Breathing is a reflex – an automatic, vital action that keeps us alive.
But the simple trick of altering how you breathe can also help improve your health and ease all sorts of niggles, according to Stuart Sandeman, transformational breath coach and founder of Breathpod (breathpod.me).
“Many people breathe in shallow and constricted patterns, limiting the amount of oxygen that’s delivered to the cells of the body,” he explains.
“This can lead to lack of energy, feeling emotionally drained and can trigger stress, anxiety and, some people believe, even depression.”
As more of us realise the importance of how we inhale, there are classes popping up all over the country designed to optimise the way you breathe.
Try some of these clever techniques to help you breathe your way to better physical, mental and emotional health.
The 4-7-8… To fall asleep – Struggling to slip into slumber?
Dr Andrew Weil from the University of Arizona, who teaches the “4-7-8” technique, describes it as “a natural tranquiliser for the nervous system” and promises it will help you nod off in minutes.
Here’s how to do it: Keeping the tip of your tongue on the ridge of tissue just above your upper front teeth, first exhale forcefully through your mouth making a “whoosh” sound.
Then close your mouth and inhale through the nose for a count of four.
Hold your breath for a count of seven, then exhale through the mouth (making the “whoosh” sound) for a count of eight.
Repeat the cycle no more than four times and you should be ready to drift off to dreamland.
Slow down your breathing… To ease pain
Most of us breathe at a rate of 12-18 times a minute, but a US clinical study published in the journal PAIN found that slowing down breathing by half can reduce feelings of discomfort.
In the experiment, women were exposed to moderately painful pulses of heat on their palms while breathing normally.
When they slowed their breathing by 50%, they rated the pain as less intense.
To breathe at a rate of six breaths a minute, simply take a deep breath into your belly for four seconds and exhale for six seconds.
The puffer fish… To stave off a panic attack
If you feel anxious, and have that “fight or flight” feeling, try breathing in slowly through the nose, directing your breath into your belly.
“Blow up your cheeks like a puffer fish, holding for five seconds, then slowly exhale through the mouth,” says Stuart.
Breathing out through pursed lips helps slow down your breathing rate and stops the hyperventilation (or over-breathing) that characterises anxiety and panic.
“It’s a great technique to calm children down too,” says Stuart.
The bellows breath… For a boost of energy
“This yoga technique helps release natural energy throughout the body so you’ll feel fully charged without the need of a coffee,” says Stuart.
“The aim is to use your diaphragm to pump the navel in on each exhale and out on each inhale.”
The technique is quite advanced, adds Stuart, so approach it in steps.
“Sitting up tall, with a straight spine, first practise panting like a dog with an open mouth to get the rhythm and navel movement right (in on the exhale, out on the inhale).
“Now close the mouth and continue this rhythm, breathing through the nostrils. Both inhale and exhale should be equal duration.
“Next, while inhaling, lift your hands up in the air above your head and on the exhale bring your elbows to your sides.”
Repeat 15-20 times, aiming for one inhalation and one exhalation per second.
“If you feel dizzy, giddy or light headed, take a break,” warns Stuart.
“Don’t try the technique if you are pregnant.”
The “ha” breath… To ease a tension headache
Breathing too shallowly can result in an inadequate supply of oxygen to blood vessels in the brain – and that can cause headaches .
“This technique also helps release jaw, face and neck tension,” says Stuart. “First, slowly and deeply inhale through your nose.
“Then, exhale strongly through the mouth, making a “ha” sound, opening your mouth wide and sticking your tongue out as far as possible towards your chin.
“Inhale slowly, returning to a neutral face. Repeat four to six times.”
Belly breathing… To cure heartburn
A trial published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology found that people with acid reflux who regularly practised “belly breathing” exercises had less heartburn and were eventually able to cut back on their medication, too.
Belly breathing (or diaphragmatic breathing) is thought to help reduce acid reflux because it may strengthen the muscles of the diaphragm.
So, place one hand on your chest, the other on your tummy.
Breathe in deeply and slowly to a count of four or five, directing the air into your tummy so the hand on your chest stays relatively still while the hand on your tummy rises.
Breathe out for a count of seven or eight. Continue breathing slowly like this for as long as feels comfortable.