WORDS: MICHAEL TOWNSEND WILLIAMS
PHOTOGRAPHY: JIM MARSDEN
This article was originally published in Seed Magazine Vol.1
In the 1990s, I was an alcoholic working in advertising. I was very productive but at a great cost, to myself and others. I was stressed, depressed and not coping well. Following the sudden and tragic death of my brother in 1998, I realised that my life needed to change. So I went from the out-of-control world of obsessive doing to the seemingly calmer waters of life as a yoga and meditation teacher – a life of being. I learned that by controlling my breath, I could control my mind. By strengthening and opening my body, I could find increased mental clarity and emotional resilience. And then I started to create and do again, this time from a place of stillness. Rather than seeing ‘being’ and ‘doing’ as opposites, I realised they were in fact two sides of one coin.
I like to call this integration, ‘well-doing’. And at its heart is a connection to our breath. Living well in our busy lives needs growing self-awareness and the ability to cope with sudden change and recover from being overloaded. By making our breath our constant companion, we have an inner coach that can help us calm our minds, find focus and then rest and recover, whenever we need it.
Thousands of years ago the yogis of India also looked to understand their minds and bodies better by looking within. Key to this process of self-understanding was the science of pranayama – using breathing exercises as a means of controlling the flow of energy in the mind–body system. By mastering their breath, yogis learnt to tone and control their bodies and manage their mental and emotional states better. It’s difficult to breathe slowly and think too much at the same time.
In so many yoga classes most of the time is spent on the physical side to the practice, but in fact, the most advanced practices of yoga are the disciplines that focus on breathing and meditation rather than movement and postures. It’s an integrated discipline that works best when there is a balance of breathing, relaxation and meditation, along with the physical exercise.
With the global rise in popularity of wellness, yoga and mindfulness, breathing practitioners are becoming the latest stars. However, breathing is also emerging as a means of helping people in so many other parts of life. Slow, controlled breathing is recommended by doctors for managing anxiety. New products that help guide your breathing have been approved by health authorities in the US and the UK to help lower blood pressure. Children are learning how to breathe from their bellies as part of mindfulness in school programmes aimed at reducing stress in children as young as five. Men and women from the emergency services are trained in breathing to cope with trauma. Actors deal with stage fright by breathing from their diaphragms. Sports stars learn how to focus under pressure by bringing their breath under control first.
There is also an array of innovative products to help you breathe better: gadgets that shine a rhythmic light onto your bedroom ceiling to breathe yourself to sleep; ways to purify your air at home; apps that measure your breathing and train you to breathe better, like my own, Do Breathe.
Yet, with all the excitement around the possibilities of breathing better I am continually amazed by how few of us actually do breathe in a healthy way every day. Most of us breathe too quickly, taking around 15–20 breaths per minute, as opposed to the more natural, slower rhythm of 10–12. We then compound the problem when we overreact to life’s niggles by breathing in more, often from the chest and through the mouth rather than the nose, which exaggerates the stress response, uses more energy and gives us less control. Without even realising it, we are using our breath in stressful situations – to make things worse. The simple remedy is to re-learn how we were born to breathe, which I’ve distilled into three simple steps (see opposite). If you want to make the most of your lesser- known superpower – your own breath – begin with this simple guide.
Breathe well. Be well. Do well.
*Michael Townsend Williams is the co-founder of Do Breathe and author of Do Breathe: Calm your mind. Find focus. Get stuff done.
There are many techniques from both the East and the West that teach us how to breathe in a way that is best for our well-being. The basics, however, are simple and actually the most important for everyday use. As well as following the advice below, see if you can slow down your breathing to around 10–12 breaths per minute. Once that feels okay try breathing in for four and out for six, which brings it down to six breaths per minute – the optimal rate if you really want to relax your nervous system.
1. Breathe in and out from the belly
Breathing from the belly you feel more centred and more in control. This diaphragmatic or abdominal breathing (I prefer to say ‘belly’) is efficient and, once established, easy and natural.
2. Breathe in and out through the nose (rather than the mouth)
The nose is designed for breathing. The little hairs in the nostrils filter out particles in the air. The chamber behind the nose cools or warms the air to within one degree of the body’s temperature. Except for certain situations like high-intensity sport, your nose does a much better job of breathing than your mouth.
3. Breathe out a little more than you breathe in
Exhaling is linked to the body’s relaxation response as it stimulates the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. Once you’re in balance you can breathe in and out equally. But in my experience most of us are so frequently stressed that a little more exhalation with every breath is a good idea.