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What is Breathing? The History and Power

breathing, breathwork
woman-consciously-breathing-outside

What is breathing? Our breathing is a reflection of our conscious, internal experiences. If we feel calm, the breath follows: it becomes slow and steady. If, however, we’re about to get up on a stage and speak to a large number of people, our breath quickens and becomes unsteady. Thus, unsteady breathing is a symptom of an unsteady mind and steady breathing is a symptom of a steady mind.

World-renowned Buddhist monk, activist, and author Thich Nhat Hanh once wrote, “Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.”

In saying that he uses conscious breathing as an anchor, Thich Nhat Hanh is expressing the idea that the state of our breathing can influence the state of our mind rather than the usual, other-way-around (state of mind-influencing breathing). If you study Hanh’s work, you’ll discover that this “conscious” breathing involves a steady, mindful breath with a focus on the present moment.  

And while meditating with a natural way of breathing will undeniably influence the mind for the better, we can also consciously alter the breath for different results. Thus begins the practice of breathwork or any set of breathing exercises or techniques. 

Breathwork is remarkable in that, depending on the type of exercise, it provides tranquility, energy, a wide range of health benefits, assistance with sleep, as well as philosophical and spiritual insight. Examining such a plethora of benefits inevitably makes one wonder where these practices come from.

Breathing—The History

Perhaps the earliest mention of breathing exercises is in a yogic practice called pranayama. Pranayama is derived from the Sanskrit prana, meaning breath, and ayama, meaning suspension. The word means “suspension of breath.”

The practice is mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita, an ancient Hindu scripture from the 2nd-century BCE. It is described as a “trance induced by stopping all breathing.”

The practice of pranayama was also mentioned in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, where it is the 4th limb of Ashtanga Yoga (there are eight limbs). 

With its rich and fascinating history, breathwork has many people wondering: What is breathing and how can it transform my life? To answer this, we must first explore how breathing can influence our minds, bodies, and spiritual connection to the word.

Breathing’s Importance for the Mind

With breathing, we can voluntarily influence our parasympathetic nervous systems. The parasympathetic nervous system is the “opposite” of our sympathetic, “fight or flight” nervous system. The parasympathetic can be activated via diaphragmatic breathing (see below for instructions on “belly breathing”) and benefits the body by reducing inflammation and stress. It also places the body in a state more conducive to healing which is why the parasympathetic nervous system is often called the “rest and digest” or “feed and breed” system.

Researchers are also looking at ways in which breathing can influence the immune system. They’ve been studying Wim Hof, the “Ice Man” renowned for his abilities to withstand frigid temperatures— in part by using breathing techniques. Researchers found that Wim Hof is indeed able to enhance his immune function on a substantial level. Though much more research is needed to confirm this benefit of breathing practices, the results obtained from Wim Hof’s training are both promising and remarkable.

Breathing’s Importance for the Body

With breathing, we can voluntarily influence our parasympathetic nervous systems. The parasympathetic nervous system is the “opposite” of our sympathetic, “fight or flight” nervous system. The parasympathetic can be activated via diaphragmatic breathing (see below for instructions on “belly breathing”) and benefits the body by reducing inflammation and stress. It also places the body in a state more conducive to healing which is why the parasympathetic nervous system is often called the “rest and digest” or “feed and breed” system.

Researchers are also looking at ways in which breathing can influence the immune system. They’ve been studying Wim Hof, the “Ice Man” renowned for his abilities to withstand frigid temperatures— in part by using breathing techniques. Researchers found that Wim Hof is indeed able to enhance his immune function on a substantial level. Though much more research is needed to confirm this benefit of breathing practices, the results obtained from Wim Hof’s training are both promising and remarkable.

Breathing’s Importance for the Spirit

Here’s another shareable quote, this time by Deepak Chopra: “At this moment, you are seamlessly flowing with the cosmos. There is no difference between your breathing and the breathing of the rainforest, between your bloodstream and the world’s rivers, between your bones and the chalk cliffs of Dover.”

Comparing our breathing to the breathing of the rainforest reinforces our place in the world as beings “seamlessly flowing with the cosmos.” On a spiritual level, this metaphor confirms the importance of the soul’s place in the world as a smaller part of a greater whole. 

Breathing and breathing practice in particular, with its many benefits encompassing the physical, also benefits our spirit. Breathing, as renowned Sufi poet Rumi describes, “takes you all the way to infinity.”

What are Powerful Breathing Techniques to Implement Regularly?

Now that we’ve answered the question of what is breathing in terms of practice and benefits, let’s explore some breathing techniques and their benefits.

Ujjayi Pranayama

Ujjayi Pranayama is a good place to begin if you’re new to breathwork. Ujjayi breathing is a breath-restriction practice most frequently used during exercise and yoga. The simplest way to describe how to perform this breathing exercise is by imagining, with the mouth closed, that you’re partaking in a light snore or fogging up a mirror on both the inhale and the exhale. You should feel the breathing on the inside of the throat and it should sound something like ocean waves. Here’s a more in-depth explanation of how to perform this practice.
The benefits of ujjayi include promoting calmness, increasing internal body heat, and oxygenating the body

Box Breathing

Box breathing is a powerful technique that activates the parasympathetic nervous system, promoting calm and alleviating stress. The practice involves inhaling, holding the breath at the top of the inhale, exhaling, and holding the breath at the bottom of the exhale for 4 seconds each and continuing for 5 to 10 minutes.

Here is a good resource for instructions on box breathing.

Belly Breathing

Here’s a final breathing exercise to try: belly breathing. To do this, sit or stand. Place your hands over your belly and feel it rise and lower with your breathing. Your chest should not move. That’s it. That’s belly breathing! As with box breathing, start with 5 to 10 minutes.

Though simple, don’t underestimate this one. Belly breathing or diaphragmatic breathing, like many breathing exercises, ignites the parasympathetic nervous system, enabling the body to move into a very calm, healing state.

Practice Consistency

There are numerous breathing exercises outside of ujjayi pranayama, box breathing, and belly breathing. Rather than doing them all, try implementing consistent practice in 1 or 2 only. You can always try others later.

Choosing from the three above breathing techniques is a good starting point, and practicing them every day will render you better energy levels and overall wellness.

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