Exploring Breath Work: Where to Start?
Jan 16, 2024
If you have not read Part 1 of this series, A Trauma Aware Approach to Breath Work , I highly recommend this as this will give you an in depth look at what breath work is and WHY this might be challenging for some.
I am passionate about helping all of my clients and athletes understand what breath work is and explore this practice with more awareness so that they may engage with the practice in ways that actually support them.
There are a variety of ways to engage in breath work but more importantly you do not have to engage in it at all. This is why I highly encourage everyone to start by thinking about their goal or intention for breath work before embarking on a breath work journey.
Know that breath work is not a necessity for mindfulness, meditation, feeling calm, soothing yourself or achieving any award. Contemplative or mindfulness practices, grounding, or self-regulation skills are never a competition or destination. The ultimate goal is to find what works for you and supports you in your current state and find practices that support you in navigating life.
As Deb Dana says "The breath can be both a trigger and a resource". We have to feel safe enough to engage in breath work.
Exploring Your Intention
Start by connecting with your intention for breath work. You can use these reflections to get you started:
- WHY you want to engage in breath work?
- What is your intention or goal for your practice?
- What are you trying to accomplish for your life or overall well being?
- What have you heard about breath work that made you want to explore this practice?
- What have you already been doing and what has been the impact?
- What are you missing when it comes to navigating life things like emotions and tough stuff?
Getting clear on these will then help direct and steer your exploration in breath work practice. There is A LOT out there on the internet and social media when it comes to breath work. IF we set our intention first we can stay grounded in this as we begin to explore without getting distracted by everything that is out there.
Getting clear on your intention and goals will also allow you to assess and reflect AFTER you engage in a practice. This is important. We can’t figure out what supports or us or doesn’t support us if we don’t take the time to notice. (See more on this with #8 below)
Ask yourself, “Does this breath work practice support me, feel safe to me and help me slowly move toward my goal or intention?”
If it does. Great.
If it doesn’t. Also great because now you know. Take that as information and adjust.
If you aren’t sure. Also great and you can keep exploring slowly.
Getting Started in a Safe and Accessible Way
Here are a few directives I encourage all my clients to think about and take in to consideration when navigating their journey with breath work:
Please download and read my full Breath Work Disclaimer Here
1) Go slowly and start with the feeling of your natural breath (no manipulation). Just gain awareness and begin to explore a relationship with your breath!
- Spend a few minutes (start with 1-3 minutes) a day taking some time to breathe naturally and tune in to the feeling of your breath
- Try my Getting to Know Your Breath practice here for an explanation of how to do this
- Use props to help you explore like a block on the belly or theraband around the ribs
- You can also periodically throughout your day just check in with HOW you are breathing and see what it feels like to take an intentional breath. The breath can give you a lot of wisdom with regards to how you are doing both mentally and physically if you take the time to notice it!
2) Find the pathway of your breath
- When we say "feel" our breath we want to truly feel our breath rather than "think" about our breath
- Try finding where the FEELING of your breath is most accessible. IE: WHERE do you feel your breath? Some places to explore are the nose, chest, ribcage, stomach, side body or low back
- It can be helpful to understand the mechanics of breathing (refer back to my first blog on this) or pull up videos or pictures
- The breath creates a 360 degree movement in the body. Sometimes the term "belly breathing" can be misleading because when we breathe we don't just breathe in to our belly. There is actually a 360 degree movement occurring through the middle of the body. Sense in to this!
3) If you want to start with manipulation of the breath, start with simply slowing your breathing rate down or with lengthening exhale compared to inhale or simply
- Generally, slower/deeper breathing has been shown to help us shift in to more of a parasympathetic state
- We also know (from blog 1 in this series) that our exhale is linked to a more parasympathetic shift in our nervous system via the vagus nerve and SA node on the heart
- Slower and deeper breathing that engages the diaphragm has been shown to send signals, via the stretch receptors in your lungs, to the brain to calm the nervous system (Weber, 2018 and Jerath, 2006).
- The vagus nerve also passes through the opening of the diaphragm and can be stimulated by deep breathing, humming or singing which can influence the nervous system in to a more parasympathetic state.
- Again I want to preface – slower , deeper breathing is not for everyone and it can actually do MORE harm for some given where they are in their nervous system state. Generically prescribing slow / deep breathing is not advised.
4) Play around with posture
- Explore a variety of postures to engage in breath work
- Try seated, standing, walking, laying down on your back or laying down on your side.
- Try exploring breath work in restorative postures like legs up the wall
- What feels most supportive and accessible to you?
- Get as comfortable as needed by using props like pillows or blankets to support the body
5) Ease in to retention
- After exploring the feeling of your natural breath and playing around with slowing down your breath you can explore breath retention or holding your breath
- If going to hold your breath, start slow and hold for 1-2 seconds and then increase from there
- You can explore holding your breath at the top of your inhale (lungs full) or holding your breath at the bottom of your exhale (lungs empty). I find more often than not people find holding the breath at the top of the inhale feels more accessible than lungs empty holds.
6) Keep eyes open or hold on to something
- Closing your eyes in not a mandate for breath work.
- Keeping the eyes open can feel more grounding and provide a sense of safety for people!
- You can pick a spot to gaze on or keep the eyes roaming if you find that helpful
- Holding on to something like mala beads, stones or crystals or a pillow can also provide us with a sense of safety or grounding
7) Explore breath work with movement based practices
- Yoga is the union of the mind and body and the integration of your breath is a big part of the practice
- Try yoga or other movement based practices that allow you to feel and engage with your breath as you move throughout postures!
8) Pause and listen after
- This step is SO IMPORTANT
- We can't know how a breath work practice resonates with our mind and body if we don't take the time to listen after we engage
- Take 10-30 seconds to pause after you engage in breath work
- What is your mind and body telling you? How did the practice land with you? There is no right or wrong. Just information that can guide us.
Jerath, R., Edry, J. W., Barnes, V. A., & Jerath, V. (January 01, 2006). Physiology of long pranayamic breathing: Neural respiratory elements may provide a mechanism that explains how slow deep breathing shifts the autonomic nervous system. Medical Hypotheses, 67, 3, 566-571. .
Weber, K (2018). , The Yoga and Neuroscience connection. Subtle Yoga Health, LLC. Teacher Training. www.subtleyoga.com