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Whether it’s the Wim Hof Breathing technique or yogic pranayama, there are many ideas about what it means to breathe well.
Six Senses Wellness Pioneer Anna Bjurstam sat down with a breathing expert and author of The Breathing Cure, Patrick McKeown to understand what it really means to breathe right.
According to Patrick, changing our breathing patterns can literally change every aspect of our health. But how do we want to change our breathing patterns? He shared that good breathing is not as simple as taking a deep breath or filling your lungs with air.
Patrick’s journey to becoming a breathing expert started in 1997 when he was in university. His dormmates told him that he was a very noisy breather and that sometimes, it seemed as if he stopped breathing. Through this, he discovered that he had obstructive sleep apnea. This is a very common condition that is often undiagnosed and leads to poor sleep and waking up feeling exhausted.
He discovered Buteyko breathing techniques which focused on breathing through your nose and breathing light, and it was transformative. At the time, he was a chronic mouth breather but he had never thought that this had any negative impact on his health.
As strange as it may sound, he started taping his mouth during sleep so that he was forced to breathe through his nose. It took a few days of getting used to but within a couple of days, we woke up feeling rested and refreshed for the first time in years.
Patrick shared that after learning these techniques, he started breathing less air by taking smaller, lighter breaths. He noticed an immediate improvement in the circulation in his fingers. It’s very common for people with poor breathing patterns to have cold hands and cold feet. Although many people believe that it’s the deep breaths that get the oxygen in the body, it was Konstantin Buteyko, founder of the Buteyko Method, who recommended breathing lightly and breathing less was what the body needed and that doing this on and off during the day can improve the delivery of oxygen to tissues and the brain.
How is it that lighter breaths lead to greater oxygenation? Patrick shared that in 1904, a Danish physiologist named Christian Bohr discovered the power of carbon dioxide’s role in bringing oxygen into the tissues of the body, including the brain. When we breathe too hard, we expel too much carbon dioxide from the blood, and this causes blood vessels to the brain and throughout the body to constrict. This reduces oxygen delivery. Breathing less increases carbon dioxide in the body and with higher levels, oxygen transfers more easily into the muscles, making them perform better. This is the biochemistry of breathing.
If we look at breathing from a biomechanical point of view, though, we discover the connection between the diaphragm and the emotions and the diaphragm in the role of the stabilization of the spine. For example, 50 percent of people with low back pain have dysfunctional breathing patterns. 75 percent of people with anxiety problems have dysfunctional breathing patterns.
Is anxiety the cause of dysfunctional breathing or does the dysfunctional breathing lead to anxiety? Patrick shared that it is a feedback loop. If we get stressed, for example, it’s typically accompanied by faster and harder breathing. And breathing this way sends a signal to your brain that you’re in a state of threat, which causes more stress. With his clients, Patrick has seen both issues resolve via proper breathing patterns.
Because we can control our breathing, we can change long-held patterns of breathing. It’s the length of the exhalation that either stresses the body or relaxes the body. For example, if we’re doing Wim Hof technique, which is a strong inhale and a strong exhale, that’s a stressor and the purpose is to cause a reset. This is not how you want to breathe all the time.
If we want to relax the body, we slow down the exhalation. This stimulates the vagus nerve which causes the release of a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine leading to a slowing of the heart. This information is then fed from the body to the brain and the brain is interpreting this as the body being in a safe environment. This results in slower breathing and ever deeper states of relaxation. Even if we have a habit of not dealing well with stress, we can influence our bodily states by changing breathing patterns, by slowing down our exhalations for example, and becoming calmer even in difficult situations.
Patrick commented that there are a lot of stressed people in the world and many people don’t even realize they are under stress. We get stuck in our heads and don’t realize how our bodies are feeling. People think breathing is just for people doing yoga or meditation but it’s not true. Breathing consciously is good for all of us and something we can all do. The benefits are tremendous.
World-renowned author and breathing practitioner Patrick McKeown was educated at Trinity College in Dublin, before completing his clinical training in the Buteyko Breathing Method at the Buteyko Clinic, Moscow, Russia. This training was accredited by Professor Konstantin Buteyko.
From a young age, Patrick suffered from asthma and relied on an array of medicines and inhalers until he discovered the Buteyko Method at the age of 26, experiencing immediate relief from his symptoms. By applying the principals of the Buteyko Method, Patrick remains asthma-free since then, a feat that over 20 years of medication had failed to accomplish.
In a career spanning 15 years, Patrick has since also become a bestselling author and expert on the topic of optimal breathing for improved health, well-being and fitness. Oxygenadvantage.com