Breathing is serious business. It should not be intervened in vain. And when intervened, it is good to know what you are doing. Is conscious breathing a path to bliss or problems?
Breathing is a habit. Every breath reinforces a breathing pattern and bodily state. What you constantly do, will get stronger. The same applies to any habit: eating, moving, daily rhythm, work and so on. This principle makes it understandable why it is so difficult to exit the vicious circle of chronic stress or chronic hyper- / hypo-arousal.
The breathing habit has been locked to produce and maintain exactly those mind-body reactions that you feel and experience (and would like to get rid of).
You might, for example, overbreathe chronically, that is, breathe constantly more in than out. Or you might paradoxically suck the belly in and shoulders up with inhalation. Or you might tense the belly all the time, completely unconsciously. These are breathing habits that tell the bodymind: tense, prepare for the worst and do not under any circumstance fall asleep and let go.
Does it then help to change the breath consciously? Change your breath, change your life? Start to breathe consciously in a different way: goodbye stress, tiredness and other problems?
Yes and no.
Punchlines of the modern breathwork world include promises of breathwork’s positive effects on health, vitality, concentration, memory, resilience and mental capacity. Powerful techniques such as Wim Hof, rebirthing or holotropic breathing attract more and more practitioners because by practicing them one really feels alive.
That which is often lacking when embracing these techniques and spreading them further, is the foundation on which breathing practices should be built.
Body tingles, mind feels unbelievably clear, emotional blockages are crushed and big let-go experiences take place. Techniques can be associated with spiritual experiences (you DID see the light during the powerful hyperventilation practice?!).
Media and literature bustle with different breathing practices; some that encourage expanding of the belly, some that concentrate on following different calculations (like 4-4-4-4, 4-5-6, 4-8 etc) and some that include switching nostrils.
That which is often lacking when embracing these techniques and spreading them further, is the foundation on which breathing practices should be built. I mean if the purpose is to change the unconscious breathing habit and take more than one step out of that vicious circle of stress, despair, anxiety and collapse.
That foundation is not based on control, doing more or changing the breath. It is based on setting the breath free. Functionality of diaphragm and pelvic floor. Relaxedness. Ability to let go. Understanding of how the breath due to various stimuli easily changes and how could those situation-dependent habits change.
I am a strong believer that any breathing modality can work for many purposes. It is - much more than a question of WHAT - a question of HOW.
The Myth About Right And Wrong Breathing
You breathe approximately 20 000 times in a day. It is unrealistic to assume that you could be conscious of every breathing cycle and always ready to react to its “badness” or “wrongness”. With conscious breathing, for example by lengthening the exhale, it is, of course, possible to calm down the nervous system state even very fast.
But what happens after the conscious moment? Does the breath return to old habits? Does the movement of the diaphragm diminish immediately after concentrating on it? Does the belly tense, do the shoulders lift up?
It might sound that I just described signs of a bad, wrong and utterly failed breathing habit. Actually I described completely natural breathing. Breath does exactly what it is supposed to be doing. It reacts to the state of the body - each moment. The only goal the body has is to maintain homeostasis, the inner balance of the system. If stress reaction has been chronically on for weeks, months or even years, the body does remember - and adjusts to maintaining the hormonal levels stress reaction calls for.
At the same time the body adjusts all its systems, including breathing, to work towards restoring the balance. For example: you are in a hectic situation, your muscles tense and your breathing rhythm increases. Now there’s sparsely carbon dioxide in blood stream and oxygen can not enter the cells effectively. The hectic situation passes but the diaphragm does not agree on relaxing. Long calm exhalation does not happen, breathing stays high in the chest, and the body is not able to retain all the carbon dioxide it needs. It tries desperately to fix the oxygen deficit of the cells by breathing even more, which further reduces the carbon dioxide concentration, maintains the stress reaction and tenses the diaphragm. The famous vicious circle, right?
That is why releasing the breath usually requires bodywork through movement and relaxation, without any kind of attempt to breathe in a certain way.
I claim that rehabilitating the unconscious breathing patterns requires always more than conscious practice. Breathing is mainly a completely unconscious, automatic act in which unbelievably many interconnected bodily systems participate. With conscious, continuous breathing practice one might actually do more harm than good, if one does not fully know what is being taught to the body.
That is why releasing the breath usually requires bodywork through movement and relaxation, without any kind of attempt to breathe in a certain way. Each and every one of us knows how to breathe. Sometimes in order to persuade that free breathing one has to whisper with a tender voice instead of a powerful shout. And in some situations the highest mastery is not to try anything excessive.
What If We Talked About Free And Functional Breathing?
Now that I have drawn dark clouds on the sky with vicious circles and tight diaphragms, I want to return to embracing the good news of free and functional breathing.
How could we define free and functional breathing? I’ll introduce here the EAARS model by Rosalba Courtney, one of my teachers.
Functional breathing is:
Breathing produces the largest amount of energy with minimum possible effort.
ADAPTIVE, APPROPRIATE and RESPONSIVE
Breathing adjusts automatically as the situation and nervous system state change. It is proportionate to how much oxygen the body needs. At rest breathing naturally calms down and carbon dioxide levels rise. When running it is natural to breathe in a different way than at rest.
Breathing supports bodily functions and homeostasis.
You might realise as seeing three attributes for adaptiveness and flexibility that not nearly every time does changing the breath consciously support the body in that it is naturally aiming at.
For free and functional breathing one has to surrender the will to control and change the state of affairs.
This is why I claim that excess conscious breathing can actually strengthen non-wanted breathing patterns that do not allow the body (and the breath) to function in a manner appropriate to the situation.
This is what might happen for example when practicing yoga in which movement is connected to the rhythm of the breathing. For some, this guided breathing might fit exactly the metabolic requirements of the body; for some it strengthens the stress reaction being too fast; for some it might cause anxiety because breathing needs to be slowed down too much from its own natural rhythm.
For free and functional breathing one has to, from time to time, surrender the will to control and change the state of affairs. Wise, well-timed practice that works with the body’s respiratory system at many levels will, however, pay off.
Free and functional breathing is always right, always natural, always in synchrony with the body's state and the environment.
What kind of mantra do you tell the world with your breath?