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The Impact of Breath Work on Your Health

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Breath work is at the very foundation of self-care practices.  Let’s explore the importance of breath, learn how it impacts the body and mind, and then discover the techniques of how to breathe correctly.

Deep breathing is the very foundation of good health.  So how does our body respond to oxygenation?  It all starts with the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.  They are the two branches of the autonomic nervous system that regulate internal organs and glands.  The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems work together to keep our bodies functioning,  but they have very different functions.  The parasympathetic nervous system takes our body into “rest and repair” mode.  It slows our heart rate and our breathing, increases blood flow to organs of digestion to stimulate the digestive process, and allows the body’s immune systems to function optimally.  The sympathetic nervous system takes our body into “fight or flight” mode.  It increases our heart rate and our breathing, increases blood flow to skeletal muscles to give you the strength needed to fight or flee, and it suppresses immune function.  Focusing on deep breathing enables us to down-regulate the sympathetic nervous system, allowing the parasympathetic nervous system to become dominant.  In other words, taking deep belly breaths using your diaphragm “turns on” your parasympathetic nervous system, allowing you to go into rest and repair mode and release stress and tension from the body.

In contrast, when you fall into a pattern of shallow breathing, breath holding, or hyperventilating, that triggers the sympathetic nervous system, kicking off “fight or flight” responses throughout your body.  When your body is subjected to chronic stress you go into fight or flight mode, depressing your immune system and resulting in conditions like high blood pressure or constipation.  So if you find yourself in a stressful situation, take a long, slow, deep breath.  Let your parasympathetic nervous system take over before you do long-term damage to your body.

Deep breathing also improves the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the lungs, helping you clear out mucus and other fluids and improving overall lung capacity.  Deep breathing also works to strengthen the diaphragm, a major respiratory muscle located under the lungs.

Athletes often use deep breathing techniques to bring much-needed oxygen into the bloodstream to improve performance, i.e.: speed and endurance.  Deep belly breathing delivers the maximum amount of oxygen to your cells.  When your cells are fully oxygenated, it increases your energy, stamina, and physical performance.

Deep belly breathing also helps reduce both chronic and acute pain.  When we hurt, our first instinct is often to hold our breath to still our body.  But deep breathing through the pain is actually a much more effective choice.  For example, the Lamaze method teaches breathing techniques to reduce pain during childbirth.

Deep breathing to increase cell oxygenation is also important for helping to heal health opportunities.  Many diseases, like cancer and viruses, are anaerobic.  That means they cannot survive in an oxygenated environment.  When you oxygenate your cells, toxins are discharged through the breath.  Research on heart patients indicates that certain breathing techniques can help prevent repeat heart attacks.

How does breathing impact the mind?

The organ in the body that uses the largest amount of oxygen is the brain.  Taking slow, deep breaths whenever attention drifts oxygenates the brain, and brings back focus.  Shallow breathing often feels tense and constricted, while deep belly breathing helps restore a sense of calm and relaxation.  That calm brings about an emotional awareness and allows you to release negative and/or suppressed emotions that are connected with health opportunities like low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, or addictions.

The Techniques of Breathing

Effective deep breathing just takes a little practice.  First, put one hand on your abdomen, just below your belly button.  Feel your hand rise about an inch each time you inhale and fall about an inch each time you exhale.  Your chest will rise slightly, too, in concert with your abdomen.  Remember to relax your belly so that each inhalation expands it fully.  As you exhale slowly, let yourself sigh out loud.

Once you have practiced deep breathing, you can move on to regular practice of breath focus.  As you sit or lie comfortably with your eyes closed, blend deep breathing with helpful imagery and a focus word or phrase that will help you relax.  Imagine that the air you breathe in washes peace and calm into your body.  As you breathe out, imagine that the air leaving your body carries tension and anxiety away with it.  As you inhale, try saying this phrase to yourself: “Breathing in peace and calm.”  And as you exhale, say: “Breathing out tension and anxiety.”  When you first start, 10 minutes of breath focus is a reasonable goal.  Gradually add time until your sessions are at least 20 minutes long.

Here are three different deep breathing techniques you can try:

Deep Belly Breathing (diaphragmatic breathing). You can do this breathing exercise while sitting or lying down.

  1. 1. Relax your face, neck, jaw, and shoulder muscles.
  2. 2. Rest the tip of your tongue behind your top front teeth.
  3. 3. Straighten your back.
  4. 4. Close your eyes.
  5. 5. Breathe normally for several minutes.
  6. 6. Place one hand on your chest and one on your lower abdomen.
  7. 7. Breathe deeply through your nose, feeling your chest and ribs expand when you inhale.  Your stomach should expand outward against your hand.
  8. 8. Exhale, feeling your stomach gently contract inward.
  9. 9. Breathe slowly and deeply in this manner 9-10 times.

Yawn-to-a-Smile Breathing. This breathing exercise opens up the muscles in the chest, which allows the diaphragm to fully expand.  It also strengthens the arms and shoulder muscles.

  1. 1. Sit upright with a straight back.
  2. 2. Stretch your arms up to shoulder height.  You should feel the muscles in your back stretching.
  3. 3. While your arms are at shoulder height, open your mouth wide, as if you were yawning.
  4. 4. Bring your arms back to rest on your thighs, while turning your yawn into a smile.

Humming While Exhaling Breathing. Humming or chanting “om” can help pull oxygen into the lungs with each breath.  Many also find it can be calming.

  1. 1. Sit upright with a straight back.
  2. 2. Place each hand on the sides of your lower abdomen.
  3. 3. Keep your lips closed, and gently rest your tongue on the roof of your mouth.
  4. 4. Breathe deeply and slowly through your nose, keeping your lips closed and your tongue in position.
  5. 5. Allow your fingers to spread wide on your stomach as it expands.
  6. 6. Keep your shoulders relaxed.  Do not let them rise up.
  7. 7. Once your lungs feel full, exhale while humming or chanting.  Make sure to keep your lips closed.
  8. 8. Repeat for several breaths.

At OHI, we believe the benefits of deep breathing are so important that we teach guests the principles of breathing in a variety of classes — Alpha Class, Conscious Breathing, Emotional Detox, Mind-Body Connection, and Vocal Toning.  Each class incorporates deep breathing in different ways, so whether you use it as a relaxation technique, a meditation technique, or a vocal toning technique, incorporating deep breathing into your wellness journey is easy to do. Visit our website at www.optimumhealth.org, and call us at (800) 588-0809 to make your reservation.


Relaxation Techniques: Breath Focus, July 2008, Harvard Women’s Health Watch, health.harvard.edu

“The Best Breathing Exercises for Covid-19: Before, During, and After Infection”, written by Corey Whelan, medically reviewed by Angelica Balingit, MD, healthline.com, April 13, 2021

“What is Breath work?”, healthline.com