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Intentional breathing practices have been gaining popularity in recent years, both in wellness and medical spaces.fizkes/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

Like a lot of people, when Toronto life coach and speaker Raia Carey is about to give a speech in front of a crowd, she reminds herself to breathe.

“Before a keynote, I can feel anxious. There are a lot of emotions; there’s so much energy in the room [when you’re] sitting in front of thousands of people,” she says, explaining that deep, intentional breathing helps her focus on the task at hand. “It removes all the other chaos; it’s like it clears a path.”

In fact, she says it allows her to enter a “flow state,” a sense of deep focus or total immersion in a task that was first described by psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Jeanne Nakamura.

But Carey isn’t just taking a few deep breaths. She’s actually engaging in breathwork, a newly trendy wellness practice with deep roots in traditional Eastern methods such as yoga and tai chi. (When your yoga instructor encourages you to use the ujjayi breathing technique during your vinyasa yoga class, that’s breathwork.) Also known as diaphragmatic, or deep, breathing, it involves changing how quickly and deeply you inhale and exhale to alter your state, explains Amanda Laine, co-founder of Othership, a Toronto company that launched a breathwork app during the pandemic and will open a physical, wellness-focused social space in the city’s downtown core on Feb. 8.

“You can use breathwork to give yourself energy in the morning,” Laine says. “I actually gave up coffee five months ago; I use breathwork instead. Or, you can use breath to shift yourself down into a more relaxed, calm state.”

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Laine discovered the technique years ago at Burning Man, the nine-day desert festival known for its focus on self-expression, community and art. She dropped into a session and immediately felt a change in her body.

“I struggled with meditation for years,” she says. “Everyone’s like, ‘You should do it, it’s good for you, you’re going to feel better.’ But my mind was always racing and by the end, I wouldn’t really feel any different. But when I discovered breathwork, I felt present, and like my entire physiology changed.”

When she got back home to Toronto, she realized a few people in her network also had positive experiences with the practice – they’d eventually go on to become her co-founders at Othership – and, importantly, that there was science to back up what she was feeling.

Lots of science, in fact. Here’s how it works: deep, slow breathing – about 10 breaths a minute – initiates a relaxation response in our bodies, and these physiological changes in turn have a measurable impact on our mental and emotional states. One 2017 study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology found diaphragmatic breathing practice can “improve cognitive performance and reduce negative … consequences of stress in healthy adults,” while a 2018 review of literature published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience went even further, proclaiming that “breath-control can change your life.” According to the study’s authors, researchers from the University of Pisa, slow breathing techniques trigger changes in our cardiovascular, respiratory and central nervous systems, which lead to “increased comfort, relaxation, pleasantness, vigour and alertness, and reduced symptoms of arousal, anxiety, depression, anger and confusion.”

What’s more, most people aren’t getting these benefits because we’re breathing, well, wrong.

“Proper breathing starts in the nose, then moves through the diaphragm to the stomach. As our diaphragm contracts, the belly expands and our lungs fill with air,” clinical psychologist Houyuan Luo says. This is the type of breathing that properly triggers that relaxation response and begets all those benefits. But, Luo says, most people instead breathe with their mouths and chests due to stress, sitting for too long or even pollution.

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It’s no wonder intentional breathing practices have been gaining popularity in recent years, both in wellness and medical spaces. Luo regularly recommends his patients pause to practice deep, intentional breathing for a few minutes, several times a day, especially during the pandemic.

“People are getting more stressed and anxious and they desperately need coping mechanisms,” he says. “And there is not too much support out there. We cannot meet in person, and a lot of places are closed; we can only do Zoom or video chat. But deep breathing is something that’s so easy to do. We do it all the time, we do it everywhere and it is so effective. That’s why I think it’s getting so popular – because it’s easy, and it’s effective.”

Laine agrees. Pre-pandemic, she and her co-founders had been hosting small breathwork classes while working on a plan for an in-person studio. Everything stopped on both fronts in March, 2020, but it didn’t take long for people to begin reaching out, asking for support because they felt stressed, scared and depressed. So, Laine began hosting breathwork sessions on Sundays, first via video chat and then in outdoor sessions. Eventually, their e-mail list ran to more than 1,000 people. After researching the market and realizing there weren’t a lot of fun, accessible breathwork resources out there, she and her co-founders decided to create their own. They raised more than $2-million in funding and launched their app at the end of last year, with their physical space forthcoming.

Carey, the life coach, was one of the people on that list, and she can attest to how helpful breathwork has been while trying to navigate a busy career while working from home during a pandemic.

“I think for a lot of people, myself included, it can feel like our brains are Chrome browsers with hundreds of tabs open. But when I do breathwork, it allows me to close those tabs, leaving just one or two open that are the most important, so I can actually get things done,” she says. “That’s why I think if anyone is ever looking for mental clarity, calm before bed and decisiveness during the day, this could be something that could help them achieve that more readily.”

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