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  • Andy Murphy

The Different Stages of a Breath

Learn how each stage can dramatically affect our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being



Here are the four stages of a breath:


1. Inhale

2. Pause at the top of the inhale (before the exhale begins)

3. Exhale

4. Pause at the bottom of the exhale (before the inhale begins)


In ancient times breathing exercises were used to heal illness and connect to spirit. It was said to be the source for what we now call a psychedelic experience and for controlling our own body’s immune system.


The effects of each stage of the breath are being explored more and more these days and we are seeing the incredible effects that each phase can hold.


The breath is breathing us as much as the heart is beating us. It breathes through us regardless of whether we are aware of it or not. My quest over the last few years has been to become more and more aware of each stage of the breath and one of those ways has been discovering the different rhythms in which the breath can be breathed.


Rhythmical breathing

When we breathe in a rhythm, we sync to the natural rhythms of life. This consistent rhythm can change depending on what we are doing or how we are feeling (like breathing in a quicker rhythm for more energy, or breathing in a slower rhythm for deeper relaxation, for example), but keeping in a consistent rhythm while breathing invites the nervous system to relax (more on this later) and we come into a state called heart coherence.


What is heart coherence?

“Coherence is the state when the heart, mind, and emotions are in energetic alignment and cooperation. It is a state where there is increased synchronization and harmony between the cognitive, emotional and physiological systems, resulting in the efficient and harmonious functioning of the whole.” – HeartMath Institute.


A wonderful by-product of breathing exercises that breathe in a rhythmical way is that we enter heart coherence naturally. Beautiful ripples (or waves) then start to radiate from our heart as it signals to every other cell in the body to also become coherent.


Picture it like a huge ocean where wave after wave is of equal size and of equal distance apart so that the whole body of water is swaying and moving as one. Now imagine those waves as heartbeats – that’s heart coherence.


It’s also been recorded that these ‘ripples’ or coherent heartbeats radiate out from the person who is in heart coherence several feet outside of their body. That’s why when we walk into a room, we can sometimes feel like there is something in the air. It’s almost palpable whether or not we’re welcome. We might even say “I don’t know why but that’s not my vibe.”

Another cool study recorded that when 4 people sit together around a table and 3 out of the 4 people are in heart coherence, the 4th will subconsciously start to ‘sync’ up with the others to become coherent too. That’s the power of living with an open heart. Open hearts invite other hearts to open.


The graph below highlights a coherent heart rhythm compared to an incoherent heart rhythm. This image comes from heartmath.org (a fantastic resource from the pioneers of this research).



Photo from HeartMath Institute



As you can see the differences are huge. Never has the saying ‘we’re just on different wavelengths’ been truer.


Why this is so important is that both an incoherent heart and a coherent one create either incoherent or coherent mental and emotional states. We have the ability to transform these incoherent heartbeats, thought patterns, and emotional states into coherent, positive, and loving ones through our breath. That’s the power of rhythmical breathing.

Putting it into practice

1. Breathe in through your nose (smoothly and without force) for 4 seconds

2. Breathe out through your mouth (smoothly and without force) for 4 seconds

3. Leave no pause at the top of the inhale or at the bottom of the exhale

4. Repeat this breath for a few minutes

5. Finish by holding your breath in for as long as comfortable

6. Return to normal breathing.


If you find yourself short of breath on either end of the inhale or the exhale and 4 seconds feels too long, try breathing in for 2 seconds and out for 2 seconds instead, or in for 3 seconds, out for 3 seconds until your nervous system has had the chance to relax. Then slowly start to deepen your breath once you feel more comfortable.


*Remember not to judge or wish for your breath to be different, instead allow it to naturally soften with this simple breathing pattern.


As long as you breathe without force in a consistent rhythm, any rhythm is good. Your heart knows what to do next so it will naturally follow your lead and become coherent. Then, all of the health benefits related to heart coherence can open themselves up for you to receive.


Benefits of Heart Coherence:

· Decreased stress

· Increase in energy & vitality

· Enhanced creativity

· Emotional intelligence & mastery

· Greater resilience

· Improved physical health

· Better circulation & blood flow

· A deeper emotional connection to yourself and others


…. and all of this comes from a simple breathing pattern!


