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  • Writer's pictureHolly Shoebridge

What is functional breathing?

Updated: Jul 29, 2023

Confucius once said "What has to be taught first, is the breath."

Breath is (quality of) life. Yet many of us in modern society have forgotten how to breathe, functionally.

Due to the pace & busy-ness of modern society, so many of us are breathing unconsciously almost 100% of the time, without paying any attention to the function or quality of our breath. As a result, many of us are over breathing ie. breathing faster, shallower & via the mouth on a regular basis. This can lead to a variety of physical & mental health outcomes/issues.

It is important to note, there are so many different methods of breath work available to us. From ancient pranayama practices, to holotropic, rebirthing & Wim Hof methods. All of these are absolutely brilliant and can have beautiful outcomes for the practicing individual.

While all breathing practices are fundamentally tapping into the bodymind's innate systems for a powerful impact on overall health, wellbeing & vitality; functional breathing differs slightly as it takes a very gentle and prescriptive approach, unique to the individual's condition(s). It looks more at how we breathe in our day to day life, and how that can impact our bodymind clarity, health & overall vitality. Functional breath practices are tailored to the individual (not too dissimilar to pranayama - biochemically & process).

When we are assessing function of breathing, we are looking at 3 main areas of breathing, being:

  1. Biochemical

  2. Biomechanical

  3. Psychophysiological

What is functional & dysfunctional breathing?

There is no precise definition of dysfunctional breathing patterns, however it generally includes any disturbance to breathing, including hyperventilation or over-breathing, unexplained breathlessness, breathing pattern disorder and/or irregularity of breathing.

Whereas functional breathing is light, quiet, effortless and soft. Breaths are through the nose, diaphragmatic, rhythmic and gently paused on the exhale. This is how we, as human beings, breathed until the comforts of modern life changed everything, including our breathing.

There are various tests (BOLT test) and observations that can be made to determine the quality and function of a person's breathing. Physical & mental health, and lifestyle choices certainly factor into how a person breathes also.

Breathing can be both unconscious & conscious

Breathing occurs without us having to think about it (ie. an unconscious process), and often our state of mind or health may lead how we breathe ie. if we are stressed, we are likely to be breathing shallower, from the chest.

However, breathing can also be a conscious process (ie. we bring awareness to the breath & mindfully override the subconscious process). And when we bring the breath into conscious awareness, we have the ability to make significant & profound impacts to physical & mental health when practiced regularly (ie. daily/intra daily).

To name but a few of myriad outcomes that can arise from conscious/functional breathing:

  • Pumps the lymphatic system, promotes lymphatic drainage & can provide a massage to vital organs

  • Oxygenates your cells

  • Can alleviate stress, anxiety, panic and racing mind

  • Can alleviate symptoms of asthma

  • Enhances focus and concentration

  • Promotes physiological, mental & spiritual healing

  • Facilitates deeper states of rest by activating the parasympathetic tone of the autonomic nervous system

  • Deepens the connection with your body

  • Promotes mindfulness & conscious awareness

  • Deep breathing can help to alkalise the body

  • Supports functional breathing for functional movement

  • Generates intra-abdominal pressure for postural control and spinal stabilisation

  • With a regular prescribed practice, it can alleviate the need for medication for conditions such as hypertension, diabetes (type 2) & thyroid

An easy way to start a functional breath practice is to pause & carve out some brief minutes for yourself to engage in this simple practice.

  • Sit up straight on a chair, or cross legged on the floor with your hips slightly elevated above your legs, to avoid pins and needles.

  • Imagine a piece of string gently pulling you upward toward the ceiling.

  • Imagine and feel the space between your ribs widening.

  • Gently breathing in through the nose, and out through your nose.

  • Feeling your diaphragm expanding & contracting with each breath.

  • You might like to place your hands on your belly to enhance the connection with diaphragm and body during the practice.

  • Inhale for 5 seconds, in, 2, 3, 4, 5 (hands move out)

  • Exhale for 5 seconds, out, 2, 3, 4, 5 (hands move in)

  • If the count of 5 is too much to start, that's ok, start with a count of 3 and increase over time to 4 and then 5, as you become more comfortable.

  • Practice this for 4 - 5 minutes, or longer if you wish.

This practice is slowing the cadence of your breathing, it is encouraging a deepening of the breath, and consequently reduces over breathing and creates optimal gas exchange within the lungs (for optimal bodymind function).

*Above practice not suitable for first trimester of pregnancy. Second & third trimester of pregnancy, best to seek tailored guidance from a qualified breath instructor. However, nasal breathing and gentle relaxation without breath holds can be incredibly beneficial.

Simple practices like this undertaken just 2 or 3 times a day can have far reaching positive impacts.

Holly is a certified Oxygen Advantage Functional Breath Instructor and provides 1:1 on consultation with clients & small group workshops. Contact Holly for more details if interested in working together.

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