Breath follows breath – we don’t need to focus on it; it comes naturally. We all do it, so why is breathwork the hottest wellbeing topic right now? And why are so many people and organisations so interested in breathwork training?
To understand this, we need to understand a little about the science of breathing. In this article, I’ll explain what happens when you change the patterning of your breath, why doing so is incredibly good for you and which techniques work best.
If you want to skip the science and go straight to practising techniques scroll down to the breathwork techniques and reflections section.
Research links are at the end of this article.
You will learn more about regulating your breath at home and work to boost energy levels, build focus, improve sleep quality, be more present for your colleagues and be creative.
The bridge between the conscious and subconscious
Breathing is amazing – it’s both automatic and can also be directed. We can take control of our breath at any moment. For example, we can hold our breath and deepen it, or we can make the inhalation longer than the exhalation, and vice versa. But when we are focused on other things like answering emails, sleeping, or talking with friends, it comes and goes without our direction – it carries on in the background.
The brain, by regulating breathing, controls its excitability. This means that the excitability of brain cells is changed by how we choose to breathe. For example, when we are stressed, we can deepen the length of the exhalation to reduce the excitability of the brain’s emotional centres. Or when we want to focus and learn new stuff, we can increase the excitability of the brain’s attention centres by deepening the inhalation. In summary, through choice, we can change the way we breathe to help us:
• Take in new information
• Improve sleep
• Improve our focus and
• Reduce anxiety
Breathing is the interface between the conscious and subconscious – you are using your brain to train your body and brain. It’s like taking your brain to the gym every day.
A deeper dive into the mechanics of breath
When we breathe in, we bring in oxygen, and when we breathe out, we remove the waste product of carbon dioxide. Oxygen helps power our brain and body. It’s the essential fuel, helping us think clearly and creatively, make new connections, learn new things and build new brain tissue. And it’s the fuel which builds the cells in our muscles to keep us healthy and strong. However, there is a popular misconception that CO2 is a bad thing. On the contrary, having enough CO2 in your body is essential for enabling the cells to access oxygen efficiently.
So, for example, if we are over-breathing – breathing rapidly in and out when we feel stressed – we may be removing too much CO2 from a system, thereby reducing the ability of our cells to use the oxygen we breathe inefficiently.
Balanced breathing means taking slow, long breaths in and out, with gentle pauses on the inhalation and exhalation. This breathing pattern creates the optimal ratio of oxygen and CO2 in the body, ensuring that our cells are working effectively.
If you are feeling tired or groggy at work, it might be that chronic over-breathing (or under breathing) means that the right balance of oxygen and CO2 is not in place for optimal performance – you might lose focus, find it hard to remember things or lack that creative spark. Or you might find it hard to generate positive emotions or face a workplace challenge.
The alternative is under breathing – when we slow or even stop breathing for a moment, and we fail to get enough oxygen into our system. Many people under breathe at night. Similarly, watch someone as they answer a test message or read an important email. Their body slows, like a cat hunting its prey, and at that moment, they stop breathing. Notice this in yourself as you check notifications – some researchers have described this as email apnoea.
Many people move through cycles from over breathing when they feel stressed to under breathing. This can have severe adverse impacts on energy levels at work and have health consequences.
Retraining your breathing pattern
The good news is that we can train the breath to be more efficient at getting adequate amounts of oxygen into the system and having a healthy O/CO2 balance. First, we must understand some basic breath basics before starting a training program. Understanding what, why and how of breathing will incentivise change and give you a great platform for making positive lifestyle changes. Main points:
Our lungs contain alveoli (tiny sacks that vastly increase the surface area, enabling efficient transfers of CO2 and O2 from the breath into the body).
Lungs don’t have muscles themselves. Our intercostal and diaphragm muscles enable our lungs to operate. When we inhale, the diaphragm contracts and moves down, while intercostal muscles allow the rib cage to move up and create more lung space.
Nerves connect the brain to the muscles. The phrenic nerve leads out of the neck, and the brainstem axons down the neck, close to the heart and behind, form synapses with the diaphragm. This is critical in breath regulation and your ability to be focused, energised and effective at work.
We breathe in an efficient manner when our abdomen rises as the diaphragm sinks, thereby creating space for the lungs to expand as we inhale – this is the phrenic nerve and brain working in a healthy and coordinated way.
This automatic healthy breath becomes more challenging when we get into unhealthy habits at work. These include:
- Sitting at a desk for too long, under breathing (thereby not practising a full range of movement in our muscles)
- Under breathing as we tense, slow, pause and focus on an incoming email – this has been described as email apnoea above. Over time, the range of movement in our muscles is shortened, our lung capacity is reduced, and the healthy exchange of oxygen and CO2 impacted.
