Fearne Cotton is a big believer in the healing power of breath. Here, Rebecca Dennis of Breathing Tree unveils the calming breathing exercises that may help you relieve any symptoms of stress and anxiety…
Most of our knowledge about the benefits of conscious breathing comes from the ancient Eastern philosophies and has been used as a vehicle for spiritual enlightenment for many centuries. Only recently has research on the mind-body connection with the breath been proven and science is agreeing.
Oxygen is the most essential natural resource required by our cells. We can go without food for up to 40 days and without water for three days, yet we get into trouble after just a few minutes of not breathing. From a purely physical point of view, breath equals life.
Breathing is automatic in the way that our heart beats and our eyes blink and, often, we take that for granted. However, when we learn to consciously breathe and become more aware and present with our breath, it has a multitude of benefits on a mental, emotional and physical and spiritual level.
You can practise conscious breathing at any time. In fact, why not do it now? Stop reading and take three slow, deep breaths. Inhale for a count of six, hold for a count of two and exhale for a count of eight. Feel any different?
Put simply, learning how to use the full capacity of our natural breathing system is comparable to giving our body and mind a full MOT and recalibration. Due to modern lifestyles and pressures, research shows that nine out of 10 teenagers and adults are not using their respiratory system to its full capacity, using as little as a third.
But we can consciously change our chemistry, the way we feel and think by changing the depth, rhythm and rate of our breathing. Stimulation, activity and demands are all around us – and our responsibilities, commitments and worries prevent us from feeling calm and staying in the moment.
As a Breath Coach, over the years I have come across many techniques and Transformational Breath is by far the most life changing and effective method. Some say it’s a short cut to enlightenment, while others say it’s better than taking drugs. Many compare just one or two sessions to years of talking therapy.
So what is it?
Myself and other experts would call it an advanced self-healing modality, using a full diaphragmatic breath combined with movement, toning, acupressure and other somatic practices. Many clients use it to help them deal with issues such as anxiety, panic attacks or burnout. Others use it purely to improve their breathing and feel more energised, focused and positive. And, whether you look at the physical or mental benefits, evidence suggests that, when used correctly, it can improve our performance and everyday challenges by clearing restricted breathing patterns and helping us to let go of unhealthy breathing habits, such as shallow breathing and holding our breath.
Because we are all unique, we all have our own breathing patterns that show where we are at in the world. I am trained to read these patterns. Many people, I notice, are overusing the chest, shoulder and neck muscles with constriction in their diaphragm and are not breathing fully in their belly.
Babies, as a rule, are our breath gurus. When observing a baby sleeping in their cot, you will notice their breath is flowing. There are no restrictions and the breath motions from their lower abdominals to the midsection and chest.
Things soon change, though. Emotionally we begin to develop from three to seven years old, becoming aware of what makes people happy, sad, fearful and angry. We may control our emotions through the breath to prevent ourselves from crying, showing anger and becoming conditioned by our cultures, our parents and peers.
Throughout life, similarly, we often hold our breath, contracting our muscles, subconsciously shutting down parts of ourselves that perhaps haven’t felt safe or simply to adapt within our surroundings. In doing so, we suppress feelings such as grief, guilt, shame and sadness rather than express our true feelings
However, by using the Transformational Breath technique, we allow the body to remember and relearn how we used to breathe when we were newborns. And, by having a deeper understanding of our breathing patterns, we release both physical and emotional tension from the body.
For example, when we are feeling nervous or stressed and push those feelings down, we may clench our jaw, or our throat constricts or our chest begins to tighten. Even our digestion can be affected. Yet if we take a moment to consciously breathe deeply into the belly for a short time, we’ll notice the tension release from the diaphragm and other primary breathing muscles.
This helps increase our lung capacity and oxygen in the blood flow, which has the dual effect of relaxing the body and so energising the mind, as we become more rational, lighter and clearer.
Our body has an innate intelligence which is constantly sending us messages: the brain is consistent in streaming data to the body, and the body is constantly communicating to the brain. A key cranial nerve known as our vagus nerve stimulates the autonomic nervous system. Depending on the information received, these messages can be the wrong ones, sending us into a vicious repetitive cycle. Simply by consciously connecting to our breath we can rewire and reset our systems within minutes.
We have around 50,000 thoughts a day and not all of them are supportive. This can leave us feeling drained or lying awake at night. Our inner critic gives us a tough time by telling us what we haven’t achieved, why we aren’t good enough or we fear not fitting in, while our anxiety holds us back from moving forward in life.
We are triggered by people at work or in our relationships and we may find that we react, rather than respond, and fall into the same patterns whilst building up frustration and resentment. By using conscious breathing to let go of those ruminating thoughts, we effectively supercharge the mind by creating space for more clarity, positivity, confidence and energy.
We are often too busy to breathe fully. Sometimes we even forget to take a breath at all. Our bodies are not evolved to keep up with all of this and if we don’t take action, chaos can be created in our physiology, even affecting our immune and nervous system, by accumulating tension and digestive issues.
