‘Breath is a powerful thing’: How to breathe for better wellbeing

Psychotherapist Oliver James believes breathing techniques can offer a range of benefits

Did you know you can breathe yourself to sleep? Or that strong, rapid breaths can help boost your confidence?

Body-led psychotherapist Oliver James has spent the last nine years researching and working with breath. He says that certain breathing techniques can help everything from boosting confidence to anti-ageing.

‘Breath is a powerful thing,’ he says. ‘Most of us do it without thinking and yet the way we breathe is key to physical and mental health. Every system and living cell in our body relies on oxygen being delivered and excess carbon dioxide being taken away.

‘The physical act of breathing also helps transport huge quantities of lymph, the fluid responsible for maintaining our immune system and clearing pathogens and dead cells inside of us.

‘Breathing also helps to optimise blood pH. Working alongside our kidneys, breathing is part of what balances our pH to only a little more alkaline than water (at around 7.4). Should we be even a little over or under this pH, both our physical and mental health begin to deteriorate and, left unresolved, could eventually kill us.’

Who would have thought that this simple act would have such a profound effect? However, according to James, there’s a breathing technique for everything — as he details in his new book, 21 Breaths: Breathing Techniques To Change Your Life.

The book explores the science behind breathwork and how every part of our body, from our nervous system to our reproductive and digestive systems, benefit from the varying techniques.

‘The key when it comes to breathwork is restoring optimum breathing,’ he says.

‘Contemporary lifestyles have us rushing too quickly, thinking chaotically and ingraining incredible levels of stress and tension into our lives and bodies. All of these create toxic free radicals which not only negatively impact our health and wellbeing, but age our body, too.

Once optimum breathing is restored, every system in our body benefits. Prior to 2005, research exploring breathwork was thin on the ground but, since then, an explosion of research has taken place — with major universities like Stanford, Johns Hopkins and Harvard contributing to the field.

Psychotherapist Oliver James on his travels

Oliver James has spent the last nine years researching and working with breath

Studies have evidenced that breathing techniques are able to reduce pain, relieve nausea and lower blood pressure.

Oliver has travelled the world working with surgeons, fighter pilots, fitness professionals and meditation gurus to develop his 21 techniques.

‘For example, to develop The Dive breath, I interviewed a professional spear fisherman called Aleix Segura i Vendrell. At the time, he held the Guinness World Record for holding his breath,’ Oliver says. ‘What I found fascinating from our conversation was how our desire to breathe has little to do with oxygen.

‘It is rising carbon dioxide that our nervous system pays attention to. The Dive engages a few ideas from what he had to say and is helpful for anyone wanting to calm their mind, promote body oxygenation and improve fitness.’

With the Global Wellness Summit placing Breathwork as one of the top Wellness Trends of 2021, we asked Oliver to share some simple breathing techniques to enhance everyday life.

The Anti-Ager: Waterfall

‘Our metabolism produces toxic by-products, including carbon dioxide and other free radicals, and unless these are cleared, they can age our body. The key to this breath is a neurotransmitter called nitric oxide. When we breathe through our nose, the nitric oxide it creates has proven to take pressure off our heart, dilate blood vessels and even promote healthier chromosome lifespan.’

How to:

  1. Breathing only through your nose, bounce up and down on both feet for one minute.
  2. Coming back to standing, fold your upper body towards the floor (or as far down as you can). Let your head, neck, shoulders and arms hang loose.
  3. While in this position, breathe towards your tailbone. This fires up the diaphragm (our most efficient breathing muscle).
  4. After about thirty seconds of breathing upside down, slowly come back upright. Place hands on your lower belly and, still breathing through your nose, breathe gently and fully towards your palms. Practice letting your belly expand on inhalation and relax on exhalation. Breathe this way for five minutes.

Confidence booster: Bull Breath

‘How we feel intimately connects with breath; from the flowing breath of happiness to the tight, staccato-like gasps when we hold in feelings of sadness. Confidence has feelings and sensations of its own. Bull Breath utilises our emotion’s connection to breath and posture to encourage the release of confidence boosting endorphins and neurotransmitters.’

How to:

  1. Standing, feeling your weight evenly balanced on your feet. Rise up onto your toes and, engaging mini-jumps, let your heels strike the earth. Intensify hopping towards full jumps if able.
  2. After twenty hops, return to standing. Keeping your knees slightly bent, tense all the muscles of your leg and buttocks to create a sense of solidity and feeling grounded.
  3. Raising your arms up ninety degrees, with elbows and fists held tight (imagine a strongman pose), press your shoulders backwards and downwards. Allow your upper and lower body to feel strong.
  4. Making a face like an angry bull, breathe strongly and rapidly through both nose and mouth. Bring a challenging thought (or even a person!) to mind and let your facial expression and breath intensify as you breathe this way, powerfully, for thirty seconds.

Sleep-Booster: Rising Tide Breath

‘This works by soothing our internal fight and flight mechanism and replacing it with what our body needs to rest and digest. What sets this technique apart is how it stimulates the yawn reflex, which helps prepare our body to make the change in state from active to sleepy.’

How to:

  1. Shut your eyes and take a breath deep into your lower belly. Hold your breath and contract every muscle in your body for as long as you can.
  2. Exhale and relax. Repeat this breath-holding-contraction two to three times or until your muscles begin to soften.
  3. Let the next inhale be slower than the one before. Filling from your lower body up to the collarbones, feel it stretch every part of your lower torso before expanding each rib in turn. As this wave-like sensation meets your collarbones, imagine the inhale to continue upwards. Placed currently, your soft palate will feel to broaden (like a yawn).
  4. Pausing at your inhale’s peak, once again, squeeze your entire body. Use the exhale to shed yet more tension. Continue breathing this way for ten minutes.

21 Breaths: Breathing Techniques To Change Your Life by Oliver James is out now, priced £9.37, published by Unify, unicornpublishing.org

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