By Tracy Kinsella
Tracy is a Renal Counsellor in the Renal Psychological Service team at The Lister Hospital.
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In James Nestor’s book “Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art” Nestor experiments on himself and another willing participant with only breathing through the mouth for ten days and then through the nose for ten days. What he discovered backed up all the reading and research he had collated on how vital it is for us to breathe in through our noses. He felt tired, ill, depressed, mentally slow and slept badly when he only breathed in through his mouth.
‘ . . Research has shown that people who only breathe in through their mouths live shorter lives with more health problems than those who breathe in through the nose or the nose and mouth (Nestor 2020). . .’
This is because breathing in through the nose helps to filter and warm the air and importantly to produce nitric oxide which helps to open up the airways. We get more oxygen in to our lungs when we breathe in through the nose (Breathing in through the mouth makes your mouth dry along with other undesirable physical and mental effects (read Nestor’s experiment in his book).
Nestor advocates several important things about the breath:
- Breathing in through the nose
- Ensure a longer exhalation out of the nose or mouth if you are stressed or anxious or have insomnia
- What we may need is to practice slower breathing (five – six breaths a minute) so in essence to breathe less, once we have worked up to this practice
- To chew more as chewing helps the parasympathetic nervous system to come online and we can in a sense fool our nervous system into rest and digest through the process of chewing.
- To breathe in more if we feel sluggish, depressed or flat. I teach energising yogic breaths to help wake up the nervous system if it is hypo aroused.
- Some breathwork practices where the breath is held have a positive effect in that paradoxically breath holding can produce more oxygen in the body. However, you should check with a doctor before you do this. There is a method of breathing for people with asthma called the Buteyko method which involves holding the breath but I am not qualified to do this and it is best to find an Instructor trained in this.
I would also say that practicing conscious breathing techniques on a daily basis if possible, is the best way to start doing breath work. By conscious, I mean any practice which involves non automatic breathing. So that might be watching the breath, counting the breath or closing one nostril for example. This is because the benefits of breath work are cumulative. The more we do it the more benefit we will feel. I often invite clients to practice Straw Breathing for example three times a day for 10 breaths if they are highly anxious or stressed.
Dan Brule in his book ‘Just Breathe’ (2017) says that regular conscious breath work helps to transform our body, our mind, our spirit and thus helps our relationship with ourself and others. He has a 21-day Breath Mastery challenge at the end of the book combining calming, balancing and energising breaths.
I am a great fan of yoga for helping people to a body awareness through watching the breath, movement with the breath and chanting using the breath. I recommend having a look at Russell Brand who has put a lot of Kundalini breath practices online. Buddhist meditation also involves watching and counting the breath. The Wim Hof stuff can be a bit challenging if you have health issues. With any breathwork practice however, do some research or ask a doctor or Breathwork Coach if they know of any potential side effects. If you have heart disease, eye, ear or throat issues, high or very low blood pressure or stomach issues then some breathwork practices are not recommended. For example Kapalabhati breath is not recommended for heart disease. Thus the more dynamic the breath practice the more caution you need before deciding to do it.
Straw breathing is my favourite go-to conscious breathing technique for stress and anxiety and one that I teach to lots of clients. It involves breathing in through the nose and elongating the out breath by imagining there is a straw between your lips and breathing out through the straw (so out through the mouth in a controlled slow way). The aim is to make the out breath much longer than the in breath. This calms us by engaging the parasympathetic nervous system so that we can self-regulate better. It can be done anywhere, waiting for a medical appointment or at work in front of a computer. The only warning with this is that if you have low blood pressure it is better to do this sitting or lying down as it lowers your blood pressure. Here is the video demonstrate it:
Breathwork can actually lengthen your life if done regularly, mindfully and by being aware of any potential contra-indications. It can also improve the quality of your life and help your nervous system build resilience. Happy breathing everyone
References / Further Reading:
Nestor, J. (2020) Breath – The New Science of a Lost Art. Penguin
Brule, D. (2017) Just Breathe – Mastering Breathwork . Enliven, New York