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Understand the science of breathwork without breaking a sweat

#March 16, 2021

The process of breathing is something that many of us ignore. It’s perceived to be something that just ‘happens’, as though we have no influence over it.

In fact, the way in which we breathe directly affects all of our bodily functions, mentally, emotionally and physically. Fortunately, it is also the one aspect of our autonomic nervous system that we can consciously alter. We can affect our automatic breathing by simple changes such as altering our posture. We can also adopt conscious breathing techniques to take over our automatic breathing. There are many different forms of this type of ‘Breathwork’.

The biology of the breath is well versed but scientific understanding of the impacts of the different forms of Breathwork is still a developing area. People can easily construe personal accounts of others’ Breathwork experiences as flights of fancy, hearsay and unreliable and could be influenced by a greater scientific understanding of Breathwork. Some people may be deterred from Breathwork through fear of the unknown and possible misconceptions.

It is also possible that as humans we can overthink things. When it comes to breathing there is a balance between having sufficient awareness, and being so fixed on techniques that it engenders excessive control and tension.

Ultimately, understanding the basic science behind daily breathing is a wonderful foundation for grasping the nuances of the biological changes that occur in the body through Breathwork, and to help dispel any concerns.

Some breathing basics can illuminate that breathwork isn’t ‘magic’ – it’s about you learning to trust your breath, and access and harness your power through breathing consciously.

Scientific Simplicity

Let’s begin with some basic biology – understanding the way your body processes a breath helps to highlight the vital importance of this most basic bodily function:

· When you inhale you take in oxygen (O2).

· When you exhale you expel carbon dioxide (CO2).

· This gas exchange occurs when air fills the lungs and it reaches the alveoli (small air sacs).

· Here O2 is taken into the bloodstream and CO2 is released out of the bloodstream.

· The O2 moves into capillaries and attaches to red blood cells.

· The red blood cells move through pulmonary veins to the left atrium (chamber) of the heart.

· The blood moves into the left ventricle which then contracts

· The contraction pumps oxygen-rich blood through arteries and capillaries into every cell in the body.

· Inside each cell mitochondria use O2 to burn sugars, fats and proteins for energy.

· CO2 is produced as a result of this process.· CO2 then passes through cell walls into capillaries, then veins.

· The CO2-rich blood then travels to the right atrium and right ventricle of the heart.

· The right ventricle contracts and pushes the blood through the pulmonic valve into the pulmonary artery and back towards the lungs.

· It enters the alveoli and the CO2 passes out into the lungs to be exhaled.

· When the breathing rate is balanced this helps maintain homeostasis in the body.

· The parasympathetic nervous system operates during restful, balanced breathing. How we breathe can alter the rate and balance of this process in various ways:

· When we take faster breaths with an extended, forced exhale we can expel higher levels of CO2.

· CO2 is an acidic molecule and so reducing CO2 levels can cause the blood pH level to alter.

· Ideally, blood needs to be slightly alkaline at around a pH level of 7.4. (The scale for blood pH is zero (strongly acidic) to 14 (strongly alkaline). A pH of 7 is classed as neutral.)

· An increased level of O2 in the blood will raise alkalinity.

· An increased level of CO2 in the blood will raise acidity.

· A minimum level of CO2 is needed in the blood to allow the oxygen to be released into the body tissues (the ‘Bohr effect’). CO2 plays an important role, rather than being simply a waste product as many people might believe. It is the second most important gas in our blood, after O2.

· If the pH level drops and the blood becomes too acidic, the brainstem is finely tuned to help maintain the pH of the blood and will trigger the stress response, sending urgent messages to the diaphragm to initiate a breath to bring in more O2 and rebalance the blood.

· Hyperventilation, sometimes called over-breathing, occurs when the breathing rate is more rapid or deeper than normal and it causes the O2/CO2 level to be thrown out of balance. It involves breathing in too much O2 and breathing out too much CO2 (hypocapnia).

· This will cause the blood pH to rise, and become more alkaline, and can result in respiratory alkalosis. The symptoms of this can include dizziness, tingling in the extremities, headache and weakness.

· Neurons in the sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system also fire more during hyperventilation, leading to the release of adrenaline.

Hyperventilation – the fear factor

The balance at play in the breathing process is why during conscious connected breathwork we use an intense extended inhale, but do not force the exhale, so that the inhale is longer than the exhale. This ensures that we do not stray into medical hyperventilation, and the CO2 levels in the blood are not excessively depleted.

While people are mastering the technique of conscious connected breathwork, it can be common for them to experience certain of the symptoms of hyperventilation. Often this could involve feelings such as tingling in the extremities or face, or stiffness in the limbs. This is simply due to forcing the exhale. What can then happen is that people can find these symptoms distressing due to fear and misconception and there may be lasting ill effects. The tension caused by fear can worsen the symptoms.

A responsible breathwork practitioner will typically run through possible side effects like this before starting the first session to help allay any fears. By relaxing and focusing on the breath, and the simple rules for this, the symptoms pass quickly. Usually, most people will master the technique within a few sessions and eliminate the chance of any such symptoms.

Once the breathing rate is remedied, by extending the inhale and simply relaxing the exhale, oxygen and carbon dioxide levels are rebalanced and the body returns to normal. Any symptoms similar to hyperventilation will then pass with no lasting effects.

Coaching throughout a conscious connected breathwork session, by a qualified breathwork professional, helps to reassure and guide breathers that it is safe to trust the breath and the process. Any tendency to force the exhale can be brought into awareness and the breather encouraged to simply ‘let go’ on the exhale, like letting the air out of an inflated balloon.