This is available to us in every moment. It’s a fantastic daily practice as it can be felt within a few minutes of rhythmical breathing. So, if you are facing difficulty, stress, anxiety, fear, judgement, pain, or just want to become more present, this simple breathing pattern can support your everyday needs.


It really doesn’t take long to get into a state of heart coherence either. Sometimes only a few cyclical breaths is all it takes. But the longer we can stay there, the more coherently our cells, organs, nerves, and bodily functions can communicate as one unified organism. Communication then quickens so the ability to heal and feel more relaxed starts to be a way of life instead of a momentary flash, and we can begin to feel more connected to ourselves and everything else that surrounds us.


Holding a full breath in (pause at the top of the inhale)


“Inhaling after a round of breathwork is like sipping from the honey well.

The air is thick and delicious.”

During breathwork and breath control techniques, rhythmical breathing is typically followed by a breath retention phase (holding the breath in or out). We’ll get to the extraordinary benefits to holding our breath out in just a moment but let’s first look at why we hold our breath in.

On occasion we hold our breath in when we feel stressed, but we are unaware that we are doing so. Whether that’s the ‘good’ kind of stress like sprinting in a race or the ‘bad’ kind of stress like being in an argument, having an overwhelming workload, or feeling anxious. Whatever it might be, if we’re holding our breath in without awareness, we are holding unknown tension in our body. This can lead to inflammation and chronic pain if done regularly which is why becoming aware of what our breath is doing (or not doing) is key.

As already discussed, heart coherence can decrease stress, increase energy and vitality, and improve physical health. This new surge of energy that rhythmical breathing brings helps us to enter breath retention phases with optimal energy. Fire of fire, lion’s breath and other fast paced pranayama exercises are also fantastic for building energy up!

With this new energy and the elevated emotions that can be felt, it’s a fantastic time to visualise and set intentions. I discussed this in much more detail in my blog - The Power of Intention. So, while holding our breath in can feel great and where we can really harness our creative powers in holding an intention to manifest what we want to see happen in our lives, it might be surprising to hear that the biggest health benefits come when we hold our breath out. So, let’s now discover how.


Holding a full breath out (no breath – the pause at the bottom of the exhale)


“Life without breath is like pressing pause on life. Everything stops and becomes

blissfully quiet.”


Holding ‘no breath’ means that once we exhale fully, instead of breathing in again, we pause and enjoy life without breath.

If you try to do this now, you’ll probably only last a few seconds but give the body enough oxygen over a few minutes of rhythmical breathing (the breathing pattern mentioned above), soon enough you might be able to last up to 30 seconds, 60 seconds, 90 seconds and even longer once trained.

After the 90 second threshold has been reached there are tremendous health benefits that really start to take effect. This is because we enter a state called intermittent hypoxia.


Intermittent hypoxia

The easiest way to explain this is if you can imagine a set of scales that tip from one side to the other with every breath that you take. Inhaling tips to the left, exhaling to the right. Oxygen is on the one side and CO2 is on the other. When we breathe in, the scales tip to the left as oxygen comes in. When we breathe out the scales tip to the right as CO2 goes out. This back-and-forth motion happens on every breath that we take. So, when we hold our breath out (no breath), the scales momentarily stop where they are, our oxygen levels begin to drop, and our CO2 levels begin to rise. This is intermittent hypoxia.

This only needs to be practiced in short doses (once a day is enough) but by learning how to live with less oxygen, we open up our inner pharmacy (term accredited to Niraj Naik from Soma Breath) that lives within all of us to support self-healing.

That was the wisdom that was passed down from the ancient yogis of the past who used breathing exercises to supercharge their systems, heal and regenerate, boost their immune, respiratory, digestive, and cardiovascular systems whilst connecting to something bigger than themselves. The breath hasn’t changed, nor has the wisdom that it carries. This is the ancient future we are walking towards.


New growth

As I mentioned above, once we’ve held our breath out for 90 seconds + there are tremendous health benefits that really start to take effect. And perhaps none more exciting than the potential release of stem cells.


What are stem cells?

Stem cells are the cells that can turn into any other cell in the body which rapidly aid healing and growth. They create the foundations for any other cell to form, just like how a foetus grows in the womb. They’re the building blocks, so to speak, and are found in the ‘locked’ areas of our body’s such as bone marrow.


