The Value of Breathwork

When you have the opportunity to watch a small child sleeping, it’s impossible to miss how peacefully they breathe. When my little ones are sleeping I will often gently place my hand on their back or kiss their cheek and smile if they softly exhale with a gentle sigh. Most children are lucky to have bodies that are still open and soft enough to feel the breath to move easily in and out of the body, bellies rising and falling like an ocean wave.

The breath is a metaphor that we can use to better understand the ebb and flow of life, just as Donna Farhi notes in Yoga Mind, Body and Spirit: “The oscillation of breathing is a perfect mirror of the fluctuations of life…When we hold the breath and try to control life or stop changes from happening, we are saying that we do not want to be moved.” (30)

As we get older, muscles tighten up and we develop emotional and physical habits that can restrict our breathing patterns and lead to negative health effects. I think intuitively we all know the value of breathwork but it isn’t an easy practice to find the time for OR to wrap our heads around. When I first started practicing yoga I hated the final relaxation and the breathwork; the physical practice and the flexibility was what I wanted to develop and the other ‘stuff’ like meditation and breathwork (which is really the foundation of yoga in the east) was excruciating for me to participate in. I still encounter this attitude in yoga classes although it’s interesting that it’s becoming more rare for participants to leave before final relaxation (perhaps we are all aware of how stressed we have become since the pandemic?)

Breathing is such a powerful tool that we can use at any time or place but we seem to forget to use it when we need it most.

Breathwork has the power to:

  • activate the rest/digest or parasympathetic nervous system, allowing us to move from a feeling of stress to calm
  • reduce the physical sensations of stress; reducing heart rate, blood pressure, and the stress hormone cortisol
  • boost oxygen levels in the blood, brightening skin and increasing energy
  • increase patience and soothe anxiety

In my personal experience, even though breathing is natural, we can confuse ourselves with stressing about how to do it best. Over the years I feel like I’ve had some bad advice on how best to breathe and am reluctant to give students too many rules about how to breathe. For example, we are often encouraged to breathe deeply but if we have tightness in our ribs or have spent years trying to hold our abs tight, it isn’t going to be easy or helpful to try to force deep breaths. Here are some cues that I like to offer:

  • Think softness rather than depth…breathe softly and inhale softness. Let the softness of the breath translate into relaxing tense muscles and stress.
  • Feel the breath beyond just the belly (which is a great place to feel it!). Can you feel the back of the rib cage expand, especially in a pose like child’s pose?
  • Begin with some gentle stretches to open up the body for better breathing. Lateral stretches (think side stretching or a pose like ‘gate pose’) and gentle backbends can open up the muscles around our rib cage and create more space to breathe.
  • touching the body can help bring us closer to feeling how the breath ‘moves’ us – laying one hand on the belly can make us more aware of the wave of the breath.

One breath practice that has really resonated for me recently is the “3 Breath Hug”, which shows up in many books in mindfulness but began with the hugging meditation created by Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Essentially, we hold the person in our arms and take three slow breaths in and out. It’s a lovely practice to do with children (even tweens who likely will resist but love this kind of attention!)

I love this quote from Nhat Hanh: “If you breathe deeply like that, holding the person you love, the energy of your care and appreciation will penetrate into that person and she will be nourished and bloom like a flower.” It’s lovely to think of your hug and your presence nourishing another person!

Breathing is something we all do without even thinking about it but it has the power to be so much more. Whether it is the tool to bring us into the moment with a loved one or the balm that soothes the edges of a terrible day, breathwork is something you can use anywhere to find peace ♥︎

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