By TWS resident Respiratory Physio Billie Woods
A Beginners Guide to a Sustainable Breathwork Practice- Part 1
Breathing… In, out, in, out…. We do it 20,000 times a day so why do I need to do more breathwork?
The truth is that over the years the way we move, eat & think has changed drastically, and this has dramatically affected the way we breathe (check out James Nestor’s book ‘Breath’ for a great history on the lost art of breathing). Something that previously was so instinctual has gone so, so wrong. Our posture has changed, our mouths are smaller, our minds are more stressed (to name a few influences on breathing), which has led to a shallower breath (upper chest breathing), increased respiratory rate (hyperventilation), mouth breathing, a decreased tolerance to CO2 (I will explain more in Part 2), an unbalanced nervous system, and an array of different health problems.
Us boaties would benefit from a regular breathwork practice, as our lives are not so normal and filled with the highest of highs and the lowest of lows (I think we all can relate). Breathwork can be used as a tool to create balance within the body. We can learn to control our parasympathetic (rest & digest) and sympathetic (fight & flight) nervous systems when in tricky situations. We can learn to calm our minds and get restful sleep in a new anchorage. We can learn to energize ourselves when feeling tired on long passages. We can learn to feel safe and confident in the water, and with regular ongoing practice, we can boost our immune system. The key here is having a regular breathwork practice, learning how your body responds to different techniques, and knowing what techniques work for you, so when placed in a not-so-great situation you can use the breath as a tool to manage.
So, as a beginner where do I start?
There are so many different breath-work techniques out there, and it can be very daunting to know where to begin, and the truth is, in my experience, a lot of people really struggle with diving into a lot of the techniques out there, because they struggle with the very basics of breathing (I’m talking breathing through the nose, using your diaphragm, slowing your breath down, and tolerating breath holds).
In this article, I will teach you the basics of developing more efficient, flexible, and functional breathing patterns, improving nasal breathing and nasal functions, relaxing breathing muscles, improving the function of the diaphragm, improving breathing awareness and control, reducing stress, and improve the function of the autonomic nervous system (parasympathetic/sympathetic).
So, let’s go back to the basics, firstly try to just become aware of your breathing for a moment, a little self-assessment.
Come into a comfortable seated or lying position, place one hand just above your belly button and one hand on your chest, and just observe your breath. Start to take note of your breathing pattern, is the air moving into your chest or belly? Are you breathing through your nose or your mouth? How fast or slow are you breathing? What is the length of your inhale and your exhale? Does your breath feel rigid or smooth? Any discomfort?
Take some time here to start to create an awareness of your breath, this is one of the best things you can do, become in tune with your breath, as it is your breath that will be the first thing to change in a situation or with a new emotion (feeling anxious, scared, excited, angry, happy, relaxed, etc). The more aware you are, the quicker you will notice a change in your breath, and the quicker you can start to implement breathwork strategies to tame that emotion and feel in control. Write down any observations as it is always interesting to look back at this after a period to see the changes you have made.
Take note now of your breath hold times (inhale & exhale), have a stopwatch handy, start by taking 3 deep relaxed breaths, at the end of your third breath out, take a maximal inhalation and hold your breath, press start on the stopwatch, stop the timer when you feel you can’t hold your breath any more.
Recover for a few minutes then do an exhale hold, take 3 deep relaxed breaths, this time on your third breath, at the end of the exhalation hold your breath, start the timer, stop when you feel you cannot hold your breath anymore.
Write these times down. Reassess this in a few weeks to see the improvements you have made!!
Nasal Breathing Retraining
For a range of different reasons, a lot of us tend to unconsciously default to breathing through our mouth, which in turn can create a range of health issues:
Oral health – changes in the health of your mouth, which can contribute to tooth and gum disease.
Ear–mouth breathing affects the mechanics of fluid drainage in the ear, increasing the chances of gluing the ear. Mouth breathing is highly associated with ear infections.
Allergies, sinusitis, and respiratory infections – the lack of nasal airflow and other regulatory aspects of nasal breathing can contribute to chronic sinusitis and rhinitis. Mouth breathing leads to more viral upper respiratory tract infections.
