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Jayne Nicholls takes us on a journey of self-discovery using our breath.

The one thing we have in common with every other living being on this planet is that we rely upon breath for life. Joseph Pilates orates this literally and emotionally, stating, “Breathing is the first act of life and the last. Our very life depends on it.” He quite vehemently says, “It is tragically deplorable to contemplate the millions who have never mastered the art of correct breathing.” And he further provides us with this image, “Lazy breathing converts the lungs, literally and figuratively speaking, into a cemetery for the deposition of diseased, dying and dead germs.”

I have often wondered why breathing classes are not on every studio timetable and why instructors are not as preoccupied with this functionality as they are, for example, with the core! The basic anatomy and physiology of our respiratory system is covered in most Level 2 and 3 qualifications, yet rarely do we call upon it in our teaching. The very fact that we are natural masters of basic every-day breathing provides us with the groundwork for a more informed and advanced practice that can so easily be incorporated into any training scenario. Throughout this blog, I will pose questions that can be answered by simple contemplation and a subsequent journey of self-discovery.

Should we breathe through our mouth or our nose?

The answer to this is not – or should not be – dictated by the method that we practice but by analysing the physiology of these orifices. The temperature, humidity and cleanliness of the air that enters our lungs is so important. When considering the mucous membrane that lines the nasal cavity, rich in blood vessels and tiny hairlike projections (cilia), compared to the mouth, which is wet and polluted by what we eat and drink and obstructed by the tongue and the teeth – both of which have important yet unrelated roles in breathing – perhaps a more obvious line of reasoning should be: is it better to eat via your nose or your mouth? The nose and the mouth both have the capacity to pull air from outside into the respiratory system but, when we analyse their roles in relation to the complicated system of sinuses, pharynx, trachea, bronchial tubes and lungs, only one option optimally delivers clean, oxygenated blood to our organs and other tissues at the correct temperature. The first step in advancing breath mastery is to simply notice the way in which we breathe naturally. When we become ‘breath aware’, we see how quickly and how often our breath patterns change in even the most basic situations. Once we understand that there is a better or best way to breathe and have worked on our own breath development, we can change and prescribe these changes to our clients.

Nose or mouth challenge: This is a very simple obsession to cultivate. Notice how adults, babies, humans and animals breathe. Notice how you breathe at rest and in a workout. Notice the speed at which you breathe and think about the integrity of each breath. Decide which feels better and why.

What is the best way to breathe?

I prefer to think of this as having a perfect breath practice for all occasions. Consider the anatomy of the lungs housed around the diaphragm and the ribs; we can control the volume and speed at which we inhale and exhale and this offers us the potential to consciously alter the way that we breathe in any situation, both mentally and physically. For a moment there, I went rushing into the exponential benefits that become possible when you change the way you breathe. In the words of Dan Brule, “You change something so primal and fundamental that the effects carry over onto every other level of your being.” But – for now – let’s stick to the basics that mastering the breath can bring to your fitness/yoga business. Yoga teachers have included breath work in their practice for centuries, which can often present the misconception that it is integral to this modality only. If we extricate breath work from yoga, it immediately becomes a skill that is open to every health professional and one that is robust enough to stand alone as a USP.

Once we are breath aware, we can begin to cultivate a coherent breath practice by accessing four key breathing spaces:

1. The shallow breath or clavicular space is short and sharp, excited, vocal, somewhat hurried and potentially not the best space for long-term health. Make no mistake though – it has its place. Taking a long deep breath in the height of passion is a total turn off and it can completely u-turn a heated debate but, when relied upon for long periods, it can leave us depleted.

Clavicular space challenge: Simply breathe in for approximately two counts to the clavicle and breathe out at the same cadence. Repeat up to 10 times and follow it by a few deep breaths.

2. The mid breath or thoracic space is pure power. The breath space of superheroes; when mastered, it inflates the ribcage, directs air to the mass of the lung that sits in the back of the body and can help us to lift more, stay longer, move with stability and ease, and endure greater load, stress and even pain. An interesting fact is that two thirds of the lung sits at the back of the body and yet most people breathe into the chest.

Thoracic space challenge: Place your hands on the side of your ribcage with fingers lying on top and in line with the ribs. As you breathe in for approximately six counts, inflate the ribcage widthways (picture superman) without elevating the shoulder girdle or the shoulder blades. Exhale dominantly at the same speed.

3. The full breath or deep lung space opens doors to relaxation, mindfulness and meditation. Our ability to fill and empty the lungs to their fullest capacity is the basis for absolute lung health and the precurser for combating stress disorders, disease and mental health issues. Around 15% of dirty air sits around in the base of the lungs, which illustrates that Joseph Pilates may have had a good point when he referred to the base lungs as a “cemetery for the deposition of diseased, dying and dead germs”. Clearing this space is vital for health and wellness.

Deep space challenge: Drag as much air into your lungs, immediately directing the inflow to the pelvis, and work on eight counts rising. Match the outbreath in a slow and controlled release.

4. Finally, breath retention or holding the breath space is crucial to a full breath practice. So often we hold our breath when put under stress or pressure, which can result in a rise in blood pressure and stress hormones. The simple steps of noticing and changing when and how we do this reveals the power behind short- and long-held retentions. Google the mammalian reflex or diving reflex, which is the ability to stay calm when submerged in cold water rather than panic and gasp for air. Breath retentions or prolonged breath practices in general can, in the short term, make us feel claustrophobic with the need to gasp. This is all part of the journey of mastery and these feelings will pass in time as you gain more control.

Retention challenge: Hold the breath at the end of the inhale and exhale, working upwards from one to two seconds. At no time should we hold until we feel like we are going to burst or gasp for air.

Altering the cadence and depth of each breath – and learning to control the breath while performing a range of motion exercises such as flexing, extending and rotating – can help us to perform any single task more efficiently and is the natural first step in including a breath practice in all sessions for all clients from every demographic. In the untrained, the way that we breathe is a consequence of what we do, whereas those who master breathing techniques can apply the way that they breathe to the tasks they perform. Everything discussed so far can be mastered without investment in courses and further learning. The simple steps of noticing, awareness, experimenting and change will reward you with noticeable benefits that will hopefully lead you to more in-depth study.

Our extraordinary experience with COVID-19 is evidence enough that training the lungs as we train the heart and muscular system is vital.


About the Author

Jayne Nicholls

Yoga | Mindfulness and Breathwork

Jayne Nicholls, multi-award-winning owner and director of GXT, commands a unique position in instructor education. Never content to follow conventional methods, her passion for original thinking is the foundation for the Freestyle Yoga brand, now in its third decade, and Freestyle Fitness Yoga. Jayne provides an occupational journey from entry level to full yoga teacher training for anyone who loves yoga and is keen to share it. Jayne’s biggest and best learning journey happens in front of her classes, continually defying what she has been taught, which is reflected in the content she offers via articles, courses and online classes. Jayne pioneers mindful communication with an opinionated and personalised approach, has a wonderful, fascinating relationship with her horse and, she says, she never ages!

Key expertise:

  • Owner and director of GXT
  • Founder of the Freestyle Yoga brand
  • Founder of Freestyle Fitness Yoga
  • Co-owner of iGuru Athleisurewear Ltd
  • Long-term sponsorship by Nike as a fitness athlete and Red Bull
  • Presenter and speaker at conventions and events nationwide
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