Breathwork. It's a term that's becoming increasingly popular in the Western world. But what is it exactly? On a quest to find out more, we challenged Jenni Whale, also known as The Mindful Soul, to answer our questions and take us through two short breathwork exercises, step by step. Jenni is a Breathwork Coach and Facilitator (YogaBody YACEP accredited and Breathing Space GPBA accredited)  and a Mind and Wellbeing Coach (Transformational Coach AC accredited). Over to Jenni... 


This is a big topic and not one I can cover in totality in one post. Clinical trials and evidence on how breathwork affects us is relatively new and only scratches the surface. Please also bear in mind I am not a doctor, medical practitioner or scientist. I have obtained my views from all the information I have gathered through intense training, study, courses, reading and real-life experiences.


 What is Breathwork? 

Breathwork is an umbrella term. There are many different types, and it can be practised at various intensities — from light to therapy. The three main pillars I use to define breathwork are:   

1. Physiology – Heavily scientific, this pillar looks at the individual’s physiology and how they are breathing. It includes different exercises to help with physiological issues such as asthma, burnout, snoring, depression and strokes. It also takes into account performance breathwork, which involves working with athletes to improve their physical performance. 

2. Emotional – This pillar looks at how the body keeps the score, how emotions get stuck within our body and our fight, flight or freeze response. For example, stress often causes people pain and tension in their shoulders, neck and jaw. Pranayama is often practised in this area to help regulate the nervous system and balance stress in the body.

3. Spiritual/therapy – This goes a lot deeper to release trauma within. These techniques help us to bring ‘stuff’ to the surface and release it. Conscious Connective Breath is the primary technique used. You may have heard of it in such practices as transformational breath, rebirthing, holotropic breathwork and the Wim Hof Method. 

What are the benefits?

 Breathwork has many benefits and can help with the following issues: 

  • Relaxation 
  • Digestion
  • Aiding sleep 
  • Anxiety 
  • PTSD 
  • Performance, fitness and energy levels 
  • Awareness, alertness, concentration 
  • Stress and stress management 
  • Regulation of our nervous and hormonal systems
  • Strengthen our immune system 
  • Enhanced creativity
  • Accessing and releasing trauma, emotional releases, and releasing pain and restriction in the body
  • Helping to process grief 
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder


Why is breathwork so powerful?

How we breathe affects our heart rate, which affects our thoughts and vice versa. So using our breath is the fastest way to change our state. 


Taming our autonomic nervous system

Our autonomic nervous system (ANS) comprises of two branches. The first is our sympathetic nervous system, which you may know as ‘fight, flight or freeze response’. The second is our parasympathetic nervous system, known as ‘rest and digest’. Our ANS controls involuntary activities within the body such as digestion and heart rate. 

Throughout the day, we move between these two states. To be in our sympathetic state, we could be exercising or running for the bus. To be in our parasympathetic state, we could have just eaten and be digesting food, relaxing on the sofa or going to sleep. 

With our busy modern lifestyles, we can often end up spending too much time in our sympathetic state and not enough time in our parasympathetic state. This is because our bodies and minds can’t determine the difference between a perceived threat and a real threat. For example, a perceived threat could be an email from your boss, your children misbehaving or watching the news. Physically our heart beats faster, our breathing becomes short and rapid, our digestion and reproductive systems slow or stop altogether and stressful and anxious thoughts may occur. 

So, our autonomic nervous system controls our involuntary activities. However, our breath is an exception. While our other responses are automatic, we can control our breath by carrying out some simple exercises. Exhaling for longer than we inhale and using our nose to breathe will slam on the breaks of our sympathetic nervous response and put our body into a calm and relaxed state  (activating our parasympathetic nervous system). 

Crazy, right? We can control our bodies and minds by how we choose to breathe!


Activating our vagus nerve

Wait, there’s more! The vagus nerve, which is the longest and most complex of the cranial nerves, transmits information to and from the brain to tissue and the main organs in the body. One of its key functions is being heavily involved in balancing the nervous system and, in particular, the parasympathetic. When the vagus nerve is activated, it sends signals between the gut and the brain which helps us to deal with stress and anxiety by decreasing inflammation, lowering heart rate and blood pressure, and aiding relaxation. 

