Self Care: Breath work with Sophie Hellyer
With benefits ranging from better sleep to reducing stress, practising breath work is a simple technique that has a huge range of benefits for your wellbeing.
We chatted with pro surfer and cold water swimmer, Sophie Hellyer, who shared her favourite ways of using breath work as a way to help her relax before bed. Founder of Rise Fierce, which uses wild swimming and kinship as a tool to empower women, Sophie has spent a lot of her life in the sea but, in her own words, "throwing myself into cold water is not something I like to do to wind down before bed!" Instead, she looks within and uses this meditative practice, with a focus on controlled breathing to create a sense of calm after a busy day in the water.
The importance of breath work
Through cold water swimming, I have become more and more passionate about the breath. Breath-work is an umbrella term for any time you take conscious control of your breath and use it as a vehicle to create a shift in your physiology or state of mind. For cold water swimming we use breath work to relax the mind and calm the nervous system, and I’ve now started to use these same techniques at bedtime too, or if I wake in the middle of the night (hello toddler). By understanding our own breathing patterns, we can build a powerful toolkit to manage our well-being. The best thing about it is you already have all the tools you need within you – it's completely free and you can do it on your own, and almost anywhere you go (obviously, no breath holds when driving!)
The rhythm, rate and depth of our breath is always sending signals to our brain and nervous system, so the more we slow the breath down, the more our mind slows down too. This deep, slow breathing activates the parasympathetic branch of our nervous system (aka the rest and digest), bringing us into a relaxed state, perfect for winding down before sleep.
My favourite breath to do at bedtime is 4:6 followed by 4:7:8 breathing. I’ll explain below, but for now find yourself a comfortable position.
Just take a moment to become aware of your breathing. Our breath can tell us so much about how we feel.
Place your hands on your chest and tummy or your lap. Start by taking 3 deep clearing breaths, in through the nose, and sighing out through the mouth, releasing any tension. With your mouth closed and jaw relaxed, breathe normally in and out through your nose.
Now place your hands on either side of your body on your lower ribs, Start to imagine and feel the space between your ribs widening. Slow down the speed of the air as it enters and leaves your nose. Your breathing should be light and quiet. At the top of the inhale, bring a feeling of relaxation to your body and allow a slow, soft, relaxed breath out. The air should leave your body slowly and effortlessly.
With each inhalation, take the air deep into the lungs. As you breathe in, feel your ribs moving outward, and as you breathe out, feel your ribs moving inward.
For 4:6 breathing, just breathe in through the nose for a count of four seconds, and to breathe out through the nose for a count of six seconds. This takes your breathing rate right down to 6 breaths per minute. Continue this for a couple of minutes.
For 4:7:8 breathing, breathing in the nose for 4, holding at the top for 7, slowly blowing the exhale out for a count of 8.
After a couple of rounds of this, remove the hold, and just breathe in your own time, breathing in through the nose, and exhaling as slowly as you can.
Remember, our breath is one of the most accessible and powerful tools we have at our disposal to transform our physical, mental and emotional state. So breathe deep, relax the jaw, and exhale.