- Over breathing when feeling stressed at work – in this situation, people might take short, shallow, fast-paced breathing when they pant for breath and breathe in a shallow way into their upper chest – in this situation, too much C02 is exhaled, and once again, the intercostal and diaphragm muscles move in a restricted way.
Why is this important at work and when you are studying?
Restricting the movement of these muscle groups is a direct cause of much neck and shoulder tension and lower back pain – one of the major causes of absenteeism in the workplace. Similarly, lower back pain can be caused by or increased by a lack of movement in the diaphragm (as we breathe deeply, the muscles move, lengthen and relax).
Chronic over or under breathing starves our brain cells of the oxygen needed to work efficiently, adversely affecting the quality of our work, efficiency, and collaboration.
People are often in a heightened stress state at work – with too much to do, too little time, uncertain reporting structures etc. In these situations, it’s easy to be lost in a flurry of emotions and lose sight of our breathing. This is why, in our courses, we teach people the importance of micro breath breaks to help re-establish control of the breath.
Taking control of the breath helps the brain re-establish control of the more reactive emotional centres of the brain. Reducing cellular excitability in these areas directs the body to start the rest and restore the parasympathetic response, as opposed to the sympathetic arousal response.
In a parasympathetic response, the body builds, strengthens and relaxes. And the brain becomes focused, upbeat and relaxed.
In the sympathetic state, the body can be tense, and we can feel anxious. In that state, our brain directs attention to our weaknesses, immediate threats and our own tasks at the expense of organisational priorities – we lose sight of what’s really important and our ability to collaborate with colleagues.
Changing how we breathe shifts from tense and narrow to broad and collaborative.
Breathing and neural plasticity – wellbeing and effectiveness at work
Because our breathing is often unconscious, our poor breathing habits become habitual. Over time, the range of movement in our muscles lessens, our lung capacity reduces, and the ability of the lungs and cells of our body to efficiently use oxygen and CO2 is impaired.
People who breathe well during the day tend to also breathe healthily at night. Many people under breathe at night and starve the body of oxygen – which is related to cognitive impairment, heart disease, etc.
And as these things happen, our brains rewire to reflect these unhealthy habits. The dark side of neural plasticity (the ability of brain cells to grow and connect in new ways) is that the parts of the brain related to breathing change, and our bad habits become ingrained.
The two regions of the brain associated with breathing are:
Pre-Bötzinger Complex: A brainstem region that generates respiratory rhythm in mammals – rhythmic breathing when asleep and when we are not thinking about breath.
Parafacial nucleus – pausing deliberate conscious control – for example, whilst you speak.
You don’t need to remember the names of these! Just know that you can retrain both brain regions to help your body breathe better and help other areas of your brain manage heavy workloads, remember things well, prioritise tasks effectively and be more collaborative. And it only takes a few minutes of daily breathwork exercises to engage neural plasticity to reshape the brain and optimise your physical and mental wellbeing.
The opposite of slow, regular breathing is either over or under breathing, which significantly impacts the workplace. When we over breathe, we expel too much C02, which means we can’t efficiently access the oxygen we are breathing in. We may experience a 30 to 40% reduction of available oxygen to our brain cells – we become anxious, less able to remember things clearly and less able to detect subtle changes in our environment. In this state, we are less able to:
- Recognise social and emotional signals from our colleagues – so we become less collaborative
- Less able to recall important information or remember aspects of our professional training
- Less able to regulate emotions and maintain optimism and positivity
- Less able to store and recall information we are reading
- Less able to weave different areas of learning together – we tend to learn work in silos and find it hard to piece together different bits of information.
In short, we become disorganised and flustered.
Breathwork techniques and reflections
What is “normal breathing”, and how can we train ourselves to breathe to optimise health?
Firstly, a safety point – the following is based on research. However, if your breath pattern is very different from what follows, it’s very normal and can be improved with simple tweaks to your habits. Health conditions impact how we breathe, as do life stressors such as heightened workloads. If you are concerned, please reach out to your primary health advisor.
Hopefully, the simple breathwork exercises below will help you, but if you need support, reach out for help. It’s important to have a non-judgmental and self-compassionate approach toward breathwork. If your “poor breathing” habits become yet another task to add to the list of things you are no good at and beat yourself up about, then that is counterproductive. We advise enrolling on a breathwork course, such as ours, supported by a trained professional such as a yoga teacher or other breathwork expert.
For most people, “healthy” breathing means taking in six litres of air per minute in about four to six breaths per minute through the nose (if possible) with small pauses at the end of the inhalation and exhalation. Breathing through the nose is slightly harder to do than through the mouth. It requires our body to work harder. But with practice, it becomes easier – this is the positive side of neural plasticity. With practice, it becomes easier.
