Physical Needs 7 - Optimal Breathing

Most of us breathe in a way that restricts and limits our health and well-being potential. One survey found for example, that about a third of women and a fifth of men with asthma has what is known as dysfunctional breathing, patterns of breathing that are known to impair quality of life. Another pattern of breathing called overbreathing is believed to occur in 10 to 25 per cent of the US population (I would expect similar figures to apply for the UK). Overbreathing or hyperventilation results in an excessive lowering of carbon dioxide levels within the body. Whilst it is true that carbon dioxide is a waste product, it’s also an essential nutrient. If its levels drop too low, because of breathing too fast or too deeply, this can result in: a reduction in the supply of blood, oxygen and glucose to the brain, the pH of the body going to high, magnesium and potassium deficiency, difficulty in thinking, attention, memory and concentrating and the triggering of emotional over-reactions and stress symptoms. What’s more low carbon dioxide levels have been linked to a wide variety of conditions ranging from phobias, panic attacks, asthma attacks, and sleep apnoea and to IBS, chronic fatigue syndrome and heart problems such as angina, strokes and arrthythmias (abnormal heart rhythms). Another very common pattern of breathing is to breath from the upper part of the chest, this like overbreathing is often an adaptive mechanism designed to reduce our awareness of what we are feeling, to buffer ourselves from stress. At some stage in the past, usually as children we learnt that by breathing shallowly we can regulate our awareness of our emotions. Next time you are upset or stressed, notice what happens to your breathing pattern. Must of us to differing degrees use our breath to control our feelings.


The Benefits of Optimal Breathing


The good news however is that with practice, patience and persistence we can all embrace optimal breathing. Optimal breathing involves training ourselves to liberate our breath from constricted health-depleting patterns so that it becomes free, full and harmonious and in doing promotes the fulfilment of our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual potential. Doing so can help to relax the body, increase your energy levels, reduce the suffering associated with pain, help manage stress, slow down a ‘busy’ mind, put us in touch with our feelings (and buried emotions) and as numerous ancient traditions, such as Yoga, Buddhism and Taoism have found, promote spiritual growth and personal discovery.


A key component of creating high level emotional health and bringing balance and harmony to the bodymind is to therefore to learn how to breathe consciously and effectively. The following exercises will help you achieve this.


Conscious Breathing


Conscious breathing involves noticing and following the breath in our awareness without any interference, analysis, control or judgment. It is at the heart of many different meditation practices and the foundation of present moment awareness, which we will explored in module two. Curiously by observing and experiencing the breath, without any intention of changing it, the breath will often automatically come into balance and harmony. For many people this means the breath will slow down and naturally become fuller. What’s more practicing conscious breathing can help reduce tension and stress, decrease the suffering associated with pain and with practice, even help you make contact Here are the instructions, you should allocate about 10 to 20 minutes for this


  • Sit comfortably on the floor or in a chair
  • Close your eyes and bring your awareness to an aspect of your breathing. You may choose to focus your attention on the passage of air in and out of your nostrils, focus on the rising and falling of your chest or watch the movement of your belly as you breathe in and out. Just choose one and stick with it throughout the session.
  • Don’t do anything with the breath, don’t try and control it in any way, just allow it to be, just observe it.
  • Notice how your mind wanders, this will happen and it’s completely ok, its part of the process. Notice the story that your mind is telling you for example ‘I can’t do this’ ‘this is boring’ and so on. Don’t engage or fight with the story, just gently return your attention back to the breath
  • Keep relaxed and keep observing moment by moment at the movements of the breath. When you get caught up in thinking, again, just gently return your attention to your breath


So it’s a very simple exercise, but one that can be quite challenging given the fact the most of us are so used to getting caught up in the stream of out thinking and feelings. The real key is to be gentle with yourself and to be persistent, no matter what let go of the minds mutterings and just watch the breath. If you feel yourself becoming imclient or frustrated just notice it and then return your attention to the breath. Whilst you might feel disheartened initially because of the minds propensity of pull you out of present moment awareness, by being playful with this exercise, keeping it light (not being overtly tense or serious about it) and adapting an attitude of curiosity (you are exploring what awareness feels like) you should make good progress and start to feel the benefits of present moment awareness shortly.


