I Went Back to School to Learn How to Breathe (No, Really)

I didn't know I was bad at breathing until I went to my very first yoga class about three years ago. Before then, I'd never really even thought about it, but as soon as the teacher instructed me to move from a downward dog on the exhale whilst moving into cobra during a pranayama alternate-nostril inhale (still clueless on that one), I knew that breathing just wasn't my forte.

It sounds silly, doesn't it? Obviously breathing is something our bodies do automatically; it's not thought involved. But as pollution rates grow greater than ever before and our bodies experience newly found levels of stress, very few of us are actually reaching our respiratory system's full potential. And considering poor respiration has been linked to things such as anxiety and other physical health issues, it's not really something we can, or should, overlook. 

Breathing techniques: h&m model

Ever since that yoga class, I've had somewhat of a complex around my breathing. While I've never been more conscious of it, I still don't seem to be able to get it under control. And when my B12 deficiency caused a series of minor panic attacks last year, my breathing problem came into the fore again. 

So when I got wind (no pun intended) of a new app that promises to open up your full breathing potential, not even the £4 price tag could stop me from downloading it (and I'm someone that winced at the thought of spending £1 on the now essential Kira Kira app). 

Think of the app like a digital personal trainer for your breath. The Breath Guru, created by breath expert Alan Dolan, is essentially a toolkit to supercharge your respiratory system. First, you watch a series of videos where Dolan explains the theory and technique behind his breathing practice (more on that later), and then there are voice files that you work through every day in which you practice the breathing routines you've previously learned. It sounds complicated, but it's really not. 

I'll admit, at first, the skeptic in me did think How will what is fundamentally a glorified YouTube tutorial really change anything about my breathing complex? and I did have to deal with my boyfriend asking, "WTF are you doing?" on numerous occasions where he'd find me lying on the bed holding my stomach with my eyes shut. But it was on day five when I noticed a switch. A jam-packed tube carriage was no big deal (before, it would have been enough to send my lungs into overdrive) and even the signing of some pretty big mortgage documents didn't phase me, as I'd taken the time to train my breath just before.

According to Dolan, the benefits of conscious breathing are innumerable. "It's a safe way to infuse the body with oxygen and energy, recharging our own (often depleted) systems to work to their healing capacity," he reveals. If you've found yourself struggling to concentrate, focus or have been feeling sluggish lately, conscious breath could be the answer.

The app has really worked for me and is definitely worth a shot if you whether you have never thought about it or, like me, have breath anxiety. I'm still desperate for more knowledge, however, and so I asked Dolan to share his tips for breathing your way through certain situations. Keep scrolling to discover the techniques and may your breath be under control ever more.

How to breathe when you're meditating

The app is based on a 10-minute daily and 30-minute weekly breath practice that is akin to any other type of mindfulness you might have already tried. "I think of our breath practice as being very much like a mantra meditation except in our case the mantra is a physical repetition rather than mental or verbal," explains Dolan.

The practice is all about conscious breathing and paying attention to all the air entering and leaving your body. "It's the perfect tool for relaxation and de-stressing," Dolan adds. "It puts the body into a self-balancing mode so that excess mental energy (i.e., the monkey mind) gets redistributed lower down in the body, allowing us to feel more grounded and relaxed."

The app will walk through the techniques far better than I could ever explain but in short, it's about taking 10 minutes every day to pay full and undivided attention to your breath.

The basics: You feel air enter your nose and travel down through your airways into the very depths of your abdomen before releasing it out of the mouth in a very controlled way. You pay attention to how your chest and stomach move with every breath. The theory is that this conscious logging of a 'proper' breath trains your mind and body to repeat the speed, depth and intensity for every further breath you take outside of your practice, even when you're not thinking about it. 

How to breathe when you're at work

The key to efficient breathing—and this was a massive news flash for me—was that you don't need to worry about it all day long. I mean, we all have a million other things to worry about, let alone the fluctuation of our lungs all day long. Dolan agrees that it's unrealistic to constantly worry about it. "Rather than attempting to breathe in a particular way 24/7, try doing a short 10-minute breath practice daily," he explains. "This is like 'taking your breath to the gym' and the effect of the practice will enable us to breathe more fully and healthily over time."

How to breathe when you feel anxious

Okay, so what about when you start to feel a little antsy, like before a big presentation, or when you have to break some bad news to someone? Dolan’s advice is to go low and go slow: "Imagine filling a balloon in your abdomen with your inhale and letting it deflate slowly and calmly on your exhale—start to focus and breathe down into the lower abdomen.”

How to breathe when you can't sleep

Trouble sleeping? Breathing can help with that too. "The best way to relax and induce a feeling of calm and well-being (which is, of course, a perfect precursor for sleep) is to imagine your inhale and exhale as though you are saying the word 'aha'," Dolan explains. "Say 'aah' on the inhale and 'ha' on the exhale making sure the inhale is longer than the exhale." You're looking for a three to one ratio here and you do this breath solely through the mouth.

Up next, more sleep tips for when counting sheep has stopped working.

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