So, you are probably thinking, OK, great, but how do we activate this nerve you speak of, Jenni? Well, there are clinical trials currently in place to do this medically using electrical pulses, to see how it can help with epilepsy, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders and Alzheimer’s disease.

Another way we can activate our vagus nerve is with breathwork, alongside yoga and meditation. The more we can activate it, the more we tone it and therefore, the faster we can relax after experiencing stress.


Staying focused 

 So far, I have only discussed how breathwork can help with relaxation, stress and anxiety. But breath practices can help with many other things too, including focus and alertness. 

For example, an exercise called Box Breathing (see below) can help with this and is used by the US Navy Seals before a mission. A study showed that the cingulate cortex in the participant's brain was activated when practising Box Breathing. This region of the brain is involved in awareness and therefore breathing in this way, heightened their attention. Breathwork and breath training is also used to aid performance in sport. 

Breath practices can be used to consciously go into your sympathetic state, creating energy and alertness. It is a natural way to start the day, helping to regulate the nervous system. Consciously choosing to go into this stress state also builds resilience. Carrying out these practices in the morning helps regulate your nervous system and improve your sleep-wake cycle so your body knows when to go to bed and when to wake. Win-win!


Does breathwork really work? 

Personally, I've found breathwork absolutely life-changing. I suffered from chronic stress, fatigue, burnout and severe digestive issues. I also lost my periods and had acne — you get the idea. What I didn't know at the time was that I was constantly in my sympathetic nervous state (fight, flight or freeze response). And as we know, this means my digestion slowed or stopped — cue digestive issues. My sleep was terrible. I was always exhausted because my system thought I was permanently at threat. 

Doing breathwork not only activated my parasympathetic nervous system. By engaging my diaphragm, I was massaging my intestines which helped to improve some of my digestive issues. Subsequently, this improved my sleep, reduced anxiety, calmed my overactive mind, and created awareness and built connection with myself. In addition, breathwork helped bring back my intuition and assisted with insight, creativity, and of course, my passion and new direction in life.


How do you do breathwork? 

So now you are probably wondering how you can get in on this? I would begin with awareness — awareness is the key to all change. Start by noticing your feelings throughout the day. Then notice how you are breathing. Is it deep and slow or short and shallow in your chest? Are you even holding your breath while reading this?


4 x 8 Relaxing Breath 

Practising a 4 x 8 relaxing breath before bed or at any point throughout the day while feeling stressed is a great way to put your body in a calmer, more relaxed state. This exercise works by putting you in a parasympathetic state (rest and digest mode). Give it a go by following the step below: 

  1. Find a comfortable position with your back straight and shoulders relaxed (sitting or lying  down will do)
  2. Close your eyes or lower your gaze 
  3. Start by taking a few deep nasal breaths in through and out through your nose. As you inhale, try to use your diaphragm, the dome-shaped muscle beneath your lungs. Your stomach will rise as you inhale and fall as you exhale 
  4. Inhale through your nose for a count of four 
  5. Exhale through your nose for a count of eight 
  6. Continue for ten rounds, ensuring you are relaxed and using your nose and diaphragm where possible 
  7. When you have finished, take a moment to notice how you are feeling 
  8. Slowly open your eyes and come back into the space 

Tip: If you find this exercise challenging, drop the inhaling count to four and exhaling count to six - or even three and five. As long as you exhale for longer than you inhale, you will be activating your parasympathetic system. 


Box Breathing 

This exercise helps with concentration, awareness and slowing of the mind. Test it out by following the steps below: 

  1. Find a comfortable position with your back straight and shoulders relaxed (sitting or lying down will do) 
  2. Close your eyes or lower your gaze 
  3. Start by taking a few deep nasal breaths in and out through your nose. As you inhale, try to use your diaphragm, the dome-shaped muscle beneath your lungs. Your stomach will rise as you inhale and fall as you exhale 
  4. Inhale for a count of four 
  5. Hold your breath for a count of four 
  6. Exhale for a count of four 
  7. Hold for a count of four 
  8. Repeat this cycle ten times 
  9. When you have finished, take a moment to access how you are feeling 
  10. Slowly open your eyes and come back into the space 

Tip: If you find this challenging, you can try ‘triangle breathing’, dropping the bottom hold. Inhale for four, hold for four, exhale for four.