The start of the year can be difficult. Miserable weather, minimal daylight, the pressure to better ourselves whether we want to or not – it all takes its toll.
And stress continues to weave its way into our brains and bodies as we survive the day-to-day. Relationships, the pandemic, money worries, health issues, family dramas – it’s no wonder we’re all being told to make time for ourselves and prioritise doing things that make us happy.
Meditation and mindfulness are increasingly common, but if you don’t have a regular practice it can feel quite intimidating, or tricky to fit into a busy schedule. That’s where breathwork comes in…
What is breathwork?
“Breathwork is a mindfulness practice that can help increase our ability to focus and concentrate,” says Mel Mah, Calm’s ‘Daily Move’ instructor (calm.com).
And who doesn’t want that? It involves various different breathing techniques that can increase your breath capacity, calm the nervous system and potentially give you more conscious control over every dimension of your health.
“I like to call it breath training because it really is a form of exercise,” notes Diana Archer Mills, creative director at Les Mills.
“It’s all about training the diaphragm, which is the centre of the human organism. Breathing controls and regulates every biological process in the body.”
For a long time, she adds, we’ve focused on the external benefits of training – i.e. how it makes our bodies look. “But our breath is the epicentre of our physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual health – it really does affect every dimension of our being, so it makes sense to pay more attention to it.”
There are different types of breathwork you can do, Mah says. “There’s a subtler manipulation of breath through various techniques used in yoga (called Pranayama), and a more modern, active three-part breathwork, where you breathe through your mouth into the belly, then into the chest and exhale out.
Regardless of what technique you’re using, the breath plants you right into the present moment, and it helps you get more in tune with how you’re feeling.
“Your breath is happening all the time, without you even having to think about it. So when we do think about it, we become far more aware of everything else that’s happening in the now.
We can relax our nervous systems and let go of whatever stress and worries we may have. A teacher of mine once said, ‘The way you breathe reflects the way you think’.
If you’re able to slow down your breath and make it smooth and steady, you can establish that stability in the mind, as well. Your thoughts and your breath are undoubtedly connected.”
What will it do for you?
Breathwork is accessible to everyone, and can be quick and easy to fit into hectic lives, says MoreYoga instructor and head of wellness, Liz Joy Oakley.
“Most of the exercises are also very straightforward, so you don’t need any previous experience or knowledge, and you can start straight away.”
It doesn’t have to be a big regime. Mah often sets an alarm to do three simple breaths in the midst of a chaotic workday – perfect for anyone feeling frazzled working from home.
Use it when you feel stressed, anxious or negative, or even while you’re listening to someone in a conversation.
“Whatever your circumstances, the breath is available to help ground you in the body and return you to the present moment – where we can find calm, peace, and gratitude once more,” she adds.
The suggested benefits of regular breathwork are pretty impressive. “It can help to improve your cardiovascular health and your sleep, boost your immune system and lower blood pressure, support your mental health and ease the symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression,” says Joy Oakley.
How to get started
“A breathwork regime can be a simple 10-15 minute practice in the morning or evening,” suggests Archer Mills. “Enter the practice with an open mind.”
Mah recommends starting by simply taking three deep, conscious breaths. “I like to close my eyes and place my left hand on my chest and right hand on my belly as I take these breaths.
Breath in deeply, and exhale slowly. Focus on the length of each breath, from the moment you start your inhalation, to the end of your exhalation.
You can count the breaths as you take them, or silently recite the words, ‘Breathing in’ and ‘breathing out’. You’ll be surprised at how powerful three breaths in the middle of your day can be.”
Guided practice is the easiest way to start. Calm’s new ‘Daily Move’ programme is a great introduction to breathwork.
Les Mills introduced breathwork sessions on their app last year, where you can explore simple techniques to increase energy, clarity of mind, shift anxiety and promote sleep, and MoreYoga hosts a ‘Beginners Guide to Breathwork’ and a six-part ‘Breathwork for Stress’ series.
“January is a great time to start, because you can feel the energy of new beginnings,” concludes Mah. “I recommend starting small to make breathwork a part of your daily routine. Consistency is important, perfection is not – because perfection is an illusion.”
Try breathwork the next time you’re on the sofa, walking to work or doing the dishes – and keep it up.
Set an alarm to get up from your desk at 3pm in the afternoon and try taking those three breaths. It might just be the gear change you need right now.