We’ve all heard the age-old advice of taking a deep breath in times of distress or anger. Breathwork isn’t a far cry from this basic premise with deep interconnections with the spiritual movement, but it’s also interesting to note the promising physical benefits it may offer.
These deep roots in science have cemented breathwork as a growing global wellness trend. We catch up with Melike Hussein, founder of BreathZone, to discuss the science behind it.
- Tell me a little about your background and how you came to breathwork?
I started my professional life as a nurse back in Turkey. I completed a four-year medical school and started working in a busy hospital while conducting my university studies. Then I decided to go into finance because there was more money, and I became a chartered accountant and moved to the UK under a British scholarship.
I worked in finance for 15 years, and I was always a high achiever but at the time I had lots of problems. I lived with chronic insomnia, major depression, and chronic anxiety disorder. These were all diagnosed, medically treated, and it’s surprising that I continued so long like this and became so successful.
Then one morning, I woke up and thought, I need to go back to the office today, and it was like a switch went off in my mind. I lost my ability to speak or move. My whole body collapsed in one moment.
Even as a medical person, it took me by surprise. I felt panicked, but I knew what was happening. It was a burnout. That prompted me to evaluate where I was, because all the medical help that I was getting for the best part of two decades didn’t stop me from burning out. It just delayed the inevitable and didn't resolve my insomnia. It didn't resolve my major depression. It just brushed over the problem.
I decided to do things where I could be in charge of my conditions and start to resolve them. That started my interest in holistic health. I tried anything and everything without any prejudice or judgments. I just wanted to investigate what is out there because medicine failed me.
- What are the health benefits of breathing from your experience and research?
The first breathwork workshop I attended completely blew me away. It was the very first time that I felt in charge of my body and mind in over two, three decades. It is not like I was cured of anything, but I felt that by breathing, I was able to calm my mind in a way that I hadn't been able to before. I felt my body relaxing.
This wasn’t the stuff that I learned in medical school because all the research about breathing only came in the last two decades. But I know human anatomy and human biology like no other breathwork practitioner out there because I am trained in medicine. It is a very unique combination but feeling it first-hand was something completely different. It took me to a healing place so I could put myself back together.
I learned that this is the reason we need to breathe well and properly so that our nervous system isn’t kept on high alert. Breathing is one of the core muscles to balance our body. It’s a core stabilisers that’s crucial for your lymphatic and immune systems because the lymphatic system, which is our brain’s drainage doesn't pump like a heart. 60% of the lymphatic nodes rests underneath the diaphragm in our abdomen. So that simple movement of the diaphragm from 25,000 times a day massages our internal organs and lymphatic system.
It also ensures our nervous system isn’t being triggered in fight or flight, which is your autonomic nervous system thinking you’re in physical danger. If your body doesn't have a good way of bringing oxygen into your bloodstream, it is not going to be as effective. Frenetic breathing is the most effective and energy-efficient way of breathing enough air and getting oxygen into your bloodstream, because through diaphragmatic breathing, the lungs can pull in the air into the body. It’s part and parcel of breathing well and efficiently.
- Can you tell me a little about how mindfulness fits with breathwork?
When I was exploring breathwork, I discovered it was only one part of the puzzle. Breathing hacks into your nervous system to change your state of being, but it doesn't help you to resolve what is happening in your mind, why things are triggering you or life events are so heavy on you.
Understanding your mind, managing it, working with it, relating to it is something completely different. And this is what mindfulness and meditation brought to my life. It enabled me to question why I was functioning in a certain way, why I was prone to burnout. So, I started to bring mindfulness and breathwork together, which is quite visionary because breathwork teachers often want to keep it separate because it delivers quick results, and mindfulness teachers want to keep mindfulness and meditation in the purest form.
When I combined them, I had no insomnia, my mood levelled off and I didn't feel anxious. I haven’t had one panic attack from that day onwards. This was nothing short of a miracle, in medical terms. I was able to move to a place where I could go off my meds entirely, and although I don’t necessarily propose everyone tries that, I felt it was transformational. Now I bring my medical knowledge into it to share with others because this is something that we need to shout from the mountaintops.
- Are there simple techniques people could try at home, in moments of panic or stress?
There's, holotropic breathing, rebirthing, coherent breathing, and most breathwork teachers specialise in one, but I think we need to explain to people what breathwork is. I believe you can't solve everyone's problems with one breathwork technique. This is why I spent the last five years training across the board.
At the simplest level, everyone has a different breathing pattern and there are easy practices that tend to be safe for many, like slow breathing techniques, like breath counting. And then you have high paced, fast, more demanding breathing techniques like Wim Hof, the Iceman, transformational breath. In holotropic breathing you almost come to the edges of hyperventilation and that changes your blood chemistry in such a way that you go to an alternate state of consciousness.
I think people just see the titled transformational breath and they think it is going to resolve everything, but we need to know that breathwork is that umbrella term covering the entire range of practice. You need to know your starting point, your medical background, as well as your existing breathing pattern.
I ask clients what they want to achieve and then I can advise whether something is safe. It’s all tailored to you. It is really important to share breathwork that is medically safe, backed by science and tailored to the person.
Of course, there are so many techniques out there that they can do safely. Counting might be one of them, box breathing is something that people use a lot, like a square in 4, 4, 4, 4, but I know that for certain people it can trigger anxiety. The one that I use is like a triangle breath where you inhale, exhale, and then pause, which is the biochemically physiologically driven way to breathe.
Coherent breathing is the most researched breathing practice out there, often called different names like slow breathing or resonant breathing. It simply proposes reducing our breathing rate to between four to 10 breaths per minute. Six breaths tend to be the sweet spot. You can do it in different ways. The ones that I see that suit most of my clients are five to five. You inhale and exhale in equal lengths for five seconds each, through the nose. If you do that three times a day, it’s been shown to reduce cortisol.
- How can people start on their breathwork journey?
Breathing well and properly is the first thing that I teach my clients to help them feel calmer. But it is not about shortcuts. This is giving the people the tools that can help change their lives, their well-being. That is the essence of what I'm trying to do.
There are three things that breathwork covers. The first one was breathing well and efficiently, the second one is being aware of your breath without jumping to techniques on YouTube or Google. Then explore the techniques. Some can help you to sleep better because they induce deep relaxation, others can give you energy or put you in a calmer state. With time you’ll start to feel how to use the techniques. You can take it and make it your own. Even when you don't need it.
Finally, I encourage adding mindfulness and meditation to that mix. Mindfulness is such a buzzword now, and if you have a super active mind, it can be daunting. I’m a Type A, and I just couldn't meditate but mindfulness is a lot more accessible to me than traditional kinds of meditation classes. This is how you can work on the things submerged in your mind, using it with your breath to heal yourself and enjoy your life once again.