Command your breath, command your life.
Breathwork is all about making the unconscious, conscious; and today, we’re seeing a resurgence of respect for the breath as a tool to shift our state. Breathwork has been alive and well for centuries, and is integrated in many spiritual practices as a way to connect to self/source/presence. It’s perhaps the most efficient (and free) way to alchemize our bodies to feel better.
There are many different types of breathwork or pranayama, which range from sympathetic inducing (stimulate a controlled stress response) or parasympathetic inducing (induce rest and digest, relaxation etc.). Both are highly supportive in helping us become more resilient, and can be tapped into depending on your goals. Typically, when we extend our inhales, we induce the stress response (think breathwork that leaves you feeling slightly tingly), whereas elongating the exhale slows down the heart rate and induces a feeling of calm.
Conscious breathing has numerous physiological benefits. It alkalizes the blood (lowers the pH), increases our HRV (heart rate variability), improves vagal tone, reduces inflammation, helps us open up the fascia around our lungs and abdomen, and supports lymphatic drainage. Let’s dive into these benefits a little deeper to understand the potent power of the breath.
Lowers Blood pH
When we breathe in, we take in O2 (oxygen) and exhale CO2. When we speed up this process through breathwork, we get clear more CO2, which is an acidic molecule, thus changing the pH of the blood. If you’ve heard of alkaline water or alkaline diets, you’re familiar with the benefits of an alkaline body, or put another way, the negative impacts of being in a more acidic state: the body will always neutralize the blood to a healthy pH, but an acidic environment forces it to do more work and pull more resources, taxing the body as a result.
Heart Rate Variability measures our heart’s change in rhythm between the inhale (sympathetic nervous system) and exhale (parasympathetic nervous system). Our heart rates go up on the in-breath and down on the out-breath. You can test this out yourself, find your pulse and take a deep breath in, slowly breathe out. Repeat this a few times, and notice how you can you feel your pulse change? The higher your Heart Rate Variability, the greater control you have over your nervous system, aka your ability to self regulate and shift from sympathetic dominance (fight or flight) to parasympathetic dominance (rest and digest). Breathwork helps increase our HRV, so we can learn how to take control of our stress response.
Improved vagal tone
The “vagus nerve” is a highway that connects our gut, heart and brain. Virtually all mind-body practices work to strengthen this connection, also known as improving vagal tone. Breathwork is one of the most potent of these tools.
By strengthening our vagal tone, we increase our ability to regulate our nervous system. This means learning how to reorient from stress, achieve deep rest, and support our body in communicating between all of its systems, which promotes ease and prevents dis-ease.
Breathwork causes the body to release epinephrine, which has an anti-inflammatory effect due to its influence on the innate immune system. You may have heard of the infamous Wim Hof who was injected with bacterial toxins via an IV and used his sympathetic breathwork practice to prevent the bacteria from infecting him (this was also mimicked in a larger study ft. participants who were taught his Wim Hof breathwork system). The breath can literally fight off infection!
Let’s first define fascia: The fascial continuum is the result of the evolution of the perfect synergy among different tissues, liquids and solids, capable of supporting, dividing, penetrating, feeding and connecting all the districts of the body, from the epidermis to the bone, involving all the functions and organic structures. The continuum constantly transmits and receives mechanometabolic information that can influence the shape and function of the entire body.” (source) The diaphragm is composed of fascia, and practicing deep,diaphragmatic breathing helps engage it and all of the fascial tissues lining your rib cage and abdominal cavity. By hydrating and keeping our fascia pliable, we improve circulation and prevent our organs from getting “stuck” in dense fascia, which can prevent them from functioning properly. Also, if we’re chronically breathing in a shallow way, we’re not giving the diaphragm the proper activation is needs, which can cause fascia in the diaphragm to become sticky and immobile. This prevents us from being able to take calming, soothing deep belly breaths, which can create an ongoing feeling of stress of anxiety.
Lymph is constantly flowing beneath our skin, carrying with it immune molecules that keep tabs on foreign invaders. Lymph gets pumped through physical movement – a stagnant body = stagnant lymph. In fact, our bodies are so intelligent, that lymph nodes are nestled into areas of high contact and friction – think your armpits, behind your knees, and in your groin. Breathing deep, diaphragmatic breaths helps pump lymph through the thoracic duct. This allows our immune system to function optimally and helps reduce lymphatic build up (swelling), thereby preventing lethargy, brain fog, changes in mood, and physical puffiness.
Breathing is the first and last thing you’ll ever do in this life, and its importance on overall health and wellbeing can’t be overstated. Even just a few conscious breaths a few times a day can dramatically shift your state. Try pairing a conscious breath pattern with things you already do habitually – before sitting down for food, in the shower, first thing and last thing in bed, in a movement class, etc.- Trilby