Stress can be a real energy sapper. Instead of being able to use our energy in a positive way, our body uses it to fight the perceived threat – the stress.
When we are feeling anxious or stressed our body can go into flight or fight mode. We pump cortisol and adrenaline around the body and our muscles contract, making our blood pressure rise and our breathing speed up. The message to the body is to activate the sympathetic nervous system which gets us ready for battle - but by simply changing the way we breathe, we can send the message to our body to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which takes us into a relaxed state.
A relaxed state is a more normal, healthier way for us to function. It helps to keep all our systems in their natural rhythms working alongside each other. Using conscious breathing we can reduce stress, improving our mood and elevating the levels of serotonin and endorphins.
Conscious connected breathing detoxifies and strengthens our immune system. Around 70% of our toxins are released via the breath. A healthy breath can improve sleeping patterns, respiratory issues and improve our digestive system. By releasing tension in the diaphragm and our primary breathing muscles we can enhance our physical performance in practices such as running, yoga or sports.
We cannot necessarily control what is going on around us and just opening our inbox or reading the news can send us into fight or flight.
Transformational Breath helps us feel more open and connected. The body remembers everything and the essence of this work is about coming back to our true selves and who we are before we built up these obstructions. When we release these, we feel more liberated and confident to express what we do and don’t want.
By letting go, we can transform fear into excitement. Many of us lack in self-esteem or find it hard to let go of control. This technique helps us to be self-assured and authentic. Breath-work enables us to truly accept ourselves - even the parts that we don’t particularly like. Some of these are deep rooted and buried in our subconscious, and we need to track them, hold them and release them in a gentle and non-invasive way.
Alternative Nostril Breathing – Calming
Alternative Nostril Breathing helps calm the mind and relax the body. This type of technique encourages deep, slow breathing which sends messages to the body to come into a calm state and relaxes the nervous system, which may bring the blood pressure down.
It helps to improve oxygen levels and allows the energy, prana, to flow more freely. It is said to oxygenate both sides of your brain, which will improve brain function.
The left side of the brain is for common-sense analytical thinking and logic. The right side is for sense and creativity. Slower, deeper breathing techniques bring you down from your head and help you be in your whole body.
Conscious connected breath exercise – Focus and let go of negative thought patterns
Here’s a simple exercise you can practice on your own. Sit up straight either against a wall or on a cushion, or you can lie on the bed at a semi-reclined angle with cushions or pillows behind you, so your chest is higher than your legs.
Bend your knees. Make sure you are warm and comfortable, and that your head and neck are supported. Place your hands on your lower abdomen - a few inches below the navel. Relax the jaw and open the mouth wide and take a deep inhalation. Your belly should expand like a balloon, and you should exhale with no effort.
Stay present with the inhale and the exhale. Inhalation should be emphasised and the exhalation not forced or pushed out. Exhalation should be quiet and relaxed like a soft sigh. Keep the breath connected so there are no pauses between breaths: they should be coming in and out like a wave motion.
Repeat for one to two minutes and notice any physical sensations in the body. Rest for one minute as you return to a normal breathing pattern – breathing through the nose. If at any point it feels intense, come back to your normal breathing pattern.
‘Ha Breath’ - For digestion and lifting your mood
Stand with the feet placed shoulder width apart and with your knees bent. Place your hands on your lower abdomen and inhale through the mouth, expanding the diaphragm.
Exhale quickly through the mouth, making a ‘Ha’ sound loudly. Repeat rapidly for two minutes. As you breathe the Ha breath, you’re also infusing your brain with oxygen, and releasing endorphins.
The 4-7-8 exercise - For helping you to sleep
This little exercise helps you to connect with your body and your breathing, distracting you from everyday thoughts that may keep you up at night. It helps to relax and re-balance the nervous system which can become over stimulated during stress and promote a state of calm.
Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound. Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four. Hold your breath for a count of seven. Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight.
This is one breath. Now inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breaths.
Kundalini Dance Breath - For physical energy and joy
Stand with your feet placed shoulder width apart and your knees bent. Raise both arms above your head as you inhale through the mouth. Find your favourite dance track and begin to bounce up and down either with your feet on the ground, move your hips and bending your knees, or if you feel more energetic jumping up and down.
Quickly exhale through the mouth, as you bring your arms down with elbows in towards your rib cage and your hands to shoulder height. Remember to relax the jaw and smile. Inhale immediately as you raise the arms. Repeat for two minutes at a moderate pace to begin with and increase time and intensity as you progress. It feels good!
For one day only on Tuesday 27 March, Fearne Cotton has taken over stylist.co.uk and transformed it into her very own Happy Place – a digital sanctuary, focusing entirely on wellness, happiness and good mental health.
For similarly inspiring and uplifting content, check out Fearne Cotton’s Happy Place, available on Apple Podcasts now.