Aimee Hartley, like most people, thought she knew how to breathe – she had, after all, been doing it all her life. She had also given it plenty of thought, having trained as a yoga teacher. But then she took a lesson with a breathing coach, who told her where she was going wrong. He pointed out she wasn’t taking the air into her lower lungs but was, she says, an “upper chest breather. He then taught me this conscious breathing and I felt my lower belly open, and I felt myself breathing a lot better after just one session. So I then became fascinated by how we breathe.”
Watching her students in her yoga class, and observing people in everyday life, she started noticing that almost nobody breathes that well, by which she means in a way that makes your belly expand and your upper chest and back lift slightly, in a fluid motion. The exception, she says, is “babies, until they’re about three”. Then we forget how to breathe.
There has been a huge rise in interest in “breathwork” in the last few years, in the western wellness world at least (spiritual practices such as Buddhism and Hinduism have long known about the benefits of breathing well). Hartley is a Transformational Breath coach, the method created by Judith Kravitz in the 70s. There are other methods, including Buteyko and holotropic, as well as the ancient pranayama, or breath control practice, in yoga. One of the stars of the breathwork world is Wim Hof, who advocates breathing exercises alongside cold therapy and meditation. Hartley offers group and private breathwork sessions, and published a book earlier this year, Breathe Well. Hers is just one of a number of books on breathing out this year, including Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by the journalist James Nestor and Exhale by Richie Bostock, an Instagram-friendly coach who describes breathwork as “the next revolution in health and wellness”.
These are exercises that promise to help us become better breathers, which, it is claimed by practitioners, can transform our physical and mental health by improving immune function, sleep, digestion and respiratory conditions, and reducing blood pressure and anxiety (or transporting you to a higher realm of consciousness, if that is your thing).
There is little high-quality research to back up many of these claims, although it has become widely accepted that diaphragmatic breathing (engaging the large muscle between the chest and abdomen to take bigger, deeper lungfuls of air) can reduce feelings of stress and anxiety – and the NHS recommends this for stress relief. “If we are breathing into the diaphragm well, we can send messages to the body that we are safe,” says Hartley. Consciously slow and deep breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system – the “rest and digest” response that is opposite to the “fight or flight” sympathetic nervous system. Studies have shown that controlled breathing can reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol in saliva, and another study shows that controlled breathing can alter the chemistry in the brain, affecting levels of another stress hormone, noradrenaline, which could enhance focus and keep brains healthier for longer. There has also been a rise in the use of breathing exercises to help people with asthma.
The coronavirus pandemic may have accelerated the breath-training trend. Faced with a virus that affects the respiratory system, attacking the lungs of those severely affected and often leaving even those with mild symptoms with a breathlessness lasting months, there has been a renewed focus on breath. Should you be worried about someone standing close enough to breathe on you? Are you used to breathing through a face mask yet? Is suddenly being aware that it’s harder to take a deep breath a Covid symptom, or a sign of the anxiety many of us are experiencing at the moment? “I think people are becoming more aware of how they breathe and how that affects them,” says Hartley, who has been teaching clients over Zoom since lockdown began. “I’ve had clients that are now in recovery from Covid and they’ve said they have never become so aware of their breathing.”
Breathwork has become fashionable, she thinks, “because it works”. The increased profile of mindfulness, with its focus on breathing, has been another reason, but even while we sit, eyes closed, following the guidance of an app, few of us know how to breathe well, she says.
About 80% of the people Hartley sees in her sessions are “upper chest breathers, so that when they breathe in, their intercostal muscles [between the ribs] and their shoulder muscles are overused. Their chests puff out and hardly anyone is breathing really well into their belly, which should be the foundation of the healthy breath.” Others breathe through their mouth rather than nose. “So there’s all these intricacies in the way we breathe and there’s always room for improvement.”
