The New Essentials

How to Breathe

To breathe is the most basic—and most vital—of human urges. Freediver and breathwork instructor Reef Liggayu shows us how to do it right.

Est. Read Time

No one really thinks about their breathing—or at least, no one thinks they have to.

But now you’re thinking about it. It’s funny—to breathe is the most basic of all human urges, and yet we spend little time working on it. In extreme circumstances, we can go for days without food or sleep, but a mere five minutes without oxygen. It’s a mechanism that is vital to our survival, but according to freediving enthusiast and breathwork instructor Reef Liggayu, it’s possible—and likely—that we’ve been doing it wrong.

“We restrict our breathing a lot, and it affects us more than we realize,” Reef said. Having first learned of the importance of proper breathing from his freediving instructors, he was inspired by athletes Wim Hof and Stig Severinsen to learn more about how breathing patterns can change how the body performs.

Breathwork refers to any exercise that use breathing techniques to improve the body’s physical and mental well-being.

“It’s amazing how much the body is affected, just by breathing properly in the right context and at the right time,” he said. Seeing the potential and benefits of breathwork, he’s made it his goal to help others improve their lives by learning how to breathe better.

Breathwork refers to any exercises that use breathing techniques to improve the body’s physical and mental well-being. It’s a practice that virtually anyone can do at any time; the only things you really need are some patience and the ability to breathe.  

To many, breathwork seems like a strange practice, if only because it’s strange to think about breathing at all. But the idea behind it is simple: controlled and systematic breathing has been proven to boost the body’s basic systems and help alleviate stress. And if you’re still on the fence, just think about how much better you feel after taking a deep breath.

How to Breathe - Proper lung expansion featuring Reef Liggayu on a rocky river
Reef Liggayu as photographed by Susan Larsson

Taking a Deep Breath...

Strengthens your lungs

On a normal day, our lungs only reach 50% of their total capacity. Correct breathing keeps the lungs active and counteracts the buildup of stale air and other pollutants. Healthier lungs also lowers the risk of respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses.


Lets your body heal

Chronic stress from work, school, or a global pandemic puts us in a constant state of Fight or Flight, keeping the mind and body on high alert. Proper breathing activates the Rest and Digest response and slows the body down, letting it conserve energy and focus on maintaining long-term health.

“[It’s like] turning off all your apps on a phone. So your brain has more space to do what it’s built for which is to heal your body, regenerate your cells, relax your muscles, digest… you’re giving your brain time to do its job instead of entertaining your anxieties and your stress.” <callout-alt-author>Reef Liggayu<callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author>


Calms your mind

Breathing from the diaphragm—where your body’s calm receptors are—allows you to remain calm in high-pressure situations. On the other hand, breathing from the chest takes in less oxygen and activates the body’s panic receptors, which raises your stress levels and uses up more energy.

‍Watch Your Form

Here are some of the telltale signs of incorrect breathing.

Face

Many people subconsciously breathe through their mouth instead of their nose. Not only is this an inefficient way to take in air, but years of pulling the jaw down to “mouth breathe” can result in gaunt facial features that drag downward.

Ribs

Place your hands on your lower ribs and breathe in. If your ribs don’t expand on an inhale and slowly contract when you breathe out, you’re breathing too shallowly to get enough air in.

Posture

“When you slouch, the midsection of the body is cramped, and [we can’t give] our organs and lungs the space that they need to stretch out.” Correct posture expands the core and gives the lungs space to take in more oxygen on each breath.

Performance

A lack of oxygen in the body causes a number of problems like muscle tension, headaches, anxiety, and decreased cognition. It can also lead to long-term health problems like respiratory illness and cell degeneration.

Getting Your Breathing On Track

There are different exercises for different purposes, whether it’s to strengthen your lungs for sport or to reduce your daily anxieties. Regardless of your specific goals, the first step to getting your breathing on track is to be mindful of how you breathe.

Complementary exercises like yoga and meditation also help keep your mind relaxed and give you more control of your breathing.


”Every time you forget to breathe, […] whenever you remember, “ay, kailangan ko pala huminga,” do a minute of deep breaths. It’s repetition for the mind to make it a habit; relearning how to give attention to something very automatic. Step one is breathing consciously, and by [doing that] you’re training your mind to be more calm.” <callout-alt-author>Reef Liggayu<callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author>

How to Breathe - Proper nose breathing close-up of Reef Liggayu on a rocky river
Photograph by Susan Larsson