There’s been a massive influx of breathwork practitioners in just the past few years. Retreats, corporate events, and fitness studios are incorporating Breathwork into their schedules. And for good reason. This practice is powerful.
A quick search online would lead you to believe that Breathwork is simply a tool for calming your nerves or upping your energy when you feel a lull after your mid-afternoon lunch. But the effects of breathwork go far beyond simple energy boost and can actually help completely transform your state of being, your sense of purpose, and your ability to focus on what you truly care about.
Why is breathwork so powerful?
Western medicine has exploded into our lives. It's everywhere. We often don't think twice before reaching for a medicine bottle if we start feeling even slightly less than average. Yet very few of us actually know what we're putting into our bodies.
As side effects continue to plague prescription drug users, many are turning to alternative/holistic forms of health. And for good reason: they don't come with side effects, they're free, and they tend to work really well. Breathwork has certainly fallen into the category of effective holistic practices.
But when do we use breathwork?
We sometimes find ourselves in a funk. We might feel lethargic, anxious, stressed, lacking energy, scared, or just completely unmotivated. Many of these emotions and feelings bring us into one of 2 states: Hyper-arousal and Hypo-arousal.
Both states can destroy your mood and really set you back physically. Luckily, breathwork exercises can help jolt you out of both of these states and put you back into a place of calm and focus.
What is Hyper-arousal?
This occurs when we've stopped taking the time to slow down and are constantly on the go. We’re moving from email to Instagram to WhatsApp to phone calls to meetings and then straight to bed. We don’t take any time to slow down, close our eyes, breathe, or to just settle into ourselves and be present.
Society wants you to think that time is money. So this constant need for productivity jolts our brain into believing things need to be done now and they need to be done quickly. And if they aren’t accomplished fast, we won’t make rent, get the bills paid, or have enough money to eat.
If you feel that this sounds like you, we recommend jumping into some calming/deep breathing practices. You want something that helps soothe the nervous system, slow your heart rate, and get your breathing to down-shift from your chest into your belly.
Here are a few breathing exercises that we recommend for hyper-arousal:
Find a comfortable seated spot and close your eyes. Make sure your back is nice and straight. If this is difficult for you, put your back flush against a wall. For this exercise you’ll breathe in and out through your nose.
You’ll be applying a practice called ocean breath. This requires you to constrict the back of your throat in order to slow the air coming in and out of your body. To do this, first practice making a soft hissing noise with your mouth by constricting the back of your throat while you exhale. Just like you're fogging up a mirror in front of you. You can start by practicing with your mouth open and then once you get it, you can close your mouth.
As you breathe (into your belly) count to 5.5 seconds. As you exhale count to 5.5 seconds. With each breath in you’ll make that ocean sound with your throat in order to slow the intake of oxygen. And as you exhale you’ll do the same thing but slowing the release of carbon dioxide.
Do this for 30 breaths or for 10 minutes.
This exercise is very similar to Tenacious Breath above, but there’s no need to add ocean breath into this one, although you can if you're feeling into it.
In a seated position with your eyes closed, begin by breathing in and out for an even period of time. If you’re new to breathwork you might get to the top of your breath after three seconds. So if it takes you 3 seconds to get to the top of your inhale, then exhale to a count of 3. If you find it takes you 5 seconds to get to the top of your inhale, then exhale for 5.
Wherver you are on the spectrum, you want to focus on breathing from your belly and ribs, not your chest or shoulders. If you're finding that your chest is moving more than your belly, place a hand directly on your navel. Focus on pushing your hand up when you inhale, and feeling it fall back down when you exhale.
You want to build up over time so that eventually you can practice this exercise at 5 to 6 second breaths in and out. Do this for 20 breaths or set a timer for 10 minutes.
Find a comfortable seated position. You’ll be breathing in and out through your nose and humming on the exhale. Take one big breath in through your nose all the way, and as you exhale, you'll hum.
Hum for as long as you can until there’s no more air left. Then you’ll breathe in again through your nose and repeat that process.
Change up the tones of your hums on each exhale. Go deep on some and high on others.
What is Hypo-arousal?
We fall into this category for a number of reasons. Maybe we’ve experienced something traumatic in our lives. Perhaps we’ve recently been laid off from a job and suddenly find ourselves unsure of what to do with ourselves. Sometimes this might even occur simply by spending too much time on the couch in front of the TV.
