We take, on average, 20,000 breaths a day, more than seven million a year. And yet we may be doing it completely wrong. It transpires that the way we live, all hustle and frenzy, may be inimical to deep, belly breathing - the kind of breathing that restores us, flooding our bodies with oxygen. Studies have proved the immense value of even a short amount of daily breathwork; Apple watches are championing it, so is Karlie Kloss. This is what you need to know...
Breathing is just breathing, Right?
So what am I doing wrong?
The vast majority of us take shallow breaths, only inflating our chest. These are known as "stress breaths" (they tend to be a response to a busy, late night/early morning kind of lifestyle) and send messages to our brain that we are in "fight or flight" mode, spiking levels of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline and leading to complaints such as poor digestion, depression, impaired immunity and heart disease.
Sounds bad. What do I do?
Your goal is deep diaphragmatic breathing. This will switch your body into the parasympathetic or "rest and digest" state. Numerous studies have shown doing as little as a minute each day will improve mental and physical health.
I might need help with this...
There are plenty of options. Your platinum service will be to visit a breath coach, such as Rebecca Dennis (breathingtree.co.uk) for one-on-one tuition; satisfied clients include a champion boxer who regained his title after improving his breathing patterns and a CEO who stopped having panic attacks. The DIY approach is to spend 1-5 minutes a day breathing in for a count of five, then out for a count of seven.
Sounds a bit like yoga.
It should. In fact, the Ujjayi (victorious breath) yoga technique, a slow breath in which you consciously feel the air touching your throat, has been used as a treatment for Iraq combat veterans with PTSD. In a workshop run by Stanford psychologist Emma Seppälä, after six days soldiers "who said they had felt 'dead' since returning from Iraq" said they felt alive again.
Do I need to know about tech-based Breathing Apnea?
This is the habit people often develop of holding their breath while looking at their phone. Happily, the Apple Watch and the Fitbit are using technology to fight back, both featuring apps with guided sessions, using haptic feedback to illustrate the breaths you take and encouraging long, slow exhales.
So will I get fitter?
Absolutely. The stronger your breathing prowess the better your potential sporting performance. You may also wish to strengthen your respiratory muscles (especially the diaphragm): to do this, Team GB runners often train in altitude chambers (less oxygen means the body becomes more efficient) or use inspiratory muscle-training equipment (which makes it harder to breathe).
Try instead to harness your breathing. "Exhalation engages the core, which supports the spine and reduces chance of injury," says Neil Dimmock, head of fitness at Ten Health & Fitness (ten.co.uk). "Resist holding your breath, as the more you get oxygen to the muscles and carbon dioxide away, the more you will resist fatigue" and hence you can train harder.
Furthermore, every gentleman should also understand breath and its relation to BDSM. According to London domme Mistress Absolute, "When the whip bites, you want a sharp inhale as the oxygen rush will help trigger the release of endorphins; then relax into the exhale to manage the long burn afterward."
Michael Townsend Williams was a proto-alcoholic ad producer. Breathing transformed his life and he details in his book Do Breathehow the clarity that breathwork brings can make you more effective and ruthless at work. (Actually, ruthlessness is optional). He recently launched the BreatheSync app, useful if you don't have an Apple Watch.
£8.99 via the Do Book Co
Original article published in GQ, in May, 2019