Is there such a thing as mindful breathing?

‘Breathe in, breathe out’, how mindful breathing makes us happier and healthier. Does it?

From stress to chronic disease, the power of breathing has been championed by health experts and yoga gurus for centuries, but how far can something as straightforward as breathing really get us?

From Buddha to Fearne Cotton, the idea of using controlled breathing as a way of connecting with one’s inner self has been part of culture for ages. But can it help improve our health and mental health too?

Mental health is (thankfully) spoken of much more openly. It is beginning to be considered as important as physical health and is no longer brushed under the carpet aided by the unhelpful ‘man up’ or ‘chin up’ mottos. The Dutch ‘guru’ Wim Hof goes one step further and says that breathing techniques can keep disease at bay and keep our minds fresh and agile. He proclaims that learning to control your breathing – and to be able to hold it – brings physical and mental strength.

The idea that something as simple and natural as breathing could be a solution to help overcome anxiety, exam stress, panic or feeling generally overwhelmed is undoubtedly reassuring. And indeed, the UK’s NHS website features an entire page discussing the ways in which breathing techniques can reduce extreme stress and feelings of panic, as such clearly recognising its medical benefits. And is not the first intuitive thing anyone would say to you when you panic about something ‘to take a deep breath’?

Personally, I can’t elaborate on the help of breathing exercises enough when under pressure. Before some recent exams I had to sit, a friend told me about a technique called ‘Box Breathing’, designed to recalibrate the breath and therefore calm the mind. This made a huge difference to me and did reduce my sense of panic and stress and I have used the technique since on multiple occasions. By returning the breath to a normal pattern, other physical symptoms of stress and anxiety often subside, and this in turn means you can focus properly on the task at hand. Don’t believe me? Why not test it out yourself with the headspace app:

It is clear, if you try it, that breathing exercises can clear the mind of stress and worry, but can they really help cure disease or prevent it, as Wim Hof claims? It seems like a far-fetched idea, but research now shows otherwise. For example, the recovery from the aftermath of Coronavirus can be aided hugely by breathing exercises, because deep breathing can help restore diaphragm function and increase lung capacity. Focused breathing can also help combat the risk of high blood pressure by decreasing the heart rate. Increased oxygen in the body can improve sleep, digestion and improve the immune system. And better sleep and digestion are the key ingredients for overall good health.

So, undeniably, breathing can be a huge help in our day-to-day lives, but the question of what sort of exercises to do and how often depends on the person. I’ve already mentioned Box Breathing, but other examples include ‘Belly Breathing’, ‘Alternate Nostril Breathing’ , The Wim Hof Method and many more. If you think you need someone to guide you but don’t have the time or money to sign up to a yoga or meditation group, there are also many easily accessible videos online, both on YouTube and Instagram.

Have a look at the links below for some inspiration.

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