Breathwork is an umbrella term that is used to describe a whole range of breathing techniques for different purposes. What makes breathwork so powerful and potent is that everyone has access to their breath and it can be adapted to suit the different breathing needs of individuals. People from all different walks of life all lead very different lifestyles and this is influenced by things such as their age, everyday activities and the ways that they spend their leisure time.
Breathwork can be practiced as a supporting practice that supports people to breathe their best breath and live their best life. By learning to recognise and understand what kind of lifestyle factors influence a person and their current stage of development in their life journey, breathwork can be optimised to support them and where they may be at.
As an individual on your own journey, perhaps learning about the breathing needs of each stage can inspire you to learn to breathe a better breath to contribute to an improved today and tomorrow for you and your loved ones.
Breathwork for Children
Considering the development of a Child, think about what their daily activities commonly consist of. What is it that they are most likely to be doing on a day to day basis? Which parts of their human functioning and behaviour are developed and how can you work with that through a practise in breathwork? With these questions aside, it’s important to note that a Child is growing and learning from many different influences in their environments. They soak in a lot of input from what are exposed to.
For starters, breathwork can be guided towards different approaches in younger children (0-4 years old), childhood (5-12 years old) and older children leading into adolescence (12 years old and onwards).
In early childhood, between the ages of 0-4 years of age, children are very much still learning about their bodies and what they are capable of. During these early years of a Child’s life, Breathwork at this stage in particular, can be modeled by Parents and can play a very significant role in helping to nurture and nourish a child. The Breathwork to focus on at this stage is Coherent Breathing, which involves inhaling and exhaling through the Nose for a count of 5 seconds. The breath travels deep down into the Diaphragm as you breathe in and out and what starts to happen, is a synchronization of the Brain, Heart and Lungs, all vibrating and moving from the breath. The Heart has its own Electro-magnetic field which expands outward and can be felt by those around them. For Parents, Coherent Breathing can be a very powerful way of working with the breath to influence a Child and radiate positive, calming and radiant emotions. It’s also very comforting for a child to be held while a Parent or Carer is practicing Coherent Breathing!
As a Child grows into their Childhood, it can be helpful to recognise that as a Child is old enough to attend school or takes on some form of formal learning, there is a lifestyle change that requires them to get along socially with others, concentrate, pay attention, follow the societal rules and participate. On top of this, are things such as changing emotional states to help them navigate their new experiences and responsibilities. The role of the Child starts to transition from observer, watching and being influenced by a Parent practicing Coherent Breathing in their presence, to the Child learning to practice Coherent Breathing for themselves.
When Children start to learn to count and begin to develop an awareness of numbers and their bodies, this is when you can introduce and practice with them. This can be further developed through things such as role plays with their stuffed toys or dolls that explore emotions and breathing back into balance, setting aside formal time to breath and make a game of it by tracking their progress on a chart or whiteboard and making up your own rhymes and rhythms whilst breathing along to percussion instruments.
Children start to develop their fine-motor skills and ability to trace, draw and conceptualize their world, so this can also be a great time to practice breathwork that can be illustrated and explored through shapes and movement.
For instance, Coherent Breathing could take on the form of tracing around their fingers as they inhale and tracing around again as they exhale. Children could practice Coherent Breathing using the shape of a circle which they can trace in the air or, on a whiteboard or a piece of paper.
As they become more confident with their breathing practise, you may want to introduce some gentle breath holds and the rhythm of Nasally breathing in for 5 seconds and out for 5 seconds turns into one of the following;
– Inhaling for 5 seconds, holding for 5 seconds and exhaling for 5 seconds (Upward Triangle Breathing, for energizing and activation),
– Inhaling for 5 seconds, exhaling for 5 seconds and holding for 5 seconds (Downward Triangle Breathing for relaxation and calm),
– Inhaling for 5 seconds, holding for 5 seconds, exhaling for 5 seconds and holding for 5 seconds (Box Breathing for balancing emotions and bringing stability.)
Every Child will potentially explore a myriad of possibilities and potential throughout their lives and so building up a breathwork practice can be one of the most empowering skills to develop.
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Breathwork for Athletes
One’s participation in physical activity and exercise is often significantly influenced by their muscles and their breathing. During movement, breathing helps to circulate much-needed blood and oxygen to the body so that it can keep up with the pace of the activity. As the exercise intensifies and movement increases then typically more blood and oxygen are required in order to sustain that level of activity. Considering the impact that breathing has on our movements, there is a limit to this which can usually result in the exhaustion and fatigue that many athletes face and are required to overcome in order to perform better.
One of the major performance hacks for athletes and anyone participating in any form of physical activity is to make the switch to Nasal breathing. While it’s common for mouth breathing to take place once a certain level of physical activity and intensity has been reached, it’s also important to understand that as soon as mouth breathing takes place, the body’s metabolism switches from aerobic to anaerobic. The body is literally drawing energy from blood sugars, in the presence of no oxygen. Eventually what will most likely happen is a build up of Lactic Acid, which contributes to high level of fatigue, over-breathing and dehydration. Nasal breathing on the other hand, improves circulation, blood flow and provides a more even distribution of oxygen throughout the body. Thinking about it this way, the body actually has to work harder to sustain that level of physical activity.
