It’s what some people still think of as “weird hippie stuff”, but learning how to breathe better may just be the most underrated tool we have at our disposal, one that can reduce anxiety, pain, stress and improve our physical performance.
Mick Fanning laughs at the thought of himself starting out as a professional surfer and someone suggesting he work on his breathing. He imagines he would have asked them, “What for?”
Today, however, the three-time world champion believes it is a key component of his success.
“Breath work is critical,” says the 39-year-old, who recently announced his professional surfing comeback. “You can change your moods, your thought patterns, just by concentrating on breath … and the better you breathe the better you perform.”
Fanning was first introduced to breathing techniques as a 19-year-old trying to manage the pain of scoliosis.
In yoga classes he attended, he learnt to slow down his breath during deep stretches. He focused on using his breath to create space between his ribs and spine and found the pain in his back began to subside.
Later he incorporated different breathing techniques into his training program, using them alongside visualisation and meditation.
“I felt that was one of the key parts of my success,” says Fanning, who was announced as the face of F45’s new yoga-pilates-tone studio FS8, this month.
“It’s something that I still use today. We all get fired up for different reasons and by concentrating on breath you can bring yourself down or you can get yourself excited.”
The fact that the breath affects us on both mental and physical levels simultaneously is part of what makes it so powerful, says Dr David Farmer, an honorary fellow at the University of Melbourne.
When we breathe spontaneously, without even thinking about it, a group of cells in our brains is working in synchronicity with the muscles in our chest to make a rhythm.
“Whether [breathing] evokes a physical or mental response … it’s very hard to separate the two,” he says.
Although it happens automatically for healthy people, when we then use our breath in specific ways we can start to control that rhythm and, in doing so, elicit certain physical and mental responses.
In this way, it is an “absolutely unique” tool, says Farmer.
“The only system over which we have direct motor control which is essential for our survival is our breathing.”
Fanning’s performance coach, Nam Baldwin says breathwork is the foundation of mental and physical performance: “It is one of the only natural ways to regulate the nervous system’s behaviour when it comes to all forms of stress.”
Baldwin says they practise different breath techniques depending on what they are trying to evoke. They use it as a regulating tool during high intensity training sessions; in the pool to give him greater breath-holding capacity, as a way to recover, and they use basic rhythmic breathing as part of his psychological preparation for competition.
“It really is a simple concept, but the intensity or the pressure you are under at any given time is what makes it more difficult to apply or get right,” Baldwin says.
Tony Blazevich, a professor of biomechanics at Edith Cowan University, says though many elite athletes now use breathing techniques as part of their daily regimes, the benefits are available to all of us.
Manipulating the speed and depth of breathing is one way to create physical and mental shifts, explains Blazevich, who is also the director of the Centre for Exercise and Sports Science Research (CESSR).
”As part of a hype up, adrenalin-inducing effect or to ensure high-tissue oxygen levels, a few rapid, deep breaths can be beneficial,” Blazevich says.
“So prior to an activity if you’re nervous or worried, your breathing might become shallower and your blood can reduce its oxygen levels. Several rapid, deep breaths may bring your blood oxygen back up and provide some small oxygen delivery benefit to the muscles.”
Along with oxygenation, researchers believe that changing our breath affects our baroreceptors, mechanical receptors located in our necks and hearts.
“They help us regulate blood pressure and heart rate and the deep breathing seems to stimulate baroreceptor activation and that affects your autonomic system and blood pressure,” Blazevich explains. ”It also seems to cause a more general inhibition in the central nervous system itself and so this leads to a decrease in pain.“
In his 2020 book Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, James Nestor writes that breathing through our noses doesn’t just humidify air and remove foreign particles, it can boost nitric oxide sixfold. “[It] is one of the reasons we can absorb about 18 per cent more oxygen than by just breathing through the mouth,” he writes.
Along with breathing through our noses, holding our breath, counting it, visualising it can potently affect the way we feel.
For reducing pain or anxiety, for instance, Blazevich says that it may not just be deep, slow breathing that makes the difference.
“If you hold your breath, the pressure you develop during the breath holding … seems to be a major trigger [of baroreceptor activation],” he says, noting that slowing the breath can naturally create a pause at each end of the inhalation.
Counting the breath and visualising the cool air coming in also slows down our breathing, and engages the areas of the brain that are involved in processing anxiety and pain too.
When we are counting and visualising, our brains can’t also process pain at the same time.
“It takes practice,” Blazevich says. “But when someone decides ‘I’m going to use my brain for some other reason’, they get good at beating anxiety, they get good at beating pain, they get good at beating whatever by using these breathing techniques.
“Over many weeks of training, you can go and take an MRI of someone’s brain and their amygdala – the part of the brain that’s associated with anxiety for example, will literally shrink.”
The perfect length of breath or count is hotly contended and likely depends on the individual. In his book, Nestor refers to a 2001 study in which participants said rosary prayers or mantras.
“The most efficient breathing rhythm occurred when both the length of respirations and total breaths per minute were locked in to a spooky symmetry: 5.5-second inhales followed by 5.5-second exhales, which works out almost exactly to 5.5 breaths a minute. This was the same pattern of the rosary. The results were profound, even when practised for just five to 10 minutes a day.”
It is a study Farmer also finds intriguing, though Blazevich doubts the ideal breath is as specific as 5.5 seconds. Others favour techniques like box breathing (breathing in to a count of four, holding for a count of four, exhaling to a count of four and holding for a count of four) and the 4-7-8 technique (breathe in for four seconds, hold the breath for seven seconds and exhale completely to a count of eight).
Either way, working with our breath, slowing it down and breathing through our noses can make us feel better in body and brain.
“It is fair to say it is one of the most underrated tools because a lot of people still think of it as weird hippie stuff,” Blazevich says, “but what people haven’t realised is that in the last 20 years, and certainly the last 10 years, the amount of scientific research that has gone into understanding it has improved enormously.”