Watch a toddler breathe, she says, and they do it instinctively – their tummies swelling with each in-breath. Hartley believes it is when children begin school that bad habits start setting in that last a lifetime – they sit for long periods, move less, and start to experience emotional stressors that affect breathing (we are designed to take shallow breaths while under threat; it is just that now we feel as if we are under threat all the time). “We go into this fight-or-flight mode and the muscles contract. We start holding our breath a lot more than we should do. It can be anything from feeling nervous in a classroom or something can be happening at home, and you start doing these micro-breath-holds, which morph into an adult dysfunctional breath pattern. It happens without us realising it.” She has created a programme for schools, School Breathe, which launches next week, after being piloted in three schools in east London, teaching children breathing exercises to improve concentration and reduce stress and anxiety.
We are all surviving, Hartley points out – we take in 23,000 breaths in a day – but she says there is room for a better breath. “These micro-happenings throughout our lives sadly make this wonderful toddler breath turn into this crotchety teenage breath and on into adulthood.”
It is hardly surprising, she says: “Modern life stops us breathing well.” Stress is associated with small, quick breaths which, in turn, makes us feel even more frazzled. Hartley has observed that people who live in cities, with the added problem of pollution, unconsciously take in shallower breaths. And even tight-fitting clothes, or snug bras, can affect your breathing, while “this mad desire to be skinny”, she says, has meant people holding their stomachs in – she says she has seen people reluctant to take a full breath because it gives a rounded-tummy shape.
Spending time online, too, has affected our breath. “When we’re engaged in technology we’re doing these subconscious breath-holds a lot,” she says. It can happen when concentrating on writing an email, but also when mindlessly scrolling through social media. “And the things we see online can make us feel inadequate or anxious, so there’s an emotional factor that can affect breathing. I don’t know if anyone comes off social media feeling better.” There are also postural issues that can hamper our respiratory system, whether you are hunched over a laptop or, head down and neck bent, looking at your phone.
The first step to improving your breathing is to become aware of it, says Hartley. You may notice you are holding your breath more than you realise, or taking shallow breaths. “Breathing is subconscious, as in it goes on 24 hours a day and most of those we don’t notice, but it’s the only system of the body that we have some alertness over and have some ability to change,” says Hartley. “Find out how you breathe first – place one hand on the lower belly, one hand on the upper chest, take a few breaths and notice which part of the body rises more.”
There are dozens of exercises in Hartley’s book, as well as numerous tutorials online from breathwork coaches, books and apps, but as an easy one to try, she recommends extending the exhalation as a way to feel more relaxed. “Breathe in through the nose for four, hold the breath for two, and then breathe out for six, and then repeat that for a few rounds.” You can also practise on the move, ideal on your daily walk or commute, if you are back at work. “Breathe in for five steps while you’re walking, and out for five steps, always in and out through the nose.”
To start getting familiar with breathing into the diaphragm, meanwhile, Hartley recommends sitting on the edge of a chair with legs hip-width apart, then leaning forward with your elbows on your knees and your chin resting in the palms of your hands. Take a deep “sniff-like” breath in through the nose. “You should feel your belly and lower back expand,” she says. And then breathe out slowly again through the nose, then repeat for a minute.
And what if you want to lull yourself back to sleep? Try tensing all the muscles in your body as you breathe in through the nose, then releasing them as you exhale through the mouth, which you repeat a few times. Then create space between your teeth and, with your tongue placed on the hard palate, breathe in through the nose for a count of three, hold it for a count of four, then breathe out through the mouth, relaxing the tongue, while counting to five. Hartley advises repeating this for at least 10 rounds.
Of all the wellness trends, one benefit appears to be that breathing – for all the coaches, books and apps out there – cannot be commercialised in quite the same way as sleep and eating. It is free, it can be done anywhere and the effects are instant. “Breathwork is brilliant for bringing us into the present moment,” says Hartley. “We spend a lot of time mentally elsewhere, and the breath can never be in the past or future. If we focus on our breath, we’re pulled back to the present moment so there’s no overworrying or overthinking. We can just be in the here and now.”
Emine Saner is a feature writer for the Guardian.