Body / Living Well

How Your Breath Can Change Your Life

Estero-based yoga instructor Kim Quan shares breathing techniques from centuries-old pranayama practices.

BY June 29, 2023
Pranayama breathwork led by yoga instructor Kim Quan
(Photo by Christina Bankson)

“I’ll keep count for you, OK?” Inhale, inhale, inhale. Exhale. And repeat. Inhale. With my eyes closed, my hands splay across my stomach. Inhale. I slide my hands up to my ribs. Inhale. My fingers travel up to my chest, where I lift and hold my breath for a moment. Exhale. Slowly, the air leaves my nose as my body grounds itself on the pale blue yoga mat I’ve been sitting on for the past 20 minutes.

“How did that one feel for you?” Kim Quan, my breathwork instructor and owner of The Flow Body traveling yoga practice, asks during our virtual session. “My chest and upper body feel much lighter,” I say. “My mind, which normally runs a million miles an hour, was so focused on breathing, there wasn’t room for anything else,” I say. This is the most relaxed—physically or emotionally—I’ve felt in weeks.

It seems obvious—we need to breathe to survive. But what if your breathing could nourish your life, rather than just maintain it?

Breathwork, or pranayama—defined as any practice that focuses on consciously breathing and regulating the flow of breath through your body and mind—has roots in Eastern traditions and religions. Various techniques offer different benefits. Some, like shamanic breathwork, are more ritualistic—emphasizing the connection between mind and soul through rhythmic breathing. Others, like transformational breathwork, hone in on manipulating the breath through rapid rates to elicit a bodily response, changing the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide absorbed and released over time.

Kim—who’s trained in power vinyasa and yin yoga and has been an instructor since 2019—first learned about breathwork from practicing with a friend. “I was so intrigued by how I felt afterward,” she says. After taking a pranayama training course, she started incorporating her teachings into pop-up yoga classes and private sessions.

“You want to think of breath techniques like food,” Kim says. “You have a variety of types and choices depending on how you feel.” You might go for deeper breathing styles when you need to relieve stress or pair quicker breaths and physical movement (like lifting the arms or falling on your knees) to energize your body. The extra dose of oxygen fuels you, while the heightened focus on the breath and change in breathing patterns can help break habitual patterns and release negative emotions.

Kim notes that in day-to-day life, we rarely make full use of breath and often fail to engage the diaphragm (the major muscle in respiration), so air doesn’t get to the deepest part of our lungs. With controlled breathing, the breath can work for us rather than being a passive action.

A week later, in my second session with Kim, I am more energized from the start. I’d been practicing every day, using Bellows Breath (steady inhale and exhale) to build energy in the morning and three-part breath (three inhales, one exhale) to slow my mind when I felt anxious throughout the day. Now, my head is clearer, and I’m ready to take on more intensive exercises. As we work through our final round of Breath of Fire (90 exhales through the nostrils, focusing on passive inhalation and forceful exhalation, while engaging the core), the motion becomes reflexive. My muscles relax, and my brain switches to autopilot. Though I run out of breath toward the end, I’m not gasping for air. I feel weightless, lost in the sensation of releasing negative thoughts and emotions trapped inside. I can finally breathe easy. 


How it Works

Breathing is an automatic function of the autonomic nervous system, but we can control it—you can change your pace and regulate the amount of oxygen coming in and carbon dioxide leaving your body. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) are two branches of this overarching system that create involuntary responses: The SNS increases your heart rate when you’re in stressful situations, while PNS conserves energy and works to calm your nerves in such scenarios. Breathwork practices can help balance the PNS and SNS to better deal with symptoms such as stress, anxiety and insomnia. Over time, thanks to the brain’s plasticity, you start to change how your body reacts to stress through deep, controlled breathing.


Breathwork Exercises

Kim breaks down three breath techniques to try. As with any wellness practice, it’s best to consult your medical professional before engaging in any new routine.


Three-Part Breath: Known as Dirgha, this exercise helps slow the mind and body to relieve stress and sharpen your focus. Inhale, with the breath starting in your belly, through your ribs and up your chest. Try moving your hands up your body as you pause with each breath. Exhale slowly until all air is out of your lungs. 

Bellows Breath/Breath of Fire: These high-energy techniques bring the heat (literally) into your body. Bellows Breath uses your abs and diaphragm muscles to breathe in and out forcefully (but not forced) through your nose in continuous succession. The more advanced Breath of Fire focuses on the exhale, with the belly engaging to push air out and slower, passive inhalations in between. “It’s almost addictive,” Kim says.

Bee Breath: Inhale then exhale through your nose while creating a humming noise, with this exercise. “The vibration helps with anxiety,” she says. As you repeat the breathing, you should feel a vibration travel from your chest down your body. Try plugging your ears with your fingers to fully tap into your internal hum. Kim suggests doing this technique, also known as Bhramari, at night to relax before turning in for a good night’s sleep.

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