As we breathe in, the diaphragm should sink, allowing space in the chest for the lungs to expand. As the lungs expand, the heart slightly increases in size, and the blood pumps faster around our system. In this state, we become more alert – resting heart rate and blood pressure increase slightly, and we become more focused. As we exhale, the diaphragm rises, the lungs contract, and our heart becomes slightly smaller, meaning the energy required to pump blood around the body is reduced. In this state, we become more relaxed and calmer.
Observe your breath for a moment:
Do you pause between breaths? Spend a minute observing your breath. Is it a constant cycle of ins and outs without subtle pauses? This may be a pattern of over breathing for which we noted the adverse impacts above. By observing the breath, you might start to pause between the ins and the out, and the breath lengthens. You might find this a relaxing process. You could add silent words in your head, such as (“I breathe in …I breathe out)”
Does your diaphragm sink, and your abdomen rise as you breathe in? For many shallow breathers, it doesn’t. As they breathe in, the chest rises because they are used to doing fast, short breaths into the upper chest. Once again, this pattern means we aren’t getting the correct balance of oxygen and CO2 to the cells, and in addition, these short breaths mean our intercostal muscles don’t take on the full range of movement, which can lead to upper back pain and tension headaches. This anxious pattern of breath means our sympathetic nervous system is engaged. We have more cortisol in our system with all the adverse consequences that entail it, including impact on memory, anxiety levels, digestion problems, and so on.
To monitor and improve your diaphragmatic breathing, practice the following.
- Sit in a chair with both feet connected to the ground.
- Gently push both feet into the ground so that you feel your spine lengthen and the crown of your head reaches toward the roof.
- Relax your hands into your lap.
- Gently place your right hand on your abdomen.
As you breathe in, say the words silently, “I breathe into my abdomen.” Try this for a minute, then softly place your left hand on your chest so both hands nurture your body. Notice how the ripple of the breath moves through the body – tummy rises, chest rises as you breathe in, and chest falls, and tummy falls as you breathe out.
You can also try this technique lying on the ground, perhaps with your lower back supported with a cushion under the back of your knees. In this position, you may find it helpful to place a small weight on your abdomen – this helps direct your attention to taking a deep diaphragmatic breath – thereby retraining the brain regions noted above to breathe more deeply. Over time, with practice, deeper, healthier breath becomes an unconscious pattern both at night and during the day.
How many times do you breathe in a minute? – count the breaths you do in one minute, counting one and so on for each exhalation. For many people, the breath is between 12 and 15. Remember, ideally, four to six is optimal. Try this exercise for one minute and then repeat. You may find that the act of counting the breaths you do slows and deepens your breathing.
Carbon dioxide tolerance test
A simple way to measure your tolerance to stress is the CO2 tolerance test. Sit in a chair in the way described above. Spend a minute or so taking deep, slow, restful breaths. Place your hand on your abdomen and one on your chest, and feel the breath moving in your body.
After doing this for a minute, take a full, long breath in through the nose, and then on the exhalation through the nose, aim to breathe out as slowly as you can, trying to lengthen the exhale as much as possible. Keep breathing out until you feel there is nothing more to go. Keep an eye on a stopwatch as you do this, and record how long it takes. Repeat this exercise a couple of times and record your results. Ideally, practice with a friend and record each other’s results rather than monitoring the time.
The CO2 discard rate is a simple measure of CO2 tolerance in the body and is related to how much stress you might be experiencing and can handle – as a rough guide, the longer the CO2 discharge, the less stressed you are. Please note this is a rough guide only.
Exercises to improve the length, depth and evenness of your breath
- Less 20 seconds – low CO2 tolerance – score yourself at three
- 25 to 40 – moderate CO2 tolerance – score yourself between five and six
- 50 plus – high – score between eight and ten
Take your brain and body to the breathwork gym every day. Set aside between two and five minutes to practice the following:
Box breathing for health
Based on your scores above, pick a number between three and ten. For example, if it was four, do the following:
- Keep a journal and record your energy levels from 1 to 10 and your mood (from feeling low to very optimistic)
- Record how you feel before and after the technique below
- Set a timer for two minutes
- Breathe in for the count of four, hold your breath for four, exhale for four, hold on to the exhalation for four and repeat for two minutes.
- If you find this easy, increase the number of minutes you do the exercise
- Practice every day – if possible, at a regular time, for example, when you wake up or before dinner in the evening
- Practice for one week
Over the week, the number you initially change may need to be changed. If you start at three, you may find increasing to four or five useful.
Over a short period, you will likely increase neuromechanical control over the diaphragm, relax your nervous system and improve oxygen usage in your cells. This will help your brain lean into workplace challenges much more effectively, study more efficiently and improve the functioning of your lungs. You may find your lung capacity and physical fitness improve – remember, you will also be energising your muscles because oxygen will flow effectively to all your major organs and muscle groups. And over time, your brain regions associated with breathing will rewire in a healthy way. Your automatic breathing will become slower and deeper without you trying both during the day and at night. And importantly, you will sleep better and recharge your body and brain at night – this is when we remove toxins from the brain, store memories and repair our bodies.
