For most of the time, our breathing is unconscious, meaning we're not really aware of it, it happens on autopilot. That’s all 23,000 of them a day, or thereabouts. We rarely, almost never, stop to take notice of the importance of our breath, nor its significance. We’re taught how to count, draw and brush our teeth, but rarely how to breathe. And yet this is essential education, because without good breathing, we’re not at our optimum health which ultimately means we’re not fully living. When we learn how to breathe properly and take time out to focus on it (known as Breathwork), it’s an incredibly powerful tool that will enhance your life in every way.
You'll begin receiving more oxygen into your lungs which in turn nurtures and regenerates your cells. Taking a few moments to consciously breathe can also have a powerful effect on your nervous system. It’s a quick and incredible way to slow yourself down and reset your system. There are many types of breathing (thousands, in fact) that will have such a positive effect on you – box breathing is one – where you breathe in for a count of five, hold your breath for five, and breathe out for five. It’s simple and can be done anytime, anywhere. But if you take twenty, thirty or forty minutes out of your day to focus on Breathwork, the results can be quite significant. This is how James Nestor, author of 2020’s book sensation ‘Breathe’ described his first experience of a Breathwork session as
“being taken from one place and deposited somewhere else. The next day I felt even better. There was a feeling of calm and quiet that I hadn’t experienced in a long time. I slept well. The little things in life didn’t bother me as much. The tension was gone from my shoulders and neck.”
Some describe Breathwork as other-worldly, or a kind of spiritual experience. I once heard Wim Hof describe it beautifully
“Through your breath you will find your soul”
But what actually is breath? How many of us even know the answer to some of these, life’s most basic questions? Breath is oxygen and energy – therefore we can say that breathing, and specific Breathwork practices, are an incredible, life-giving action. Think of your breath as a bridge, connecting you to all the different parts of yourself – your physical, mental, emotional and spiritual self. For me, a conscious breath is one that leads me towards a deepening connection, awareness and relationship with myself.
Amazingly, we get around 70% of our energy from our breath. So, if you’re not breathing properly and/or practicing some form of Breathwork, then it’s highly possible you’re not getting all the energy you need. This turns out to be the case for many of us adopting a busy, anxious, always-on-kin-of western culture. Most adults breathe in a shallow fashion, in their chest only. A small percentage breathe into their bellies, but very few breathe into both, which is what we’re designed to do. Further still, and back to James Nestor’s book on the subject, his scientific research suggests that if you’re not nose-breathing, then you’re in for (or already experiencing) a whole heap of health trouble.
Yet most of us are born the perfect breathers. Watch a healthy baby and see how their its tummy inflates and deflates, modelling the perfect diaphragmatic breath. But something happens as we go through life, picking up bad habits and experiencing minor upsets and big traumas. In these stressful moments, we automatically and unconsciously hold our breath. Imagine, in those social and work situations, where we often hold back from expressing our emotions fully. It might be down to social stigma (not great to cry in the supermarket!) or fear (I’ll probably get the sack if I start shouting now!). Suppressing our emotions prevents them from fully leaving our body. All this, tends to lead to poor breathing patterns in adulthood, which isn’t good for our physical, as well as our emotional, health.
In breath, so in life
As I see it, there are two topics to research and experience when it comes to our breath. One is about the effectiveness of your day-to-day breathing and if you’d like to learn more on this subject, I suggest Nestor’s book, which goes into great detail on mouth vs nose breathing. The other is about the life-long benefit of taking part in active breathing sessions i.e., Breathwork. From my own experience, as someone who’s seen the changes in myself through self-practice and now also as coach of others, a good Breathwork session will give you back your breath. In turn, it will improve and help maintain your health and wellbeing and help you re-learn how to use this incredible system you have right there inside you. Our breath has been called our own pharmacy, removing toxins from our body, boosting our immunity (particularly important right now) and gently allowing us to let go of the emotional baggage we’ve been carrying around with us for years. It can be a deep and powerful experience, taking us to places we’ve likely never been before – often quite a revelation to those trying it for the first time! And whilst meditation can do wonders for quietening the mind, the consensus is that breathwork is on a whole other level.
I’m a practitioner of a type of Breathwork called Conscious Connected Breathing. In a session, I see that the patterns of a person’s breath link to their whole way of living and being. Our inhale, for example, represents our ability (or inability) to receive. In Chinese, breath is called qi which also translates as vital energy, vital force, or simply as energy. And in Sanskrit, one of the oldest languages in the world, breath is translated as prana, which means a life-giving force and a universal energy which flows in currents in and around the body. So, we say, the greater connection we have to our inhale, the greater our ability is to receive. To receive love, to receive life.
What can you do, now?
If you can, find some time to slow down, listen and notice your breath, as if for the first time. Rekindle your childlike sense of awe and wonder, by observing the incredible life-giving properties of your breath. Consider it anew, as a great teacher with wisdom to impart and medicine to offer. And during this process, ask yourself some gently probing questions. What patterns within you need to change within yourself, within your life? Are you taking full responsibility in all areas of your life and for what you’re creating? How good are you at receiving love, at receiving life? There are many ways to undertake a Breathwork practice and as I mentioned, thousands of methods. Go online and try a few. I see Breathwork as a workout for your mind, body and spirit. You can go to your breath gym on your own, follow a workout online, or get a personal trainer (i.e. a breath coach) to guide you and push you a little more than you may do on your own. The choice is yours. Experiment, have fun, see where the journey takes you.
About the author
Justine is the founder of Wonderbreath. She’s a former CEO turned certified Conscious Connected Breath coach. Her entire wellbeing roadmap of the past twenty or so years began with trying to understand herself and her place in the world, She began her love of Breathwork many ago with a rigorous Ashtanga yoga practice and believes our breath is the most powerful tool we possess.
Justine is also a Shinrin-yoku (Forest Bathing) guide and founder of Wonderwoods – Forest Bathing Made In Britain. She’s the co-author of a lockdown-inspired book called I Am Every Woman – A Collection Of Extraordinary Life Journeys and a forthcoming guide to nature connection, called Wonder Woods - Finding Wisdom In The Forest.