General feelings associated with hypo-arousal include numbness, energy depletion, depression, dissociation, and a lack of interest in socializing with friends and others in the community.
When you begin to feel this way, there are a number of exercises that can help you combat these feelings. Powerful breath exercises can jolt your system out of a slump and hot wire fresh energy back into it.
Think about an engine you’re trying to start. Without giving it any gas by pushing the throttle, you aren't bringing life into the machine that ultimately gets you where you need to go. So the more force you can put into a breathing exercise, the better chance you have of getting yourself to the right state of mind.
Here are a few breathing exercises that we recommend for hypo-arousal:
Just like the breathwork we practice at a Reconnect Session, you'll start by lying flat on your back with a straight spine. If you need to have a support under your head that’s OK, but just keep it to a very small pillow. Before you begin just make sure to relax your body and bring all your thoughts inside. Do a slow body scan just noticing all the sensations you’re feeling on each part of your body
You’ll start by taking four second breaths in and out through the nose. Do this for one minute and 30 seconds. After one minute, you'll increase your rate of breathing to 2-second inhales and 2-second exhales. Do this for one minute and 30 seconds.
At the end of that second minute you’ll breathe as much air in as you possibly can then you’ll let it all go and you’ll hold for one minute. After the minute is up, take a large breath in and hold for 5-10 seconds. Then let it go.
You’ll repeat this process three, four, or five times, whichever you’re feeling. The breath hold on each round can either stay the same length or increase in time. You could do one minute the first round, one minute 15 seconds for the second round, and finally one minute 30 seconds for the third and final round.
You can view a guided version of this exercise below.
Two & Two
This one is exactly what it sounds like. You’ll be breathing in and out through your nose the entire exercise. You’ll start by taking two forceful breaths in through your nose and then you’ll make two forceful exhalations out through your nose.
How much energy and strength you put into the breathing depends on your state of hypo-arousal. If you feel particularly lethargic put more energy into each breath. If you just need a little pick me up, try half the energy level.
Remember to breathe into your belly and ribs. Your shoulders are barely moving in this exercises. You want to be sure that you're engaging your primary breathing muscles; the diaphragm and the intercostals (located in the ribs).
Sit with a straight spine. You’re going to be doing some forceful breaths in and out through your nose, it might be handy to have a tissue nearby. You’re going to forcefully push the air out with your nose in rapid movements. You’ll be focusing on the exhale, the inhale will just come naturally. This exercise is kind of like you’re pumping the air out of your belly with your nose.
So take a deep breath in through your nose and quickly and forcefully push all the air out. These should be rapid and quick. Kind of like you're breathing to the song 'Stayin Alive' by the Bee Gees.
Do this for 30 breaths and then take one big final inhale, then breathe all the air out and hold for 10 to 15 seconds.
Repeat this process 3 to 4 times. This particular exercise is better to practice in the morning upon waking.
Breathwork Can Awaken Stem Cells
Besides being an amazing way to summon your peaceful spirits, it's beginning to be documented that breathwork, particularly breath holds, can actually cause somatic stem cells to awaken in the brain.
When you hold your breath, your body slowly starts to enter a state of hypoxia, or low blood oxygen levels ( SpO₂). The longer you can push yourself (we're talking 1.5 minutes to 2.5 minutes) to remain in a state of low oxygen, the more likely somatic stem cells will awaken.
Stem cells generally exist in your body while you're in the womb. After birth, these stem cells go into hiding and begin dying the older you become. But in low oxygen environments, they thrive. Once they start to awaken they're known to rush to areas of the body that require healing and begin repairing them.
Research on this matter is still limited, but the understanding we have is fascinating and shows a small glimmer of just how powerful a simple act of breath holding can have on our body and mind.
To learn more about the power of breathing, register for our upcoming Masterclass on November 22nd.
To become a certified Reconnect instructor, click here.
Kevin is the founder of Reconnect and has led thousands of cold enthusiasts through breathwork and ice bath experiences. He holds a number of breathwork certifications and studied with breath expert and best-selling author James Nestor. Kevin delivers breathwork and cold exposure trainings for retreats and corporate events.