Many people feel that they don’t need to learn how to breathe because we are all born doing it. It comes naturally, right? In order to understand the benefits of breath, it’s important to know that while we ARE all born breathing naturally and efficiently, this ability declines with age. By the time children reach age ten, most are no longer breathing in a healthy way. As they age, the breath continues to decline. This is a significant because healthy lung function is correlated with improved stamina and overall health.
In order to understand healthy breathing, it’s good to know that breathing is not the same as breathwork. Breathing can be separated into three categories: breathing, therapeutic breathing, and breathwork.
Breathing is what we all do automatically. There is no thought behind it. It just happens mechanically. The technique could be healthy and efficient, but for most of us it is not. So how do we go from being efficient breathing babies to shallow, high, inefficient breathing mouth breathers? When humans are under stress, the breath gets shorter, shallower, and moves high into the chest so that the body can mobilize to fight, flee, or freeze. Adrenaline flows into the system for a burst of energy. Blood moves away from the digestive system and into the extremities so that the body can take care of the threat.
In other words, it’s a protective mechanism. (Those who study breath consider anything over 15 breaths per minute to be a stress signal. The average adult is at or above this level). When the danger is over, breathing becomes more relaxed and moves back into the belly.
This happens in a split second. It doesn’t matter if the “threat” is a robber, something scary you saw on a movie, or a loud noise. Unfortunately, the world is full of things that the nervous system sees as a threat because it wasn’t designed for modern living. Electric lights extend the work and play day. Violence streams from the television. Coffee, energy drinks, and cigarettes override the body’s signals to sleep.
Add to that the noise level in a typical city on any given day. According to the Center for Hearing and Communication, regular exposure to 85 dBA (adjusted decibels) overtime will cause hearing loss. So many aspects of daily life push the upper limits of that, such as an alarm clock, doorbell, blender, and freeway traffic. Other facets of every day life regularly go far above like car horns, concerts, rocking out in your car, a baby crying, jet noise, and a motorcycle driving by. Our nervous systems are under constant assault! Is it any wonder we’re all holding our breath?
To override this, some people engage in therapeutic breathing. This refers to utilizing deliberate breathing patterns in order to positively impact the nervous system, induce relaxation, create altered states, or manifest some other positive outcome. These technique can include things like holding the breath, counting the breath, alternating speed or length of the inhale or exhale, or alternate nostril breathing. Or it may just include instructions on how to breathe more efficiently to overcome the restricted, inefficient patterns that have been acquired through stress. Once learned, therapeutic breathing becomes a self-help tool.
Breathwork is also therapeutic; however, it generally requires a lot of training to learn it. It is generally facilitated because the breather can have altered states experience, release intense emotions, or recall lost memories. This can put him or her into a vulnerable state which requires some guidance and care. Because it opens up stuck emotions and energy, it can require some assistance to down regulate the system. For this reason it’s also not advised to do breathwork as self-help.
Therapeutic breath and breathwork are fabulous tools that anyone can use for health and healing. They are all natural. There are no negative side – effects. The change is often quick. Sometimes it is the only intervention you need. Other times it can enhance other therapies so that they are more effective. Your body needs air anyway? Why not learn how to breathe mindfully and in a healthy way again?