Consciously changing the way you breathe has been shown to reduce stress, increase alertness and even improve your immune system. Inhale, exhale, repeat.
Inhale through your nose for five counts. Hold your breath in for five counts. Exhale through your nose for five counts.
How do you feel? Relaxed? Calm? Perhaps, even more alert?
Breathing isn’t something we often think about. Yet while breathwork has been a key part of meditation and various yoga practices for some time, conscious breathing is now becoming a discipline in its own right. From one-on-one breathing sessions to apps like Calm and Headspace, and Spotify playlists dedicated to the practice – when was the last time you stopped and paid attention to your breathing?
Conscious breathwork has immediate physical, emotional and cognitive benefits – but studies show breathwork also has longer-term benefits, including altering and strengthening the neural pathways that link breathing with emotion regulation centres in the brain.
So what exactly is conscious breathing?
“Conscious breathing is being aware of when we inhale and exhale,” says Biohacker and Primal Health Coach Charlene Gisele. “Most people aren’t aware of breathing patterns nor do they breathe consciously. We learn, if we are lucky, during basic science classes, that the lungs absorb oxygen and release carbon dioxide, but beyond that, the mechanics of breathing and the role of the diaphragm and the lymphatic flow generated by deep breathing are unknown to most.”
How can conscious breathing improve the immune system?
Scientifically speaking, controlled breathing regulates our stress response. When we’re stressed, our immune system becomes suppressed, because stress decreases the body’s lymphocytes (the white blood cells that help fight off infection).
The lower your lymphocyte level, the more susceptible you are to colds and other illnesses.
Essentially, more stress = lowered immune system. However, controlled breathing can regulate our stress response, taking us out of the ‘fight or flight’ mode.
“Breathing is essential for regulating the lymphatic system – the network of tissues and organs in your body that help to detoxify the body by transporting lymph, a fluid that contains powerful infection-fighting white blood cells, throughout the body,” says Gisele. “Like the heart pumps blood around the body, deep, conscious breaths pumps lymph fluid and improves our immunity.”
Regular and consistent breathwork practice can help. “Breathwork can be a form of preventive medicine because breathing is directly related to lymph flow, and lymph flow is directly related to immunity,” explains Gisele. “The immune system being our protection mechanism defending us against viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens.”
Conscious breathing techniques to support the immune system
Diaphragmatic / belly breathing
Breathing with your belly helps you to use your diaphragm properly, says Gisele.“Because it involves tensing some of your muscles, you may begin to feel tired, but over time, it will become easier and will start to feel more natural. For optimum results, practise this for five to ten minutes, three to four times per day.”
- Lie on your back with your knees slightly bent and your head on a pillow
- Place another pillow under your knees for support
- Place one hand on your upper chest and one hand below your rib cage, allowing you to feel the movement of your diaphragm
- Slowly inhale through your nose, feeling your stomach pressing into your hand
- Keep your other hand as still as possible
- Exhale using pursed lips as you tighten your stomach muscles, keeping your upper hand completely still
You can place a book on your abdomen to make the exercise more difficult, Gisele adds. “Once you learn how to do belly breathing lying down, you can increase the difficulty by trying it while sitting in a chair. You can then practise the technique while performing your daily activities.”
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Alternate nostril breathing
Alternate nostril breathing is a yogic breath control practice – it’s a simple yet powerful technique that also settles the mind, body, and emotions, says Gisele. It has been shown to enhance cardiovascular function and lower heart rate, too.
- Choose a comfortable seated position
- Lift your right hand toward your nose, pressing your first and middle fingers down toward your palm and leaving your other fingers extended
- After an exhale, use your right thumb to gently close your right nostril
- Inhale through your left nostril and then close your left nostril with your right pinky and ring fingers
- Release your thumb and exhale out through your right nostril
- Inhale through your right nostril and then close this nostril
- Release your fingers to open your left nostril and exhale through this side
- This is one cycle. Continue this breathing pattern for up to five minutes, keeping your breath smooth and even throughout
- Finish your session with an exhale on the left side
This breathing technique focuses on making your inhales and exhales the same length, Gisele explains. “Keeping your breath smooth and steady can help bring about balance and equanimity. You should find a breath length that falls between easy and difficult – you also don’t want it to be too fast so that you’re able to maintain it throughout the practice. (Usually, this is between three and five counts). Once you get used to equal breathing while seated, you can incorporate it during a yoga practice or other daily activities.”
- Sit comfortably
- Breathe in and out through your nose
- Count during each inhale and exhale and adjust them accordingly to make sure both are eventually the same in duration
- Alternatively, choose a word or short phrase to repeat during each inhale and exhale instead of counting
- You can add a slight pause after each inhale and exhale if you feel comfortable. Normal breathing involves a natural pause
- Continue for at least 5 minutes
Also known as square breathing, box breathing in a natural biohack (biology hack) technique used when taking slow, deep breaths, says Gisele. “It can also heighten performance and concentration while being a powerful stress reliever.”
- Close your eyes. Breathe in through your nose while counting to four slowly. Feel the air enter your lungs
- Hold your breath inside while counting slowly to four. Try not to clamp your mouth or nose shut. Simply avoid inhaling or exhaling for four seconds
- Begin to slowly exhale for four seconds
- Repeat the above steps at least three times, and ideally for at least four minutes
- If you find the technique challenging to begin with, you can try counting to three instead of four. Once you get used to the technique, you can advance to count to five or six.
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