When you start these exercises, you may initially have poor phrenic nerve control over the diaphragm and intercostal muscles. It’s important not to make box breathing too strained. Consider starting at three and building upwards – you want to translate this exercise to your normal breathing pattern. It takes a little time (not much) to retrain the brain for healthier breathing gradually.
Which breathwork technique is best at reducing stress?
Researchers compared four different breathwork techniques and assessed which were most effective at reducing cortisol levels in the short term after practising the exercise and which impacted cortisol at other times (when people were not practising the technique). They wanted to assess if there were lasting benefits to doing the exercises, i.e. trait-like changes (general baseline reduction in stress levels).
They compared each of the following exercises completed for five minutes over several weeks:
- Box breathing
- Single-pointed meditation – observing the breath coming and going, noticing any thoughts or sensations, then returning to the breath point of focus.
- Cyclic sighing – is a double inhalation through the nose followed by a long, slow exhalation through the mouth. People were asked to breathe in and then take another breath in without exhaling first and then a breath out – this mimics the action that people sometimes do when they are sobbing.
- Cyclic hyperventilation – there are many different ways to do this. In the research, people were asked to breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth without pausing (just in and out) for 25 breaths. This fast, hard cyclic breathing has been practised in many different shamanic and yogic traditions for millennia. Participants were asked to hold their breath after the cyclic breathing on the exhalation for between 15 and 20 seconds. This exercise was repeated for five minutes.
All techniques had a positive short-term impact on reducing stress, and all positively impacted general longer-term stress levels. However, by far and away, the most effective technique was cyclic sighing.
Try this exercise for five minutes a day. As with box breathing, keep a record of your mood and energy levels. And use this technique throughout the day at work. For example, do one cyclic sigh in the following situations:
- Before doing a presentation to colleagues
- When there is an argument or a heated conversation
- If you feel unsafe
- To help you reset for a new meeting
- Before making an important phone call
- When you are about to do an exam
Cyclic sighing helps reduce stress levels around the clock, and one single sigh under any condition – meetings, presentations, pitches – is the fastest way to reduce stress levels and help people feel more in control and better able to recall facts. Practising the technique at moments throughout the day helps people be more mindful and reduces the amount of over or under-breathing that people do. In summary, it helps people feel alert, energised and confident throughout the day, and it helps us lean into tough conversations and build resilience levels.
Breathing for focus and emotional intelligence
We noted earlier that as we inhale, the heart gets bigger, and there is a slight increase in sympathetic arousal. We can learn from this that if you are feeling drowsy at work (perhaps during a long meeting), it helps to focus on deepening the inhalation and focusing your attention on your nose for a few moments. You will immediately feel more alert. At the same time, push your feet into the ground to help lift your chest and feel the breath ripple through your body all the way to your neck and shoulders.
On the other hand, if you are feeling stressed, either try a cyclic breath or bring your attention down to your abdomen, perhaps even placing a hand on your abdomen. Breathe into this area for a few breaths. If you need to steady your attention, repeat the words in your head, “I breathe in” on the inhalation and “I breathe out” on the exhalation. Or create your own words, such as “I breathe in” on the inhalation and “I am safe” on the exhalation.
If you need to focus on the words of a colleague but feel ungrounded and distracted, try the following shortly before the meeting: “I breathe in”, on the inhalation, “I’m here to listen to Jon” as you breathe out.
Do you find that your attention to completing a task needs to be improved? Single-pointed meditation focusing on the breath will help you better notice distracting internal chatter in your head. This technique is different to regulating and changing the shape of your breathing. It requires sitting or walking and focusing on the coming and going of the breath without trying to change it – simply notice what is occurring. Researcher Wendy Suzuki found that a daily 10-to-13-minute meditation significantly improved attention, memory, mood, and ability to regulate emotions.
A vast amount of research points to the benefits on physical and mental wellbeing and workplace performance of practising breathwork techniques for a few minutes every day and incorporating those techniques at emotional pinch points at work. And there is also a huge amount of research on the benefits of learning single-pointed meditation techniques.
Contact us today to enrol in our online breathwork program, or to work with your team on breathwork training.
Research on breathwork
Comparing most efficient ways of reducing anxiety
“Effects of voluntary hyperventilation on cortical sensory responses. Electroencephalographic and magnetoencephalographic studies”
Wendy Suzuki daily 10 to 13 minute meditation – attention, memory mood, emotional regulation
Other useful applications –
Jack Feldman “breathing rhythm and pattern and influence on emotion” – review of studies
“Nasal Respiration Entrains Human Limbic Oscillations and Modulates Cognitive Function 2016”