I’m the person in your hot yoga class who apologetically breaks out laughing when the poses end and the intense breathing begins. You know when everyone rapidly exhales to the beat of the teacher’s clap at the end of class? That’s me next to you in the back of the room desperately trying to keep it together.
Despite having grown up with a yogi for a mother, I’ve always been skeptical of dedicated meditators and generally zen people who “practice” breathing. But what is there to practice? I’d ask myself, holding back an eye roll. The fact that I was still alive and functioning was enough to convince me I didn’t need any more “practice.” Still, I was determined to understand how everyone around me had become breathing believers. So I decided it was time I took my first breathing workshop.
If you’re from the UK, you probably know Poppy Jamie as the former TV and Snapchat personality who’s cool friend group consists of the likes of Suki Waterhouse and Cara Delevingne. But if self-care happens to be your specialty, you’ll know Jamie from Happy Not Perfect—her millennial-geared mindfulness app that launched earlier this year. While the 20-something entrepreneur is many things, she also happens to be a breathing enthusiast.
“I got into breathing after I went to this intense, 45-minute breathing session, and I was left crying for two hours afterward,” Jamie recalls her initial revelation. “I didn’t even know what I was crying about! I was just releasing all these pent-up emotions that I had not been addressing, and it felt incredible. I thought, Oh my god, this was just through breathing that I was able to do this.”
Her training began under the watch of Dr. Belisa Vranich—a leading breathing consultant, clinical psychologist, and founder of The Breathing Class. It was during her first workshop in NYC with Vranich (where she completed 100 hours of breathwork) that Jamie discovered that nine out of 10 people breathe incorrectly. This was the first lesson Jamie passed on to me as she helped me earn my beginner belt in breathing during a recent workshop hosted by Breathe Right at Sky Ting Yoga in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood.
Alongside sleep coach Nick Littlehales and NASA’s top harmful chemical sniffer (yes, that’s a real job), George Aldrich, I learned the golden rules of breathing—and why it’s the easiest choice you can make for your happiness and health.
The Art of Belly Breathing
If there’s one rule worth noting, it’s this: Breathe through your belly. You might think you already do this, but the real truth is that nine out of 10 of us are actually breathing through our chests.
“At the age of five, we go to school and we start hunching over desks. Our breath, then, starts to travel up around our chest. We begin to live in fight-or-flight mode. We’re so anxious that our breath is going further up. It becomes shallow,” explains Jamie.
Also called diaphragmatic breathing or abdominal breathing, “belly breathing” is the art of receiving air by contracting the diaphragm. This cortisol-lowering trick stimulates the vagus nerve, which tells your brain that your body can relax—a message that won’t just calm any lingering anxiety but can help you sleep easier and digest food better.
Need an example of good belly breathing? Look at a baby. “They breathe into their belly—up and down, up and down,” says Jamie. “When you start breathing into your belly and you actually inhale to expand as if it were a balloon opening and on the exhale shrinking, it calms the nerves and takes you out of fight-or-flight. It’s the easiest hack anyone can do.”
During our session, the class dedicated 15 minutes to watching the belly rise and fall. The simplest way to train yourself is by laying down on your back and placing a light object (we used a yoga block) on your stomach. Notice how the block rises and falls with as you breathe into your belly. Because belly breathing requires more focus than you’d think, the visual is a great place to begin.
“Practice taking full, deep ‘belly’ breaths through your nose. On the inhale, practice letting your stomach expand. On the exhale, allow your belly to move towards the spine. Remember to relax your shoulders and breathe slowly through your nose for five seconds, then exhale slowly for five seconds. Focus on breathing this way for at least 30 seconds or until you feel calm,” explains Jamie.
Bad News, Mouth Breathers
We know, we know, mouth breathers already get a lot of hate. While it’s turned into a common joke, if you can help it, breathing through your mouth shouldn’t be your first choice. Consciously breathing through your nose, on the other hand, can help protect you from 20 million foreign particles.
“When you breathe through your nose, you stimulate nitric oxide, and that’s brilliant for boosting your immune system,” explains Jamie. “By breathing through your nose and learning to breathe right into your belly, you’re actually able to hack your entire system.”
Bonus? Becoming a seasoned nose breather will help you catch better Zzz’s.
“Maybe the best benefit of breathing through your nose is better sleep!” says Jamie. “Getting a good night’s sleep, especially during the hectic holiday season, is critical to both our mental and physical health.” For anyone struggling to breathe easy through their nose at night, Jamie suggests Breathe Right’s nasal strips as a helpful trick to ease congestion.
Turning a mouth breather into a nose breather is no easy feat. Training yourself out of this bad habit requires practice—and plenty of it. That’s why it’s best to make a conscious effort when you’re sitting still and not engaged in conversation. This week, give it a go while you’re working at your desk. You’ll notice that belly breathing comes a whole lot easier when you inhale and exhale through your nose.
Breathe Easy in the a.m.
If the first thing you do when your alarm goes off in the morning is reach for your phone and start scrolling through Instagram, you’re not alone.
“When you go on social media the first thing in the morning, you like everybody else}s lives but your own. You blink and suddenly you’ve been on it your friend’s sister’s mother’s dog owner’s Instagram for 45 minutes. Before I go on to social media in the mornings, I go on Happy Not Perfect and I breathe. That was a really critical change in my routine,” shares Jamie.
Swap out the screen time for a 30-second breathing sesh. It’s that simple! You don’t even have to leave your bed if you don’t want to. By starting your morning focused on yourself (and not your S.O.’s landlord’s cousin), you’ll feel more productive and confident throughout the day.
“You only need to dedicate a few minutes of your day to practicing breathing. The key is consistency. For example, if you want to touch your toes, you have to stretch every day. It’s the same with our breathing and minds. Try and stick to a time each day, either with an app like Happy Not Perfect to help remind you, or set a notification on your phone,” suggests Jamie.
Whether or not you’re a full-on breathing believer just yet, we can all probably agree that the benefits of quieting the digital noise around you and paying a bit more attention to yourself aren’t a myth—they’re a fact.
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