4 Key Benefits of Prioritizing Breathwork
Breathwork is not a new concept – the idea has been around for centuries. But it has gained increasing popularity over the recent years as more people have discovered the power behind it.
It’s something I implement in homework for every client I work with (if they are willing) because it can be very impactful in driving how we function, move, and feel.
Because every breath is movement.
And breathing is one of the few movements that we have both voluntary and involuntary control of.
It’s one of the few tools we have at our disposal that can instantly change our physiology and how we feel.
Not to mention, it’s one of the movements we do the most – so much so that it can drive our posture and function. It actually shapes our bodies.
We breathe 20,000-30,000 times per day.
Imagine the impact of improving your breathing even a fraction of a percentage. It only compounds over the course of a single day, week, month, and year!
Still not convinced?
That’s okay. It took me some time to get interested in breathwork enough to consider its importance and even more time before I committed enough to really see a difference.
And it’s often the habit my clients feel the most resistance towards.
You’re not alone.
Whether you just need a little reminder on the ‘why’ behind breathwork to recommit to your practice, or you’re interested in getting started but want to know more about how it can help you, keep reading.
Here are the 4 most important benefits of a dedicated breathwork practice from a health & performance perspective:
1.) The biggest and most important effect of a breathwork practice is that it can bring you into a more parasympathetic state
While we’ve made significant progress over the years in technology and advancements, we are still operating with very ancient functioning systems in our bodies. These systems are meant to keep us alive. At rest and during most of our lives, our parasympathetic nervous system should be most active. It’s known as our “rest, digest, and repair” state.
During this state, our blood flows more to our digestive system, our muscles are more relaxed, we are breathing quietly and deeply through our nose with our mouth closed and tongue resting on the roof of our mouth, and we are tuning out background noises. It’s also when our body is repairing anything that needs a little help – including the parts of our body we stressed during our workouts.
This is the polar opposite of when our body is in a state governed by the sympathetic nervous system, also known as the “fight-or-flight mode.” In this state, our blood flow is moved toward our muscles, our muscles are more tense and ready for action, our pupils dilate to get more light in for better visual acuity, we begin breathing more shallowly to get air in more quickly, we use our accessory breathing muscles in our neck, shoulders, and lower back to get more air in, we switch to mouth breathing to get air in more quickly, our tongue rests low in our mouth, and we are more aware of every sound around us ‘just in case.’
These things serve purposes – they are meant to help us get into a defensive mode to keep us alive. Because the purpose of our sympathetic nervous system is to prepare us to fight something that is coming after us, or run away from it – hence the description “fight-or-flight.”
The problem isn’t that these different states exist, or that the sympathetic nervous system is ‘bad.’ It’s that the threats we experience on a regular basis are no longer truly life-threatening, and our bodies don’t have great ways of knowing the difference. So we end up having more sympathetic arousal than we were ever meant to.
As far as your body is concerned, your boss sending an aggressive email or someone cutting you off in traffic may as well be a giant tiger coming after you.
All day long, we are experiencing minor things that provoke sympathetic responses. And most of us don’t have tools or awareness to actively work on bringing ourselves back to a more parasympathetic state – a state where we feel safe, calm, and present.
It’s like a tug-of-war and our parasympathetic nervous systems are most often the ones losing.
This is where building awareness and working on implementing a breathwork practice comes in.
Sometimes, we can only do so much about the stressors we experience, but if we can build tools to manage our own internal state better, we can build a much stronger capacity to handle those stressors. Or at the very least, minimize the effects they have on our bodies.
What kinds of effects can happen from poor breathing patterns or being in a constant sympathetic state?
- Chronic pain or persistent injuries
- Chronic tightness in your neck or low back or jaw
- Pelvic floor pain or dysfunction like leaking/incontinence or vaginismus
- Digestive issues like constipation or IBS
- Numbness or tingling or heightened nerve sensitivity
- Poor core stability
- Frequently getting sick
- Allergies and asthma
- Chronic fatigue
- Snoring and sleep apnea
- Sensitivity to noise
- Plateaus in fitness due to poor recovery
- Insomnia and sleep issues
- …and more!
While many of these things have multiple contributing factors, they can all be at least improved through getting better at bringing yourself into a parasympathetic state.
There are many ways to do this, but breathwork is one of the most accessible and simple ways.
2.) How we breathe is key for creating intra-abdominal pressure (IAP), AKA core stability, which is important for strength as well as support for our joints – especially our shoulders, hips, and spines.
A more in-depth post about this is coming at a later date, but how we breathe creates the foundation for core stability. Our diaphragm (the big breathing muscle in our rib cage) has 2 roles – respiration AND creating IAP.
When our diaphragm functions optimally (beginning with how we breathe), it works with other core muscles to create core stability.
This helps us move more efficiently, access more of our strength, and provide support for our joints.
3.) How we breathe can drive our posture.
…and our posture can drive how we breathe. Very often, these 2 things feed into each other and create a cycle.
Working on gaining more options for breathing and breathing more efficiently can break the cycle. And ultimately help us feel and move better.
While posture isn’t everything, it does matter for some things (see this podcast episode for more about that).
4.) How we breathe impacts our performance in fitness.
This happens in a couple ways.
First, as I mentioned above, breathing can help us get into a more parasympathetic state. This is key for recovery (our bodies aren’t focused on recovery when they’re in defense mode), so we can make the adaptations we stimulate in the gym.
Put simply: our gains are made when we downregulate and chill.
Secondly, exercise is supposed to trigger our sympathetic nervous system. If we are already in a more sympathetic state, we are already breathing more shallowly and at a higher rate. It won’t take long before we will max out and can’t breathe or have to rest because our ‘baseline’ is already too high.
If you find yourself frequently hitting a wall in your fitness, you might be surprised what happens if you get more serious about your breathwork.
Pretty compelling reasons, right?
A Few Things to Remember…
There are many different types of breathwork. They are not all the same.
The type of breathwork you do should be driven by your goal or what you want to get out of it. While this is often very individual, there are some things most people can benefit from, which I’ll share in a future post.
Hi, I'm Dr. Jen Hosler.
I’m a bookworm, science nerd, and coach of all things movement (physical therapist and strength & mobility coach). You can catch me sleeping in & having a slow morning, doing CARs & lifting heavy things, or sipping a glass of wine on my time off.
Through a blend of strength & mobility training, I’ll help you master your movement & build a more resilient body that won’t hold you back from all the activities you love doing.
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