What Is Breathwork and How Is It Useful?

November 2019

Inspiration

The question that often arises for me is, “Why pay attention to our breath?” Why do we spend time focusing our awareness on different breathing exercises and patterns?  Our breath is a physical manifestation of our life force. Breathwork is when we invest energy into controlling this life force in an effort to stay present— both in our own bodies and in time and space.

Focusing on the breath is a common focus in a yoga practice. It is often called Pranayama and is the act of consciously controlling your breath. Consciously being aware of your breath gives your monkey mind something to concentrate on. Rather than a grocery list, work worries or other nagging thoughts you focus on the in and out. Returning to the simplicity of filling our bodies with fresh oxygen and releasing that which does not serve us can be meditative and soothing.

Breathwork Versus Breathing

I would argue breath isn’t ‘work’ – it is a steady pulse that beats continuously without any additional effort. The work consists of tuning into your breath and using it as a tool, in addition to the benefits of what already exists. Our parasympathetic nervous system is what allows us to breathe without placing any intentional effort. It is the same system that causes our heart to continue beating without our conscious effort. 

Our bodies are our own best protector against environmental stress. When your body experiences a trigger that causes a “fight-or-flight” response, or stress, it releases cortisol and adrenaline which causes your breathing to speed up and increases your pulse and blood pressure. Returning to your deep breathing practices you learn in your yoga practice can help reverse this response and relax your body. This is why many people who experience symptoms and effects of PTSD, trauma, depression, and anxiety find yoga to be so deeply beneficial. 

Some forms of breathwork can help to further support our parasympathetic nervous system. The practice of completing a full breath cycle with our chest, belly, back, and mind offer physical benefits that are often immediate. By targeting areas of your body with your breath and breathing deeply you can activate your parasympathetic nervous system. This will naturally cause your heart rate and blood pressure to slow down.

Breath and Movement

Some forms of yoga, such as Hatha yoga, link the breath and movement to create a meditative practice. Such a link can help to relieve mental and physical tension to allow for a deepening and opening practice. Additionally, integrating breath and movement will help you to dive deeper into yoga postures. Particularly those that may be working to open closed off parts of our bodies such as in our shoulders and hips. 

King pigeon pose works heavily on creating space in our outer hips, an area where we house emotional trauma and stress. With the help of gravity and awareness, we can slowly release built-up tension. Being comfortable with holding this pose for a long duration of time can be challenging and this is when we turn to our breath for support. Focusing on the cool air coming in through your nose and the heat escaping your mouth. It will release focus from what is happening in your lower body.

Excitingly, there are a number of different exercises and ways we can learn to use the power of our breath to benefit our bodies. If you are interested in learning more consider attending a workshop or yoga class. As always, feel free to contact me with any questions, thoughts, ideas or concerns. Namaste.