We’re by no means suggesting that taking in a couple of deeper breaths is going to radically change your life, but in moments of stress – when you feel your chest tightening and head spinning – it can definitely bring about a soothing sense of calmness.
“It is a magical tool which enables us to ‘trick’ our body into feeling calmer, more relaxed or more energised,” says Kat Farrants, yoga expert and founder of Movement For Modern Life. “We can change our mood and our physiology, plus how we respond to things.”
Without sounding cliché, it’s all about slowing it down and focusing on the breath. “Slowing down your breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the opposite to your sympathetic nervous system, more commonly known as the fight or flight stress mode,” explains Fiona Lamb, clinical hypnotherapist at the Hale Clinic. “Both states cannot be accessed at the same time, so when this system is triggered we essentially override our stress response – cue a more relaxed body and mind.”
While the science around breathwork is still quite thin on the ground, what there is does seem to support the claims that advocates make. In 2018, a study by Trinity College Dublin found that the way we breathe can affect the chemistry in our brains, and help improve our attention and focus. “Our research found that there is evidence to support the view that there is a strong connection between breath-centred practices and a steadiness of mind," says Ian Robertson, co-director of the Global Brain Health Institute at Trinity.
Every day we take between 22,000 and 29,000 breaths, but most of us breathe too quickly and limit our inhalations and exhalations to our chests, rather than our bellies – especially when we’re stressed. So, how should we be breathing?
Do you breathe with your nose or your mouth? If you spend more time in the latter camp, Bostock challenges you to switch it up: “Use your nose, it’s what it’s there for and it helps you to slow things down.”
If your shoulders lift and your chest puffs out when you breathe, you should focus on breathing down into your belly, expanding your lower ribs. “At the moment, you’re using your neck, shoulders and upper chest muscles to expand your chest to breathe in air, but they’re designed to be used in short bursts when we need to breathe quickly, rather than 24/7,” says Bostock. Shallow breathing can also result in neck, shoulder and back pain.
Inhaling with deep belly breaths is only half of the technique. “Make sure that your exhale is good and you can feel your body is narrowing, almost like a crunch. You want to make sure that you’ve got all the stale air out,” says US-based clinical psychologist and founder of The Breathing Class, Dr Belisa Vranich.
“Start by inhaling through your nose for six seconds and then exhale through your nose for six seconds,” says Bostock. “Repeat this cycle for at least three minutes, if not longer, if you can.” If six seconds sounds like a big commitment, Bostock suggests starting with three or four seconds, and building up to six over time.
If you want more guidance to get you going, we highly recommend tuning into Bostock’s regular live-streamed breathwork sessions. It’s also worth checking out @Breathpod on Instagram, which is headed up by the breathing coach Stuart Sandeman, and also offers real-time breathing classes.
And, while your worries won’t disappear completely with one deep breath, you might just be surprised by how much better you feel after three minutes. Plus, it’s free of charge, requires zero equipment and can be tried from the comfort of your couch. Enough to persuade even sceptics to give it a try.
Are you doing anything right now? Of course you’re not—you’re reading wellness articles on the Internet. Why don’t you take a moment out of your rigorous afternoon of self-improvement and indulge in a long, deep breath? Inhale for six whole seconds, expel that air, and record, very specifically, what your body is doing while this is happening. Do your chest and shoulders rise up to your chin? Does your gut buckle in a little bit on the inhale, pressing against your abdominal wall? If so, congratulations: You are a vertical breather! You are also doing it very, very wrong.
This is the information Dr. Belisa Vranich delivered unto me one day, in a sparsely decorated rent-a-room near Madison Square Park. She's an expert on how to breath right. Using a tape measure, Dr. Vranich recorded my girth at the crest and trough of my breathing pattern. Then she scribbled some figures on a sheet of paper and typed a ratio into her calculator. 29.99 (repeating) was my score. That translates to a 29% on my Breathing Test, which is a failing grade. I would have performed better if I had not breathed at all.
Dr. Vranich, a self-minted Breathing Instructor, got her doctorate in child psychology from NYU, and this is the least of her accomplishments. During the course of our hour-and-a-half long meeting, which was surreally transformative, she casually makes reference to about six thousand jobs she’s had in her lifetime. Jobs which include: Health and Sex Editor at Men’s Fitness. Director of Public Education at the Mental Health Association of NYC. Director of something else for Gold’s Gym that I can’t remember, but it was very impressive and eminent in the field. At our meeting she wore gold hoops and a “Dr. Belisa” branded tee. Her voice—affectionate and deep—lulled me into a fugue state of blind faith within 15 minutes of meeting her, as she informed me that I had spent about 20 years of my life breathing incorrectly.
According to Dr. Vranich, we are all born with proper breathing habits, and we amble through the first five or so years of our lives inhaling and exhaling with proper form. But after that, as we start to bear the physical and emotional burdens of maturity, our breathing changes. We become anxious, pulling tension into our shoulders. We suck in our stomachs, acutely aware of how others perceive us. Before long, we are taking shorter, less substantial breaths from our chest—the habit quickly becomes second-nature. Almost like breathing.
But a small comfort: According to Dr. Vranich, 9.5/10 people are just like you and I—wrong. We breathe up-and-down, like actors of Claritin commercials. When we inhale, our shoulders lift away from our anatomical center, where breath belongs. Proper breath is horizontal; it happens at the belly, and engages our diaphragm, a “frisbee-sized flank steak”—this is a metaphor Dr. Vranich is fond of—that bisects our torso. If you breathe vertically, you ignore your diaphragm, which sits directly between your heart and your gut. When it’s moving, everything else is happy. When it’s not, problems arise. Nothing here is particularly life-threatening—vertical breathing is not a chronic condition that threatens your existence—but it has been linked to high blood pressure, digestive problems, back pain, and general stress. And its antidote is simple: An hour with Dr. Vranich.
Dr. Vranich’s clientele includes MMA fighters and professional singers, magazine editors and golf celebrities—plus regular celebrities, I think, although she wouldn’t confirm. Her life’s work exists at the apex of stress reduction and performance enhancement, which is why the Department of Homeland Security is a client. During goofy, emotional one-on-one sessions, Dr. Vranich will change the way you breathe forever. When you leave, everything changes, and I am not being dramatic—your posture, your gait, the way you speak, the flow of oxygen to your brain is slightly, but perceptibly different.