Belly Breathing


Many of have a belly area that is tense and contracted. Whether for cosmetic reasons (not wanting your belly to ‘hang out’), emotional reasons (restricting breathing to the upper parts of the chest limits our awareness of what our emotions) or simply habit, most of us will benefit considerably from learning how to breath freely and fully through the belly. In belly breathing we allow the belly to expand and contract with the rise and fall of each breath, doing so allows the diaphragm to move deeper into the abdomen on inhalation. You should allow 5 to 15 minutes for the following exercise


  • Lie comfortably on your back, feet flat on the floor, knees bent
  • Now rub your hands together so they are nice and warm, place them palm down one on top of the other over your belly, as you do so just notice and observe your breath without deliberately changing it or analyzing it.
  • If your belly feels tight, gently massage the area with your finger tips and as you do so breath in and out of your belly area
  • Be client and notice how the belly starts to move naturally, expanding on the inhalation and contracting on the exhalation.
  • Once you have finished allow yourself to enjoy the sensations in and around your belly and body


Belly breathing is really good for relaxation and for calming the mind. Whilst it is usually done lying down, it can also be done whilst walking and sitting. As with all of these breathing approaches, by playful and see what works for you.


Relaxation Breathing


This is my favourite breathing exercise for in-the-moment relaxation, its called 4/7 breathing.


  • Next time you feel stressed, overwhelmed or tense, take a breath in to the count of four, and then breath out to the count of seven.
  • Repeat this at least five times and notice how much better you feel.


Making the exhale longer than the inhale helps to trigger the relaxation response that I mentioned in physical need six


Connected Breathing


Many of the popular forms of breath work use a technique called connected breathing, meaning that the in-breath and the out-breath are connected without pause, unlike normal unconscious breathing, in which there is typically a gap between the exhalation and inhalation. The purpose of connected breathing is to allow the continuous uninterrupted flow of life-force through the whole body so as to create harmony between the body, mind and soul. You start by simply breathing in and out of your nose without a pause or effort. This should be practised for a minimum of 10 minutes each day.


Focused Breathing


I use the focused breath with many of my clients as it can help to increase body awareness and soften tension within the body.


  • Find a quiet place to sit and scan your entire body from head to toes. Notice any areas of tension within your body.
  • Select one of them and rest your attention their and as you do so, direct your breath to it as though you were breathing in and out of it.
  • As you exhale get a sense of that area softening and relaxing. As you breath in get a sense of bringing in healing energy into it.
  • Continue for 5 to 10 minutes, until your body feels more relaxed.
  • Notice how you feel.


General Guidelines for Optimal Breathing


  1. Read around the subject of breathwork. I recommend the courses Rebirthing and Breathwork: A Powerful Technique for Personal Transformation by Catherine Dowling and Free Your Breath, Free Your Life by Dennis Lewis
  2. If you are interested in using the breath for emotional healing work and for spiritual development, you should work with an experienced breathwork practitioner.
  3. Breath control exercises that use breath holding or muscle tensing should ideally be done under the supervision of an experienced breathwork practitioner, as their indiscriminate use may lead to restricted breathing patterns in the long term
  4. As a general rule of thumb it is best to inhale or exhale through the nose, although this can be quite challenging if you have a blocked nose or a nasal problem.
  5. Throughout the day become aware of your breath, if you notice that you are holding you breath, gently start breathing fully and deeply. If your belly is tight, try belly breathing. If emotions come up stay present with them and breath
  6. The key to breathing more effectively is to discover what breathing approaches work for you. Different approaches will be relevant at different times and depend on what your intention is in using them. 
  7. When breathing sense that life force energy is filing every cell of your body, allow your body to be breathed.

Now move onto physical need 8 - mental aerobics

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