Breath is life. We can think of the breath as being like a thread or a chain that links and connects all the events of our life from the beginning to the end. The breath is always there every moment, moving by itself like a river.
Our breath changes with our moods – it’s short and shallow when we’re tense or angry, faster when we’re excited, slow and full when we’re happy, and almost disappearing when we’re afraid. It’s there with us all the time, and it can be used as a tool, like an anchor, to bring stability to the body and mind when we deliberately choose to become aware of it. We can tune into it at any moment during everyday life.
Mostly, we are not in touch with our breathing, it’s just there, forgotten. So, one of the first things we can do is to get more in touch with it. We can bring awareness to how our breath changes with our moods, our thoughts, our emotions. We don’t have to control the breath, just notice it and get to know it.
In essence, breathwork is breathing practiced with mindfulness. It’s that simple. Yet, breathing is easy to take for granted because it’s automatic. As simple as it sounds, adopting a breathwork practice helps us cultivate greater health in all aspects of our life, from relationships to work to stress to grief.
I came to breathwork somewhat naturally, through mindfulness meditation. I started mindfulness out of necessity when my health crashed 7 years ago. It was challenging, but I quickly started seeking the practices to help me find peace in the midst of the chaos of early diagnosis. In those tender first months of learning how to let myself feel what I was feeling without numbing out, I became more and more in touch with my breath. One of my favourite mindfulness practices was to simply tune in to where I felt the breath and then naming the breath in and out and noticing how the breath felt within my body. In the beginning, this was the only thing that helped my mind settle, even for just a few minutes. And it was in those minutes that I began to start the process of learning how to regulate my emotions and calm the stress response.
Slowly and intuitively I began to develop a deeper practice of simply breathing and being with myself. And that’s when I truly began to accelerate my wellbeing by recognising that I had a powerful tool that could switch my body into a place of restoration and healing. A breath work practitioner once described the breath as a bit like a Swiss army knife – where there are different blades for different uses. Breath work takes you back to your natural baby’s breath – the most efficient way to breath – that’s a dynamic, effortless flow that brings you to a state of ease. Observing my breathing pattern and encouraging free flowing breath using the whole of the respiratory system, with a full, conscious and connected breath, I learned how to release restricted patterns, let unwanted or buried feelings go, and welcome in new energy and behaviour patterns.
It’s impossible to explore the breath without looking at the stress response system. If we’re stressed or anxious by an event in our life, or thinking about an event, the brain will most likely turn on the sympathetic part of that system – the fight-or-flight response. However, when we are in a calm or relaxed state, we switch on the parasympathetic part of the system (our rest-and-digest mode). When we extend our exhale by one to two counts longer than our inhale, and we practice this for a couple of minutes, our heart rate begins to slow down, which sends a message to the brain saying that everything is more calm than it was a few minutes ago. This lets the brain know it can shift into the rest-and-digest mode. This is especially important in our modern lives, when internal and external stressors are often constant even though we are in no physical danger.
The benefits of breathwork are numerous: physically, the heart rate and blood pressure slows, resulting in lower levels of anxiety and stress; it increases our oxygen and energy levels and helps to normalise sleep patterns. Emotionally, the awareness of the breath is key in our ability to manage emotions of anger, sadness, grief, fear, letting us display new behaviours rather than opting for old patterns. Breathing also helps us to connect to the present moment – where real life happens. A sense of being comfortable in one’s skin and an ability to be authentic and in the moment is a gift. And our breath is also a portal to our truth: raising the vibration in the body through the breath allows us to shed the old skin of conditioning and outmoded patterns of thinking and being.
What I love about breathwork is that its so accessible and a very direct way to work with my body while also working with my emotions and spirit. It’s the ultimate integrative remedy. People often ask me why I practice breath work and what it means to me. While there are many reasons, it really comes down to a desire to fully connect to my body. I spent so many years disassociating and numbing out, that I realised my deepest need was to feel present within myself, to feel anchored to the earth, to be able to self-regulate, and to know deeply that I had the ability to trust my intuition.
If you are new to breathwork, here is a very simple practice that you can use for everyday situations that’s easy to integrate into busy schedules. Take a moment to contemplate the last time you felt relaxed, restored, or deeply replenished. If that was recently, that’s wonderful, you’re on the right track. But if you can’t remember the last time you felt that way, you are not alone; this surrender breath practice will serve as an introductory guide to help you ground your system and give you an accessible practice to help you learn to take deeper care of yourself.
Surrender Breath Practice
The purpose of this simple exercise is to make your exhalation a few counts longer than your inhalation. The slower you breathe the more your mind and body will relax. If you ever have issues falling asleep, this is a great practice to try in bed.
How to Practice
Sit up in a chair or cross-legged on the floor. You can also practice this lying down.
Place one hand on your chest and the other on your belly. Gently close your eyes.
Breathe in and out through your nose for a few rounds to settle in.
When you are ready, make each exhalation 2-3 counts longer than the inhalation, breathing in and out through your nose.
Inhale and expand your belly. Exhale and soften, keeping the chest lifted. Take long, smooth inhalations and exhalations.
Continue in this pattern for a couple of minutes, or until you are completely relaxed and calm.
Practice this any time you need some restoration.
At the end of your practice, notice how you feel.
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