As a freediver and someone who suffers from asthma and costochondritis, breathing (or lack thereof) is often on my mind. When the news started to report on how COVID-19 affects the lungs, I could feel the fear of not being able to breathe weighing on my chest. It’s a primal fear controlled by the amygdala, and one of the reasons we have such a strong reaction to thinking about this virus.
We’ve been warned a second wave of COVID-19 is “inevitable,” and in some provinces, cases are already on the rise. Now that restrictions are relaxing, people are travelling across the country, and many of us are experiencing COVID-19 measures fatigue.
It’s normal to feel on edge.
But living with long term fear doesn’t help your health. Practicing preventative health care can help put your mind at ease and give your body a more robust defence. Through breathing techniques accessible to almost everyone, we can give our respiratory system the toughest shot at staying healthy.
Our respiratory system is responsible for our sense of smell, making sounds, protecting us from dust and microbes, breathing and the gas exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in our bloodstream.
The respiratory system is also linked to the vagus nerve, and therefore the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, thus regulating immune responses—pretty important stuff! But few of us are taught how to care for it.
Here’s how you can get started.
Think About What You Breathe In
Air quality matters, 7.6% of deaths worldwide are caused by ambient air pollution. While most Canadians may not think about air pollution daily, challenges like forest fires and proximity to industrial activity can affect different regions.
Lower your exposure by avoiding exercises outside on days when air quality is poor. If you walk or cycle, look for routes that avoid congested streets full of vehicles emitting pollutants. (We thank you for your part in making the air quality better for everyone!)
Are You Mouth Breathing?
In James Nestor’s book Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, he goes on at length about the benefits of nasal breathing and the harm of mouth breathing, even putting himself through a very unpleasant study to prove it.
Mouth breathing has been linked to the shortening and contraction of our airways, which can cause conditions like sleep apnea, chronic snoring, hypertension, sinus infections and more.
Or, for free, try “mewing” exercises. John Mew was an orthodontist who wrote a book called The Tropic Premise on correct oral posture when he discovered an underdeveloped bottom jaw is a common cause of constricted airways. His son, Dr. Mike Mew, continues his work and has YouTube videos to guide you through a mewing practice.
Proper Breathing Begins with Your Belly
Just because breathing is automatic doesn’t mean we’re good at it. Many of us are taking short, shallow breaths from our chest region and unconsciously holding our breath while we multitask, a new phenomenon called “email apnea” or “screen apnea.” Consciously holding our breath can have many benefits, but holding it in this way can lead to fatigue, brain fog and other ailments.
With some practice and discipline, we can create the muscle memory to breathe using the diaphragm all of the time, not just in yoga class. If you’re unfamiliar with the diaphragm, it’s a skeletal muscle that covers the base of the thoracic cavity. Think of it as a sheet at the bottom of your lungs that helps pull your lungs down and out to inflate them. The intercostal and core muscles are also integral in belly breathing.
Achieving an Optimal Breath Count
During his research for Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, Nestor stumbled on something incredible. Doctors have proven the most efficient breath count and optimal rhythm for our respiratory and circulatory systems to achieve equilibrium is the 5.5 breath (sometimes called resonant breathing or coherent breathing).
The incredible part is, it follows the same 5.5-6 second count of the rosary from Roman Catholicism, the Om Mani Padme Hum chant in Buddhism, the chant of Om used in Jainism, and the sa ta na ma chant in Kundalini yoga. Underneath these practices that humans have used for spiritual and physical health for centuries, lies the optimal breath.
This slow breathing that focuses on not breathing too much, too little or too fast has helped many people suffering from asthma and emphysema. It’s easy to practice until it becomes your unconscious breath.
To practice: Inhale for a count of 5.5 seconds, then exhale 5.5 for a count of seconds in one fluid motion. Do not pause at the top of the inhale or bottom of the exhale.
Underneath these practices that humans have used for spiritual and physical health for centuries, lies the optimal breath.
Learn Pranayama and Breathing Exercises
I first became aware of our power to strengthen our diaphragms and build lung capacity through the sport of freediving (also known as breath-hold diving.) After little training and breathing exercises, I was suddenly able to hold my breath for 4 minutes or longer.
But why would you want to train to resist the need to breathe if it’s not to explore a kelp forest or follow a turtle along a coral reef? Chemoreceptor flexibility.
Breathing exercises train our bodies to not overreact, which can decrease panic and asthma attacks, anxiety and depression. (For a full understanding of why this is, read Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art). Breathing exercises, or pranayama, also help strengthen our lungs and respiratory muscles, making them more resilient.
The first instructable teachings of pranayama on known record are in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali from 500 BCE. But the breathing practice originated even earlier, at least 2600 BCE in the Indus Valley. People from the Indus-Sarasvati civilization eventually sought new homelands (regional drought is thought to be the instigator) carrying their breathing practices into their new communities. From there, the exercises developed alongside one another across cultures in Asia, becoming an integral part of holistic health care.
More than a breathing exercise, pranayama is about life force, the idea that conscious breathing can improve our vitality. Thanks to Swami Rama and countless Indian yogis who’ve participated in studies, the health benefits are now scientifically understood. By controlling and manipulating the breath, we stimulate cells and tissues, keeping them “younger” and healthier.
More than a breathing exercise, pranayama is about life force, the idea that conscious breathing can improve our vitality.
Pranayama, or conscious breathing, also strengthens our immune function. The “Iceman” Wim Hof took theories from ancient breathing and meditation practices like Tummo and turned it into a packaged program accessible to mainstream culture called the “Wim Hof Method.”
Hof shocked the science community with his ability to consciously control his sympathetic nervous system and immune response in a 2011 study. To determine if this was unique to Hof, a 2014 study saw 12 participants trained in the Wim Hof Method injected with an endotoxin. The results were the same, they were also able to control their immune response and did not succumb to the virus. To learn about the method, try this free mini-class, look up the technique as republished for free by others online, or sign-up for an official course.
Pranayama and breathing exercises revolve around three central manipulations: slowing or deepening breath, quickening breath and holding breath. Some examples of these you can practice:
Great for: calming and increasing focus.
- Sit up tall with ears aligned over shoulders, shoulders over your rib cage and rib cage over the pelvis
- Inhale from the abdomen for a count of 2
- Exhale, slow and controlled for a count of 4
- Once this is comfortable, increase your inhale to 4 counts and exhale to 8 counts
- Next, increase your inhale to 6 counts and exhale to 12 counts
Breath of Fire
Great for: building lung capacity, cleansing, increasing energy and mental clarity.
- Sit in Vajrasana pose or cross-legged
- Inhale through the nose using the diaphragm, keeping the upper abdomen and chest relaxed
- “Snap” the abdomen in, bringing the navel and solar plexus to the spine, exhaling through the nose
- The breaths should be quick and rhythmic
- Practice for 1 – 3 minutes
Great for: reducing stress and anxiety, and improving impulse management.
- Exhale for 4 seconds
- Hold for 4 seconds
- Inhale for 4 seconds
- Hold for 4 seconds
Find more on Dr. Belisa Vranich’s website – she has a free resource called Breathing Through CVOID-19.
When starting your own breath practices, remember to go slow and take your time working up to more intense exercises, so you don’t stress the diaphragm or intercostal muscles.
A proper breathing technique, combined with breathing exercises, can be revolutionary for health, all you need is a little time to practice.