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changing my breath

Before I became a yoga teacher, I was an NHS nurse for 12 years. Many years of shift work, no breaks, verbal and occasional physical abuse from patients and their relatives, and other stressful working conditions took their toll on me and most of my colleagues.


What I didn’t realise then (that I know now) is that we each have the tools readily available at our disposal to help reduce feelings of overwhelm and anxiety, through conscious control of the breath. I also didn’t realise that I was a paradoxical breather.

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Paradoxical breathing is where there is a ‘gripping’ or sucking in of the belly, so it does the opposite of what it’s supposed to do when you’re breathing. In paradoxical breathing, your belly draws in with every inhale, instead of rising out. Many years of trying to draw less attention to my middle, alongside excessive bandha work in my yoga practice, meant that most of the time I was breathing in a way which restricted my diaphragm and lungs. I didn't even realise I was doing it.


If we breathe low into the diaphragm, we can activate the calming receptors at the base of the lungs. If we are paradoxical breathers, as I was for many years, the breath goes higher into the chest, activating the “alarming” receptors in the upper lungs. If we are breathing in this way for most of the time, this can exacerbate any anxious feelings we might experience. Also, whatever else we might be doing to boost our mental health, if we are breathing incorrectly or inefficiently, we may be unwittingly scuppering our chances of feeling better.


In my own yoga practice, I’d always been interested in pranayama and breath techniques, but often found the practices complex or felt like there was too much choice and I didn’t know what to focus on. I often felt like I was forcing my breath into rhythms and rates that felt strained or uncomfortable. That was, until I discovered Coherent Breathing.

Whilst changing our breathing pattern might feel tricky at first, it's easy once you get the hang of it. On a tough day, I have found it a great relief to know that I already have the tools to change my mood within a few minutes, just by changing how I'm breathing. With that comes great freedom and peace of mind, almost at the click of a button.

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Coherent Breathing is a form of diaphragmatic breathing, done through the nose, where the inhale and exhale are even. When I discovered Coherent Breathing, I found out that there is an optimum rate at which we should be breathing - for physical and mental health. That rate is 5 breaths per minute. As a nurse, if you’d asked me what the “normal” respiration rate was, I’d have answered 12-20 breaths per minute (and apparently the normal range is even higher in the United States). 5 breaths per minute is SLOW! As many of us who have ever experienced anxiety will attest, it is often accompanied by fast, shallow breathing (to the extremes of hyperventilating during a panic attack).


When I first tried Coherent Breathing, I found it difficult to maintain breathing low into the diaphragm, so I practised lying down, with a cookery book on my abdomen. This gentle pressure draws attention to your diaphragm, and helps you to focus on the breath moving there. You could also use a 2kg weight. After just a few minutes of breathing in for 6 seconds, and out for 6 seconds to the sound of a digital metronome, I felt so much better!  My head felt quieter, and I experienced a real sense of calm. This is backed up by neuroscience research, which tells us that Coherent Breathing at a rate of 5 breaths per minute increases positive mood and decreases negative feelings, and also soothes the part of the brain that interprets emotions.


I discovered that not all breathwork is the same, especially when it comes to stress and anxiety. Some of the traditional pranayama practices I had been doing were not helping, in particular long exhales. As a yoga teacher, I often taught my students to lengthen the exhale as a way to relax, not realising that in people with low mood and depression, this can lead to a decrease in energy levels and can increase negative emotions.


So now my main breath practice is Coherent Breathing. In fact, I do my daily yoga practice in time to a digital metronome to streamline my time. My main practice is yin yoga, and the long holds in the shapes are particularly compatible with Coherent Breathing - it’s a great way to test out where you are with the ‘edge’ of a posture, how it affects your experience of the breath. I have also practiced Ashtanga Yoga to this rhythm of the breath (much more challenging!). It’s also great to practice before bed, as its calming effect can really help with getting off to sleep.

Whilst changing our breathing pattern might feel tricky at first, it's easy once you get the hang of it. On a tough day, I have found it a great relief to know that I already have the tools to change my mood within a few minutes, just by changing how I'm breathing. With that comes great freedom and peace of mind, almost at the click of a button.


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Michelle Mathias is an ex-paradoxical breather, and is now a Breath Coach, yoga teacher and Registered Nurse. She is a Founder Member of The Breathing Institute with Ben Wolff, and specialises in techniques for stress, anxiety and depression. We're thrilled to have Michelle as a guest writer for our website and we're looking forward to seeing where our collaboration will further develop. 
Click here to practice Coherent Breathing for free with Michelle on Insight Timer.


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