It might seem counter-intuitive at first as how can having no breath be so good for us? But by creating a positive stress response we train our body to need less oxygen and become more oxygen efficient. A similar comparison can be drawn from how the body responds while fasting on food.

And if the body then thinks it’s in ‘danger’ it sends an incredible amount of energy to the ‘damaged’ areas to heal and regenerate. We can create these positive stress responses with awareness. Cold water, exercise and breath hold training are great examples of this. Science now shows that if we do we can potentially slow the aging process down, and heal parts of ourselves that were otherwise ‘unhealable’. This is the power of the breath.


Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF)

“When we pause our breath, we press pause on life.” – Niraj Naik

The spinal column and the brain are all held within this ever-moving liquid called cerebrospinal fluid. Cerebrospinal fluid is a clear, colourless body fluid found within the tissue that surrounds the brain and spinal cord of all vertebrates. (Wikipedia)

CSF serves several purposes:

- Buoyancy: The actual mass of the human brain is about 1400–1500 grams; however, the net weight of the brain suspended in CSF is equivalent to a mass of 25-50 grams. The brain, therefore, exists in neutral buoyancy which allows the brain to maintain its density without being impaired by its own weight, which would cut off blood supply and kill neurons in the lower sections if CSF was not present.


- Protection: CSF protects the brain tissue from injury when jolted or hit, by providing a fluid buffer that acts as a shock absorber from some forms of mechanical injury.


- Homeostasis: CSF allows for regulation of the distribution of substances between cells of the brain, and neuroendocrine factors, to which slight changes can cause problems or damage to the nervous system as temperature, blood pressure, and pH levels may change.


- Clearing waste: CSF allows for the removal of waste products from the brain and is critical in the brain's lymphatic system called the glymphatic system. Metabolic waste products diffuse rapidly into CSF and are removed into the bloodstream as CSF is absorbed. When this goes awry, CSF can be toxic, such as in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the commonest form of motor neuron disease.


Why I’m excited to share this here is that the CSF pulsates and moves in tune with the rhythm of our heart and as you now know our heart moves in tune with the rhythm of our breath!

Each pulse pushes the CSF up and down the spine and in and around our brain all day, every day. When we pause our breath and slow our heartbeat down, we slow this process down too. This might sound dangerous at first but there are some incredible benefits if we do.

Imagine a free-flowing pipe that suddenly gets tightly squeezed. The fluid inside the pipe keeps flowing but there is a build-up of pressure. Once the pipe is released all of that pressure is suddenly released and a burst of energy is pushed forward. That’s what happens up and down our spine and in and around our brain when we breathe in after we’ve held ‘no breath’ for long enough (60-90 seconds+). This is another incredibly powerful side effect to pausing our breath for short periods of time. Breath control practices found in Tummo, the Wim Hof Method, Soma Breath, and some pranayama exercises have a strong focus on this process for these exact reasons.


Our breath over time

Science has discovered that around the age of 30-35 years old our lung capacity starts to decrease, and it only goes downhill the more we age. There are a few different causes for this but some of the most common are that the muscles in our diaphragm become weaker, our lung tissue loses some of its elasticity, which means our airways can become a little smaller. And even our rib cage bones change and get smaller which leaves less room for our lungs to expand. Whatever the reason(s) might be, our lungs lose their capacity throughout the aging process. The good news is that our lungs can strengthen and even gain capacity with a little help from us. Freedivers are a prime example of people that have built their lung capacity up (some even as high as 60% in volume!)


Lungs are like every other muscle – if they’re not used efficiently, they lose their strength. But if those muscles are worked, however, everything around them (tendons, ligaments, muscle tissues etc…) also strengthens too. Our lungs are no different. Correcting our breathing habits can be an enormous support in this. By simply adopting breathing habits such as breathing through your nose instead of your mouth (more on this later), by taking slow, light, deep breaths, engaging the diaphragm and reducing the number of breaths you breathe per minute you can support the aging process by strengthening yourself, becoming more resilient and ultimately flourishing through all of life.


Having strong, healthy lungs has perhaps never been more important than today. With rising pollution levels and other respiratory diseases seemingly on the rise, the need to keep our lungs healthy, fit, and strong is key in our evolution to the new world that we are creating and to the new world that we find ourselves in.


~


Discover Soma Breath here




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