The question that often concerns people is, if they did stray into any symptoms of hyperventilation whether this is dangerous. The answer is no. In most cases, there is no breathlessness associated with full hypocapnia and there is no danger involved. Consequently, it doesn’t constitute medical hyperventilation. For most people, even if full hyperventilation did occur there would be no risk of long-term negative effects.

Contraindications and Intentional Hyperventilation

For some people with certain diagnosed conditions, hyperventilation can pose more of a health risk, which is one of the reasons why responsible breathwork practitioners will always draw your attention to the contraindications for conscious connected breathwork. For the majority of people, though, there are no risks involved and conscious connected breathwork, even including some symptoms of hyperventilation, will be completely safe.

Indeed, other forms of breathwork can intentionally use the process of hyperventilation to create certain effects within the body – the Wim Hoff method of breathwork, for example. These methods have attracted scientific research on the biology and safety aspects of these methods. More information about these specific practices is available online.

The Effects of Conscious Connected Breathwork and Pranayama on the Nervous System

When practiced correctly, conscious connected breathwork uses diaphragmatic breathing, which stimulates the vagus nerve, and this ensures that the parasympathetic nervous system is activated. This then induces a deep relaxation state within the body: muscles relax, the heart rate slows and becomes regular, and blood pressure decreases. The vagus nerve also sends messages to the brain causing feelings of peacefulness.

Most modern breathwork techniques are founded in pranayama – the ancient aspect of yogic practice that uses rhythmic breathwork to improve health, both mentally and physically. These techniques have evolved without the scrutiny of science over thousands of years. Examples of some of the better-known pranayama exercises and their effects include:

· Ujjayi (ocean breath) – hailed by some as an ideal gateway into pranayama, this is deeply relaxing. It is considered to be grounding and restorative.

· Bhramari (humming bee breath) – also a deeply relaxing practice that stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system.

· Nadi shodhana (alternate nostril breathing) – harmonises physical, mental and emotional wellbeing and believed to balance the left and right hemispheres of the brain.

· Sheethali – has a cooling and calming effect both mentally and physically.

· Kapalabhati and Bhastrika (breath of fire) – energises the body and also activates the sympathetic nervous system.

These exercises are a positive addition to a balanced breathwork practice, with incredible scope for improvements to general wellbeing. This fascinating area offers the opportunity to develop efficient breathing, to potentially increase lung capacity, and enable living a fuller life.

It is often asked whether it is appropriate or safe to also practice pranayama exercises immediately after a full conscious connected breathwork session.

As you can see the style of pranayama will dictate the effect on the body. The frequency and timing of these exercises is something to give thought to due to the differing effects they can have.

In reality, it could be doubtful there would ever be a comprehensive, clinical study on the effects of the combinations of different types of breathwork, at different intervals – there are simply too many variables to consider. We are all unique and the potential for differing responses to a session at different times for each person are diverse.

In the absence of a scientific pronouncement on this, it is better to take a conscious, bespoke approach. Learning to connect to yourself, your feelings within your body and your emotions is all part of the journey that conscious connected breathwork can support you on. You are the best expert about yourself!

Even how you feel after each session may differ entirely. Taking stock afterwards and being gentle with yourself is vital for integration to allow your body, mind and emotions to process and rebalance. A breathwork practitioner can guide and support you on this journey. They can help you to trust your body’s wisdom on whether pranayama practices will be of additional benefit. Making informed and conscious choices is part of harnessing your inner wisdom and power.

The proviso always applies that it is essential to be mindful of contraindications and take advice from your doctor or health practitioner if you are in any doubt of whether pranayama is suited to you.

Everyday breathing

As well as understanding the processes of conscious breathwork, it is highly advisable to bring awareness to your own personal automatic breathing pattern day to day.

There are many forms of breath dysfunction that can develop for many different reasons. Optimising and developing a healthy breathing technique day to day can help stabilise the body.

As detailed above, the breathing technique can dictate whether you activate your parasympathetic nervous system (your rest and digest state), or your sympathetic nervous system (your fight or flight state). Improving your breathing mechanics can influence a range of health aspects, and even sporting performance. Practitioners of functional breathwork such as Richie Bostock (with his book ‘Exhale’), Buteyko specialist Patrick McKeown, and the studies expounded in the book ‘Breath the science of a lost art’ by American Scientific Journalist James Nestor, are all excellent sources of further learning on this.

There are certainly reciprocal benefits between the processes of conscious connected breathwork and functional breathing. By using conscious connected breathwork you can benefit from the release of physical and emotional tension, and trauma, that can be the cause of inhibitions in your breathing mechanics. Equally, by improving your functional breathing you can improve your ability to perform conscious connected breathing by freeing up the breathing mechanics and aiding the flow of the breath.

Science and Somatic Truth

Currently, science can help us to understand the reasons behind the benefits of Breathwork. Ultimately though there are still practical limitations on the understanding that science can proffer.

Not only is there still a limit on the scientific data available on Breathwork, but even when considering how existing scientific findings might apply, we need to remember that we aren’t lab rats!

We are all unique individuals and the effects of breathwork on our bodies, minds and emotions will be equally unique.

We each have our own somatic truth.

We need a respectful awareness of the need for homeostasis within the body to allow us to flourish. We also need to be tuned in to our personal process on any breath journey.

Simply bringing awareness to your breathing pattern will help raise the opportunity to consciously choose to rebalance your breathing. It can also invite enquiry into the possible underlying causes for any imbalance in day-to-day breathing. This overall increase in consciousness can help shift habitual patterns and lead to many long-term benefits, not just in your breathing but in your whole life.

If you’re willing to delve deeper into the art of breathing, join our Online Breathwork Method Teacher Training.

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