Breathwork: when a sigh more than just a sigh
Deep breathing to attain inner calm lies at the root of many ancient traditions. Research is now uncovering which techniques have the most beneficial health benefits.

Are you aware of how many breaths you take each minute? For most people, the answer is generally no given how unconscious the act is.

While at rest, we should be averaging no more than 12 to 20 respirations, or roughly 20,000 per day. One easy way to check is to sit or lie quietly and count how often your chest rises or falls over the space of 60 seconds.

Many people only become conscious of their breathing when they’re anxious and stressed and it becomes rapid and shallow. Yet this hasn’t always been the case and remains so in many Eastern cultures, which place breathing at the heart of their medical traditions.

Traditional Chinese Medicine, for example, centres on the concept of a vital energy running through the body, chi (or qi), which takes its name from the Chinese word for breath. The Indian system of yoga includes pranayama (meaning breath regulation in Sanskrit).

In ancient Greece, the word for breath (pneuma) also meant life force. But it took until the late 1960s and early 1970s before terms such as breathwork started to become popular again in the West, with practitioners using breathing and music to raise consciousness.

What the ancients sensed, but didn’t understand was how breathing keeps us alive: providing our cells with fuel to make energy. When we inhale, our lungs’ alveoli (tiny balloon-shaped air sacs) help move oxygen into the bloodstream and then transport the waste product, carbon dioxide, out again.

We also all now know that one of the quickest ways to calm down is to take a deep breath. But until very recently, there’s been little scientific study about the relative impact of different breathing exercises.

This moved a step forward in January when Stanford University academics published a randomised controlled study comparing different breathing techniques against each other and mindfulness meditation.

A total of 114 volunteers spent five minutes per day over a one-month period trying: cyclic sighing, box breathing, cyclic hyperventilation and mindfulness meditation.

All the participants said they felt less stressed at the end of the study. But the controlled breathing groups reported feeling one-third happier than the mindfulness meditation one.

And of the three controlled breathing techniques, cyclic sighing had the biggest impact. Sensors monitoring the participants’ resting breathing rates were significantly lower in this sub-group.

And not just at the end of each exercise but on a continuing basis too. The effects became more marked as the study progressed.

So what is cyclic sighing and how does it differ from box breathing and cyclic hyperventilation?

Cyclic sighing: emphasises longer exhalation to inhalation. To try it, begin by sitting down. Take one deep inhale through your nose and then another short one.

Use your nose rather than your mouth. Our nasal passages add moisture and warmth to air making it easier for the lungs to absorb. They also trigger the release of nitric oxide, which helps widen blood vessels and boost oxygen circulation.

The second inhale is also important because it helps get more air into the lungs. The alveoli can start deflating at the end of the first inhale, with the physical force required for the second reflating them again.

Finally make a slow exhale through your mouth using a sighing sound. Make this twice as long as the inhale.

Box breathing: comprises equal duration inhales and exhales (made famous by the US Navy Seals). Inhale for a count of four, pause for a count of four, exhale for a count of four and pause for a count of four.

Cyclic hyperventilation: involves longer inhalations compared to exhalations.

The Stanford researchers concluded that controlled breathing is most effective because participants are exerting direct control over their breathing rather than passively observing it during a meditation. This triggers a physiological response thanks to the way our brains interact with the nervous system.

Controlled breathing provides a form of exercise or re-training for the vagus nerve. This key nerve acts like the body’s information superhighway, transmitting data between the brain and various internal organs.

One of its key functions is to rebalance the sympathetic nervous system (our fight and flight response) in favour of the parasympathetic nervous system (associated with rest and relaxation).

Stimulating it also has multiple health benefits beyond inducing relaxation since it is connects the brain to the lungs, heart, kidneys, liver, bladder, spleen and more. One consequence is better movement through the digestive tract.

What makes breathing exercises so advantageous is their ease. They don’t take long to do, or to make a difference. It also doesn’t matter how young or old, or fit or unfit you are to start with.

As Standford neurobiologist, Dr Andrew Huberman, concludes of cyclic sighing: it is the shortest and most effective stress reduction tool. It can instantly calm in a stressful situation and provide long-term retraining, which makes stress less likely in the first place.


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