The First Thing You Should Do When Starting a Breathwork Practice, According to a Respiratory Therapist
November 17, 2021

We founded Threes Physiyoga to build bridges between the different disciplines and communities within the healthcare and wellness continuum. We believe doing so best supports our overall wellbeing. And our podcast, The Body Puzzle, is the latest place where we’re putting these pieces together. Each episode includes insights from experts and specialists who will empower and challenge our beliefs. They’ll also expand our foundational knowledge, and boost our relationships to our own bodies and each other.

Five years ago, if you’d asked Julia O’Shea, respiratory therapist and certified Kaiut yoga teacher, what the most important part of starting a breath work practice was, she says her response would’ve been very different than it is today. “I was of the belief that we could use the breath to change anything without actually witnessing what’s happening first, meaning instead of acknowledging that your nervous system is responding, we may just try and fix things and sweep them under the rug,” says O’Shea, who manages the Pulmonary Rehabilitation Program at the University of Vermont Medical Center

Now she believes that the first step in any breathing practice needs to be noticing the breath without changing it. “It’s quite challenging, but with practice, the more you start to become aware of your own breathing, it can serve as this internal barometer on what’s happening with your nervous system,” she explains in this latest episode of The Body Puzzle. “Say you’re in a heated conversation with someone, and you walk out of that conversation and maybe you’re a little upset or stimulated. Just noticing how your breathing feels and paying attention to what’s going on before you try and calm yourself down is super important.”

Same holds true for the opposite scenario. “Say you’ve just done a great yoga practice, and you’re lying on the floor, maybe a little drowsy,” O’Shea explains. “Your breath may be slower and your exhale longer, or maybe there are longer pauses. That’s all just happening naturally from your nervous system without you trying to change anything.”

Like many yoga teachers (ourselves included) and breath work coaches, O’Shea believes that the breath is a powerful tool for regulating your nervous system. “If you are a yoga teacher or student, you’ve probably witnessed firsthand the benefits of slow, diaphragmatic breathing, of using the exhale to calm the nervous system down,” she says. “But I believe the most important thing now is to actually be in touch with your own nervous system and know what you’re going through instead of just throwing a bandaid on something.”

One of the simplest ways to start noticing your breath is by breathing through your nose, according to O’Shea. For her patients who have a harder time doing this because of lung disease, long-haul COVID-19, or neurological disorders that leave them unable to control their breathing patterns, she teaches them a technique called pursed-lip breathing. “This is a breathing technique that’s been around forever; it’s simply just inhaling slowly through your nose, and then very slowly breathing out through pursed lips,” she says. (Think: smelling flowers, then blowing out birthday candles.) “You’re applying a certain amount of pressure inside your lungs, which can increase oxygenation and help to slow the breathing down.”

In general, she suggests performing pursed lip breathing before doing any activity that may leave you short of breath, such as walking up stairs. “And just incorporate it every once in a while just to kind of check in and slow things down,” she says. “It also engages the diaphragm more.”

After you’ve built up your awareness and mastered some basic techniques, you can begin to explore deeper levels of breathing, which O’Shea recommends doing with a coach or teacher. One of her preferred methods to teach is the three-part breath, and you can learn more about by listening in to her episode of The Body Puzzle.


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