A Breathwork Practice to Fight Negative Thinking
A Breathwork Practice to
Fight Negative Thinking
At twenty-one, Ashley Neese was in rehab. Her twelve-step sponsor recommended a yoga class. And that’s how Neese found herself on her back in savasana. She was slowing her exhales to the teacher’s guided instructions when she felt something. “It was the first time I can recall that I ever sensed a feeling of safety in my body,” she says. “I could just be with myself.”
Neese got sober, yes, and she also took on an entirely different outlook on life. It wasn’t asanas themselves, she says, that helped her find peace of mind during those first years in recovery; it was specific, mindful attention to breath.
Now Neese is a breathwork practitioner, guiding clients through one-on-one sessions that start with simple attention to breath and extend into somatic meditation and spiritual exploration. There’s a waitlist for individual sessions, but Neese occasionally hosts immersive retreats for larger groups (which are thoughtful, beautiful, worth it). And then there’s the thing we’ve been waiting for: her first book. How to Breathe is as pretty as it is practical. It walks you through mindful breathing practices for universal experiences, from healing pain and restoring sleep to gaining clarity and connecting with loved ones.
Ultimately, Neese’s message is this: Breath is the bedrock of well-being. It can be a gentle way to dip your toe into wellness or a powerful addition to an already robust routine. And here’s what we love: There are no special props or outfits or studios; once you learn how to do it, you have everything you need, wherever and however you may be.
A Q&A with Ashley Neese
A general rule of thumb is that humans can go for about three weeks without food, three days without water, and three minutes without oxygen. Not only is our breath essential to keeping us alive; it is also a key practice for modern-day wellness. Breathwork is beneficial to our overall health, resilience, and personal and collective growth.
Our breath is dynamic; it can be performed completely involuntarily or voluntarily, unconsciously or consciously. One of the greatest gifts a breathwork practice offers—through the simple but powerful act of awareness—is the ability to change the state of our mind and body through the way we breathe.
Take a moment to notice how you are breathing right now. Where do you feel the breath in your body? What qualities are you aware of in your breath? Does it feel relaxed or slow? Does it feel fast or shallow? Spend a few more moments noticing your breath without trying to change it.
If you’re new to breathwork, this simple invitation to notice how you’re breathing in the moment is an essential lesson. Just by placing gentle awareness on the breath, it will begin to shift and slow on its own. Every time I teach a new student, I always hear that the first few moments of this breath inquiry are surprising. Because most of our breathing is involuntary and unconscious, it’s easy to be unaware of how it’s happening.
Once you begin a practice of breathwork or mindful breathing, you will find yourself noticing the ways you involuntarily breathe throughout the day. This awareness is key to being able to change your breath—and change the state of your mind and body—when you want to.
Paying attention to the way our breath and nervous system influence each other is especially important in modern life, where, often, internal and external stressors are constant. The way we breathe can reinforce physical feelings of stress or ease in our system. Anxiety cannot live in the body if you consciously slow down your breathing—your exhalations in particular—because anxiety generally requires cycles of fast, shallow breaths.
Here’s how it works: When we are in a state of stress or a state of relaxation, our breath responds accordingly. In a sympathetic nervous system state (fight-or-flight), the breath is rapid, shallow, and short, and there can be a pattern of breath holding. When we are in a parasympathetic nervous system state (rest-and-digest), the breath is slower, longer, deeper, and more regulated.
The breath directly influences these nervous system states. For example, if you are stressed about an upcoming deadline at work, your breath will reflect that sympathetic state; the more you think about the stress, the more your breath will contract, becoming shallow, short, and rapid. Your heart and lungs, in turn, send a message to your brain that the stress is still there, which perpetuates those physical responses and keeps you in that stress-response loop.
However, if in that state of stress, you bring awareness to your breath and begin to slow it down for a few cycles, your body will shift into a parasympathetic state: Your respiration and heart rate will slow. In this state, your heart and lungs send a message to your brain that things are calm and peaceful, even when the stressful situation you’re facing—in this case, your work deadline—hasn’t changed.
Neuroscience is confirming what yogis and mystics have known for thousands of years: Our breath and our ability to regulate emotions are inextricably linked. One study from 2002 shows that different emotional states are directly related to the breath. In this study, participants were instructed to create feelings of joy, anger, fear, or sadness and then report the breathing pattern associated with that particular emotion. The research team discovered that each emotional state corresponded with a specific breathing pattern. For example, when the subjects felt afraid, their breath was fast and shallow, and when they felt joy, it was full and slower. Then, when the participants were instructed to breathe in a certain way, the corresponding feelings resurfaced.
In my practice, I’ve found that habits of suppressing difficult emotions correlate with breathing patterns that are restricted and tight. On the other hand, a more spacious and fluid pattern of breath corresponds with openness and ease in the body and feelings of contentment and confident self-expression.
A BREATHWORK EXERCISE TO STOP NEGATIVE THINKING
This is a practical tool for when you’re caught in a mental loop and can’t stop ruminating. This practice is effective because it breaks the negative thought cycle and, over time, forges new pathways to help you think more clearly.
Throughout history, breath has often been associated with the idea of a life force or spirit. This connection is apparent in many parts of the world, across many cultures and disciplines. The Greek word “psyche” can be translated as life or breath. The Latin word “spiritus” means breath. The Sanskrit word “pranayama” comes from the words “prana” (life energy) and “ayama” (to extend or draw out).
Practicing breathwork is inherently spiritual; when you cultivate a relationship with your breath, you simultaneously cultivate a relationship with your spirit. They are one and the same. Your spirit is your breath, and your breath is your spirit.
Every time you bring awareness to your breath, you are learning to become present and grounded in your body. Being embodied in this way is essential to spiritual development. When we learn to inhabit our bodies with gentleness, attunement, and compassion, we are able to access connection with ourselves, others, and our sense of purpose.
The world needs embodied leadership, and learning to be at home and at peace in our bodies is how we get there. In a culture where we are constantly bombarded with messages that we are projects that need fixing and upgrading, cultivating a breathwork practice is an act of radical self-care. It helps us quit fighting ourselves. And it teaches us to tend to our bodies and minds with care and love.
Ashley Neese is a breathwork expert with private practices in LA and the Bay Area. She hosts digital workshops, one-on-one sessions, and annual retreats in California. She recently released her first book, How to Breathe. She also holds an MFA in socially engaged art.
This article is for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The views expressed in this article are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.