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Meet Aimee Hartley, breath coach, author of Breathe Well, founder of The Breathing Room and School Breathe programme, an initiative for primary school children to build a breathwork practice. We’ll be sharing a series of blogs curated by Aimee, to help navigate the ins and outs of breath work, with her experience of over 10 years as a breath coach. A TheaWellbeing (melo) blog series.

What is Breathwork?

Breathwork is an umbrella term for all things related to enhancing, retraining, or controlling the way in which we breathe. On one end of the spectrum, there is simple, yet effective breath awareness, which simply brings your awareness to your breath. You can even do this now. On your next inhalation, place all your attention on where the in-breath starts and where the in-breath ends. Then on your exhale, does it start at exactly the same place as where your inhale ceased? Where does it end? On the other end of the spectrum is where we can retrain our breath so we breathe to our optimum, using a combination of nose and mouth breathing techniques and rhythms to release tension from the respiratory muscles, let go of any tightness in the accessory respiratory muscles and reverse any subconscious breath habits which may be negatively impacting our health. In between this, there is yoga pranayama, breath control, cold water breathing, conscious breath-holding, rebirthing, there are thousands of different ways to breathe!

Stress and the Brain

We can think of our nervous system as a river with one side of the riverbank being the fight or flight (sympathetic nervous system- namely STRESS…imagine brambles and spiky hedges!) and the other side of the river bank as the place for calm and comfort (visualise hammocks and wildflowers). Visualising the breath as the water flowing in between and the breath can either be slow-flowing, deep and smooth, and allowing us to reach the calm river bank or the river can be short, shallow, and choppy which sends us to the stressful side of the river. We can change the flow of our breath to change the course of how we feel. When our senses perceive a threat, (whether real or not) our core brain instantly sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is the ‘duty manager’ for stress in the brain, and sends a message to the rest of the body, via the autonomic nervous system, which controls involuntary body functions. Our heartbeat increases, blood pressure rises, the breath becomes shallow, key blood vessels in the airways dilate and prepare us for ‘fight or flight’ (sympathetic) response, and cortisol and adrenaline are released into the bloodstream by the adrenal glands. A little shot of these hormones now and again is more than often essential when the threat is real. But, over time, the body demands more adrenaline and cortisol to cope with any perceived stressful situations. The build-up of cortisol can inhibit brain function and can even kill brain cells, causing the brain to shrink! Taking a few full slow deep breaths can create a ‘Relaxation Response’, (a phrase coined by Dr. Herbert Benson, founder of Harvard’s Mind and Body Medical Institute) which is your ability to self regulate the nervous system and bring yourself back into a more balanced state or the ‘rest and digest’ (or parasympathetic state) part of the nervous system. Practicing breath effective breathing techniques (in particular an extended exhalation) can help calm your brain’s reactivity. This in turn can help lower levels of anxiety and induce feelings of calm and relaxation. And lowers cortisol and adrenaline levels. What the yogis and Buddhists were practicing 2,500 years ago is finally being acknowledged by modern-day science. Research has shown that practicing mindful breathing techniques, whereby there is no control over the breath, and you are simply observing the movement of the body, is one of the best practices you can do to improve focus, and your overall brain health.

Breathing can change your brain

Some studies have shown that meditation can even change the structure of our brains and improve neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the brain's ability to reorganise itself by forming new neural connections. Neuroplasticity allows the neurons (nerve cells) in the brain to adjust their activities in response to new situations and environments. With the focus on the breath being the foundation of any effective meditation, we can safely say that learning and practicing new breathing techniques can help your ability to think and feel better.

Can stress and anxiety be lowered by using Breathwork?‍

100 percent. If we start to believe and trust just how powerful a breath practice can be, we can use particular techniques in all sorts of stressful scenarios. Breath coaches are not immune to life’s stresses and anxieties. Just the other day I was driving along a really busy motorway to visit a good friend who was having a catastrophic week. The weather was treacherous and I could feel my anxiety rising with the physical situation of being surrounded by speeding lorries, along with worrying about my friend’s situation. My mind was racing and my body was full of adrenaline. I then practiced slowing my breath rate down and using other techniques using breath and sound and within 5 minutes I had calmed myself down and felt my entire body relax. My external situation was still the same but I had changed my physiology simply by bringing my awareness to my breath and tweaking it. And arrived safely and present!

 

Meet melo, a handful tool to supporting and guiding your mindful breathing journey. Available through the hutton.shop - click here for more information