Learning and memory – mouth breathing children have been found to have deficits in memory and a greater extent of learning difficulties.
Sleep-disordered breathing (sleep apnea) – mouth breathing during sleep increases the chance that the soft palate and upper airway will collapse, causing snoring and sleep apnea.
Bedwetting – mouth breathing is associated with bedwetting in children.
Orofacial muscles – chronic mouth breathing alters the function of the muscles of the face & mouth.
Craniofacial (bones of the skull and face) growth – nasal breathing with the tongue resting on the roof of the mouth creates ideal conditions for optimal growth patterns of the teeth, jaw, and face. Mouth breathing interferes with these growth patterns and can contribute to narrow and small upper and lower jaws, a long face, crocked teeth, and small airways.
Posture – mouth breathing often co-exists with forward head posture and various imbalances of the muscles of the neck, spine, and torso.
But breathing through the nose on the other hand has some very beneficial effects:
Filtering – the nose filters small and large particles. The cilia and mucus in the nose trap dust, mold, pollen, and other environmental contaminants.
Humidity & temperature – air swirled around the blood-rich nasal turbinates is humidified and warmed, which has an important influence on lung health.
Immunity & inflammation – The nose is the first line of defense against pathogens.
Nitric oxide – Nitric oxide is a natural gas produced in the paranasal sinuses, an important signaling molecule for many body functions.
Improved ventilation & breathing pattern – Nasal breathing has been shown to reduce hyperventilation and hyperinflation and promotes more diaphragmatic breathing. Improved breathing mechanics during nasal breathing have been shown to help maintain more optimal blood oxygen levels.
So, close your mouth!! In saying that there are times when mouth breathing is necessary, have you ever tried to breathe through your nose and talk? It’s tricky! And with intense exercise, there will be a time when you just can’t breathe through your nose any more.
Here are a few techniques to get you started with making nose breathing a habit:
Neti Pot or Nasal rinse – Make a daily habit of having a saline rinse to clear any congestion. You can make up your own solution or purchase from a store.
Unilateral nostril humming – humming through one nostril at a time (3-5 minutes)
Sit up straight
Block one nostril by pushing gently on your right nostril
Exhale through your left nostril, humming as you exhale
Change sides and push gently on your left nostril
Exhale through your right nostril, humming as you exhale
Exhale breath-hold technique –
Sit up straight
Take a couple of breaths (not forceful)
Breathe out through the nose (not forceful)
Pinch your nose and hold your breath to the point of moderate discomfort
Take a breath through the nose (do not mouth breathe)
Do three rounds of breath-holds
I would highly recommend practicing the above breath awareness and nasal breathing techniques for at least a week before moving to the next techniques (in part 2), to start forming some patterns and habits.
If you have questions about any of this, please get in touch!
Enjoy practicing these techniques and I'll see you in part 2 where we will talk about diaphragmatic breathing, CO2 (carbon dioxide) tolerance, and there will be some new breathing techniques to add to your routine.
Happy Breathing Salty Souls.
(Disclaimer: This is a generalized program/generalized advice. If you have any medical conditions where you are unsure if breathwork will be suitable, please seek medical advice prior to starting this program. If you start to feel any adverse effects from these exercises, please stop and seek medical advice. I cannot take any responsibility for any adverse effects from this program.)
Born and raised on the wild coastlines of New Zealand, Billie grew up with a unique connection with all things outdoors, but it was the ocean that really made her spirit soar! Surfing was her first love and then came sailing. Together with her husband (then fresh new boyfriend) they purchased a regal old sailing vessel, Jandu 42ft Swanson. They live aboard in Albany, Western Australia with their young daughter but are eager to set sail for distant oceans soon.
Billie is a qualified Yoga & Pilates teacher and a professional physiotherapist, with a passion for integrated breathing therapy techniques. Over the past 7 years, She has taken a more holistic approach to what she offers, whilst also considering the biomechanics, psychological & physiological aspects of breathing dysfunction in her patients. Together with her Survival Apnea/Ocean Confidence Instructor certification is a wealth of knowledge in this field and is passionate to share the power of the breath with the conscious sailing community.