HEALTHPhysicalThe Power of Breath Work for First Responders

The Power of Breath Work for First Responders

By: Julia Long F.R.Y. CEO

“Incorporate breathwork into your daily routine to build resilience and mind-body balance.  You owe it to yourself.”

Breath is life. Take charge of your breath. Take charge of your life. What do we mean by breathwork? When we talk about breathwork we mean becoming aware of our breath and consciously controlling it to reap the benefits of certain breath techniques.

Let’s start with a self-analysis of our breath:
  • Are you aware of your breath?
  • Are you a chest or belly breather?

Pause for a moment. Put your hands on your belly. Now observe your breath. Take a few deep inhalations. Did your belly expand on the inhalations or recede? The natural way to breathe, the way you were born breathing, is to have the belly expand on the inhalations. Have you ever watched babies breathe? Their bellies rise and fall with each breath. This belly breath, or abdominal/diaphragmatic breathing, is the natural way to breathe and the most efficient way to ventilate the lungs. 

Learning How To Breathe Again

Most people have forgotten how to breathe properly and only breathe through their mouth and chest. Remember, the diaphragm is a sheet of muscle and connective tissue, separating the chest from the abdominal cavity. When we expand the belly on the inhalation, the diaphragm contracts and pulls down into the abdomen enlarging the chest cavity for the expansion of the lungs, drawing the breath into the lower parts of the lungs. On exhalation, the diaphragm relaxes, decreasing the size of the chest cavity, deflating the lungs and pushing out the air that is left in the lungs, including from the lower part of the lungs. The lungs are sort of pear shaped, with the lower part of the lungs containing more hemoglobin (areas for gas exchange) that collect the oxygen to circulate in the blood. The more stale air you exhale the more fresh air you can inhale. Makes sense right? 

What is Abdominal Breathing?

Abdominal breathing is deep breathing, chest breathing is middle breathing and clavicular (collarbone) breathing is shallow (breathing in short breaths so only the shoulders seem to move with each breath). Chest breathing and clavicular breathing make no use of the diaphragm. Consequently, only a small amount of oxygen is brought into only the top part of the lungs, resulting in lower oxygen, and usually a higher respiration rate. Mental efficiency reduces significantly when the brain does not receive adequate oxygen. Middle and shallow breathing disrupts the balance of gases in the body, prolonging the feelings of stress and anxiety. It can become a vicious circle: feelings of stress, shallow breathing, more feelings of stress, more shallow breathing and so on. The stress response can be reduced by breathing with the diaphragm.

Benefits of Breathwork for First Responders
  • Provides a boost when you are approaching your day with a low-mode energy;
  • Brings relaxation and balance when you are adrenaline-high after dealing with an incident; 
  • Soothes emotions, cools your temper and irritation, as well as your body temperature; 
  • Increases oxygen uptake;
  • Increases mental efficiency; and
  • Requires no special equipment and can be done even in duty vehicles or bases while awaiting calls or on break.
Some Techniques to Try at Home or Work

1. Abdominal Breathing (described above)

  • Sit comfortably in a crossed-leg position.
  • Close your eyes.
  • Breathe through your nose (the air you inhale through your nose is warmed and filtered).

The Inhalation

  • Place your hands on your belly over your belly-button. 
  • As you inhale expand the belly out into your hands.
  • Keep the shoulders relaxed.

The Exhalation

  • Relax the abdomen and allow it to contract towards the spine.
  • Keep the head, neck and spine in line (do not slouch).



2. Calm Yourself: Non-equal Ratio Breathing /Asamavritti

When you are anxious, stressed, scared, shocked or in pain you unconsciously hold your breath. This is the primordial reaction of humankind. Envision yourself rounding a corner and seeing a Tyrannosaurus Rex. The first thing you would do would be to gasp, inhale, and hold your breath. Now your nervous system is alerted that something is wrong and is preparing to fight-flight-freeze. Conversely, by slowing your breath you can alert your nervous system that there is no threat, and break the cycle of stress-irregular breath-increased stress.

So, if you are feeling anxious or stressed sit for belly breathing as above but alter the count and take a longer exhalation. Making the exhalation longer than the inhalation signals the nervous system that there is no threat.

Follow abdominal breathing above but:

  • take an inhalation for your count of 4
  • take an exhalation for your count of 8


3. Boost Energy: Skull Polishing Breath / Kapalabhati

This technique is a boosting and cleansing breathing technique. Do not practice this technique late at night, unless you do wish to stay awake, for example to overcome that 3PM energy slump, near the end of a shift or during an overnight shift. It is energizing and may prevent you from falling asleep. It is an ideal technique to practice as part of your daily morning routine or before a shift. It cleans the respiratory system, the nasal passage and bronchial tubes. 

The Kapalabhati technique focuses on the exhalation of the breath, performed quickly and forcibly through the nose by contracting the abdominal muscles, which constricts the diaphragm. This forces stale air out of the lungs. When the abdominal wall is relaxed, the diaphragm draws down into the abdominal cavity and the inhalation happens naturally. The exhalation is strong, powerful, and quick through the nose. The inhalation that follows is passive, calm, and automatic. Remember to focus on the abdomen receding on the exhalation and expanding on the inhalation (see Abdominal Breathing above). 

How to perform:
  • Sit comfortably in a crossed-leg position.
  • Close your eyes and look to the spot between your eyes, the center of your forehead.
  • Keep the head, neck and spine in line.
  • Place your hands on your knees, palms up or down.
  • Place the tip of your thumb on the tip of the index finger in each hand, relaxing the remaining fingers straight.
  • Keep the shoulders relaxed.
  • Breathe through your nose.
  • Take two to three deep abdominal breaths to prepare.
  • Abdominally inhale a comfortable amount to begin.
  • Contract the abdominal muscles towards the spine and forcibly exhale through the nose.
  • Relax the abdomen to allow a passive inhalation through the nose.
  • Contract the abdominal muscles again towards the spine and forcibly exhale again through the nose.
  • Repeat this pumping quickly for 20, 40, 60, or 80 expulsions (depending on your capacity).
  • Take care to not hyperventilate – you are not consciously taking an inhalation. Focus only on the pumping exhalation.

Retention of Breath (No retention if unregulated high/low blood pressure or glaucoma, or pregnancy)

  • End on an exhalation after 20, 40, 60, or 80 expulsions.
  • Take two or three deep abdominal breaths then retain (hold) the breath for a count of 30-60 seconds, depending on your capacity, keeping your eyes closed and your focus on the spot between your brows to help you go within.

Option here to not practice the retention, following only the pumpings, with a few deep breaths in between each round.



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