It can take extra effort and discipline to consistently breathe nasally during exercise, however once a person learns to adapt to this, they can feel empowered with their movements and let their breath take them beyond their limits. (Read the article “Breathwork for Runners” for more information on this topic.)
Box Breathing which involves Inhaling for 5 seconds, holding for 5 seconds, exhaling for 5 seconds and holding for 5 seconds, to restore calm and balance, decrease heart rate before or after exercise and to begin exploring breath holds. You could learn to progressively increase the length of seconds all the way up to 10 at each step of box breathing. Box breathing is used in the military to help them calm their nerves and help them to concentrate during intense situations. The focus that builds from breathing and pausing in this manner support periods of extended concentration. From my own experiences, Box Breathing is an efficient, well-rounded breathing technique that can be used effectively to regain stability in Heart rate and breathing rate after exercise and training.
Catana Breathing – Breathe 9 connected breaths in through the Nose and out through the Mouth, followed by a breath hold on the 10th inhale. Release a slow, long exhale when you feel like you’ve paused breathing for as long as you can. Breathing with this focus helps to get you out of your head and into your body. This can also be a nice introduction to hypoxic training which involves breathing in and out large volumes of Oxygen and Carbon Dioxide, followed by a breath hold to learn to become comfortable with the space in between breaths. The effort and progress that you make with exploring breathwork at this end of the breathing spectrum has the potential to develop into breathwork for the purpose of building energy, activating the Nervous System and becoming more alert and engaged in physical activity. The slow release at the end is also effective in learning to build control with the breath and move from breathing fast to breathing slow for the purpose of stability and balance of the body, brain, breath and heart.
For Athletes, breathwork emphasizes the development of their breathing efficiency so that they can get the most out of each breath and make every breath count. It also involves learning to recognise the changes that take place in the Nervous System, heart rate and breathing rate as a result of physical activity. A fast heart rate is usually characterized by a fast breathing rate, so learning to put the brakes on the breath, emphasizing the long and slow exhales, can be an effective and efficient way to bring balance and control back to the breathing and therefore, stabilize the heart rate and extend periods of practise, exercise and movement.
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Breathwork for Elderly
For the elderly, breathing takes on the role of slowing down and bringing stability, balance and control over their breath and lives. As people increase in age, it’s important to recognise that some of the body’s functioning usually begins to slow down. Vital bodily functions, immune system, lung capacity, muscle tone and cognition are just some of the things that can potentially decrease in their functionality as time goes on.
Breathwork for the Elderly can take on the form of breathing to support continued optimisation of the breath and bodily functions and promote more relaxation and restoration. Lung capacity is something that can be trained, as is the continued operation, sustained health and wellbeing. Techniques for the Elderly can include;
Alternate Nostril Breathing involves placing your right middle finger on your forehead, in between the eyes and using the thumb and ring finger, alternatively to open and close each nostril on each inhale and exhale. Start with the thumb covering the right nostril, inhale for 5 seconds through the left nostril, alternate to closing the left nostril with the thumb and exhale for 5 seconds through the right nostril. Continue by inhaling through the right nostril while closing off the left nostril, followed by closing off the left nostril and exhaling through the right nostril. Repeat for 5-10 cycles of alternating the nostrils whilst breathing. Find out more on this here.
This breathing technique involves working with each nostril and bringing oxygen into each side of the brain, which makes it great to work with to increase oxygen and blood flow to support cognitive function.
Pursed Lips Breathing – Pursed Lips breathing involves breathing to a rhythm of an inhale through the nose, followed by an exhale where you blow out through the mouth long and slow, like blowing out of a straw or blowing bubbles. The long exhale from Pursed Lips Breathing stimulates the Vagus Nerve, which acts to lower Heart rate and blood pressure. The long and slow release from an extended exhale can increase the amount of fresh air that you can breathe in, making this effective for overcoming any symptoms of shortness of breath or decreased function in the respiratory system.
A variation of this involves inhaling three breaths so that the breath fills the Diaphragm, Abdomen and Chest, followed by a long, slow exhale for as long as you can exhale. Use a timer to time how long you can exhale for as a way to measure and train your lung capacity.
Breathwork is Adaptive and Life-Changing
With all of the different lifestyles, expressions of breathing needs and specific considerations for breathwork amongst these different categories of people, it’s important to recognise and acknowledge that underneath all of these differences, there is a common thread that unites them all together. It’s the power and potential that lies within the breath that reminds us that we all have the capabilities to breathe better and live better lives. We all have the potential within us and it is what keeps us alive and thriving. At whatever stage we are at in our lives, learning to breathe a better breath and consequently live a better life is one of the greatest gifts that we can offer ourselves, our loved ones and everyone around us.