawl and headed straight into a stream while on a picnic with family friends; only to be noticed just as I passed out by my Dad Charles, who did CPR. It was one of those family stories that came up periodically … along with the time I toddled around finishing the ladies’ cocktails.
Like many of our obsessions, I have found many avenues of exploration.
Fresh from a training with Christchurch-based Breathing Guru Donna Farhi 20 years ago, I went and nursed my Mum Beverley when she was dying with cancer and battling for each breath. A collapsed lung and a lifetime mouth breathing affliction made each breath feel particularly precious. Coupled with that, my dear Dad was being hospitalised with asthma that had turned to emphysema which he attributed to the sprays he used on our family orchard without any protection in those days.
You could safely say that optimal breath was a family theme ripe to explore. It is not surprising that stressors and stress events are the number one contributor to dysfunctional breathing.
When I first arrived in Hawke’s Bay and taught regular yoga classes around the Bay, I noticed immediately how many poor breathers were out there. Here is the tricky thing about retraining breath to be optimal: If you tell someone they are breathing poorly it can make it much worse and, in my experience, harder to reset. As breathing is an involuntary process, you need to be relaxed and your nervous system in its sympathetic ‘rest and digest’ mode to retrain breathing patterns. And retraining breathing by not thinking about breathing can be a delicate balance.
My strategy was to quietly monitor breathing patterns of the regular students and if they didn’t improve week by week within the hothouse of the yoga room after a couple of months I would suggest that they visit Jo Eames, our legend OG Hawke’s Bay-based BradCliff Breathing Method Physiotherapist who works out of Focus Health.
Signs that you could do with some breath optimisations are vast. In the yoga room I would look for breaths per minute and keep an eye on anyone above 14 breaths a minute, also with a keen eye on the mouth breathers and upper chest breathers. Other indicators can include frequent yawning or sighing, throat clearing or coughing, shortness of breath, digestive issues, brain fog, audible breath at rest, chronic stress or anxiety, sleep issues, jaw clenching, panic attacks, frequent urination at night, postural problems, general fatigue or low energy or unexplained tension or muscle pain.
While breathing is primarily an involuntary process that sustains our life, exploring optimal breathing can indeed unlock a plethora of physical, mental and emotional benefits. From boosting energy levels, to reducing stress and improving overall wellbeing, it turns out the way we breathe can play a significant role in the quality of our life.
While this fills books, classes, courses and retreats – what are some simple ways to start?
If I had to give three foundation pointers as a basis for optimal breathing, they would be:
1. Good Posture: You only need to hunch forward and check out your breath to understand the dramatic effect of posture on breathing. A posture of confidence with the essence of a smile not only boosts our feel-good hormones, but also gives our lungs and thoracic diaphragm muscle that attaches to the base of your rib cage (the primary muscle of respiration) room to do its best work. Optimal lung expansion, energy output and improved gas exchange affect every part of the body
2. Nasal Breathing: Using your nose to breathe filters, humidifies and warms the air reducing inflammation and irritation as well as regulating volume and aiding optimal lung function. The nasal sinuses also produce nitric oxide which improves blood flow and oxygen delivery, regulates blood pressure and super charges the immune response. If you are a mouth breather then your risk of infections and viruses soars, along with dental issues, bad breath and impaired development of the jaw and facial bones.
3. Relaxation: Poor breathing patterns are often attributed to stress, whether it be a stress event or longer term mental/emotional, physical or chemical stress. It makes sense therefore that stepping out of the fray is the best place to start. The Waipukarau-based BradCliff Breathing Physios Rachel Kyle and Jane Kilmister from Plus Rehab CHB explain: “When we are physiologically relaxed more blood flows to the brain. The brain consumes 20% of our oxygen intake. Under stressful conditions this can be reduced by up to 50%.” Making restful relaxation a daily routine can go a long way to better breathing.
Choosing the best breathing techniques to enhance optimal breathing depends on your base line, health conditions, preferences and goals. Here are three foundation breathing techniques to explore and unleash your potential. Start with a few minutes and gradually increase.
1. Diaphragmatic Breath (aka Belly Breathing) Engaging in low, light and slow breaths into the base of your lungs increases carbon dioxide in the blood, promoting oxygen release from haemoglobin. By breathing using the diaphragm as opposed to shallow chest breathing you can improve oxygen delivery to your cells, reduce stress and anxiety, improve digestion, enhance the immune response, potentially help manage pain and improve focus and mental clarity.
2. Brahmari Breathing (aka Humming Breath)After breathing in through the nose with a closed mouth and the tip of the tongue resting behind your top front teeth you gently exhale through the nose making a sustained humming sound. According to Glen White from Buteyko Breathing NZ, “Humming breath leads to a 15-to-20-fold increase in nitric oxide levels helping to open up the airways and kills pathogens.”
3. Nadi Shodhana (aka Alternate Nostril Breathing) A more advanced technique suitable if you are comfortably nasal breathing and regularly and easily practice diaphragmatic breath. Sit comfortably upright & relaxed. Gently exhale through both nostrils then close off your right nostril with you right thumb. Inhale gently through left nostril. Close left nostril with your ring finger and exhale gently through your right nostril. Continue the pattern. This technique balances the hemispheres of the brain bringing harmony, regulating blood pressure, enhancing brain function and immune response and supporting emotional balance.
What is the hardest part of getting the best out of each breath? BradCliff Breathing Physio, Jo Eames, sums it up, “Getting people to take it on board. A lot of people want a quick fix. It takes 6 to 8 weeks with 10 minutes practice twice a day to retrain breathing patterns and if someone is not prepared to do this they will not change.”
The best news. Once you have optimal breathing as your default breath pattern you can in theory keep this with short periods of regular practice and in turn be more quickly aware when the waves of life steer you off course.
Start now. Posture of confidence. Take a moment to pause. Breathe (low, light and slow) and go forth with the essence of a smile. The best of the best exploring how to be even better.
• Breath: The New Science of A Lost Art by James Nestor
• The Breathing Book: Good Health and Vitality Through Essential Breath Work by Donna Farhi
• The Oxygen Advantage by Patrick McCowen
• How to Take a Breath by Tania Clifton-Smith
Kate McLeay runs wellness retreats including a Breathe Easy Retreat out at the iconic Cape South Country Estate and Wellness Retreat near Waimarama. She is a Reiki Master, yoga teacher and mindfulness coach.