NEW YORK—Many of us understand that diet can affect our health, but there is something we need even more than food or water: air. And our breathing doesn’t always work as it should.
“Breathing is a behavioral habit,” said breath expert Nevsah Fidan Karamehmet. Unfortunately, “it can be a dysfunctional habit.”
Many people are not getting air in the right amounts because of dysfunctional breathing habits, and sometimes the solution offered—breathing techniques—actually poses risks to our health.
Proper breath fuels the mind and body. Learning a breathing technique sounds like a simple, safe solution to increase our productivity and focus, but “doing a specific technique is not a solution,” Karamehmet said.
Karamehmet studied with top breath experts around the world and discovered that while breathwork is a technique that can help alleviate the discomfort, it does not solve the underlying problem.
The deeper into breath Karamehmet worked, the more she realized that “everything that is a technique is a wrong attitude.”
Some breathing techniques can even keep people sick. Breathing needs to be “natural not manipulated,” she said.
“It’s a brain-stem reflex, and the more you surrender, the more you let go, the better you breathe,” she said.
Breathing Is Not Respiration
The key to understanding our breath, Karamehmet explains, is knowing that breathing and respiration are not the same; the breath can alter the mind (our psychology), but a breathing pattern is a behavior that is learned—and can be unlearned. Breathing techniques can alter our respiratory chemistry and affect our mind and emotions.
And because everyone is so different physiologically and psychologically, there is no one breath that fits all.
Karamehmet discovered the benchmark for a normal breath of six breaths per minute may be normal for some, but could send others into a state of hypocapnia, in which carbon dioxide levels in the blood are reduced.
Hypocapnia can bring about hundreds of ailments, says Karamehmet, and occurs when carbon dioxide decreases in the lungs and in the arterial blood, changing the pH. When the pH rises above 7.45, the body becomes more alkaline, entering respiratory alkalosis, which can then cause panic, breathlessness, dizziness, confusion, and even muscle spasms.
Those symptoms are often treated with breathing techniques, but that’s a short-term solution that won’t solve the root issues that caused the symptom.
Karamehmet saw that as the pH rose, so did the negative emotions and thoughts of her clients.
Treating breath with a technique is a bit like treating our coughing, spluttering car by varying pressure on the gas pedal. It may help at that moment, but in the long term, it makes sense to look at the engine.
The Fast City Breath
Sometimes the way we breathe is a product of our environment or an adaption to it, says Karamehmet.
“[In] crowded, big cities where people have to be in a rush all the time, people have more fast and shallow breathing,” she said.
Karamehmet believes that fast, shallow breathing pattern can suppress emotions and self-awareness.
“The moment they change their breathing habit, all the emotions they kept suppressed rise up,” said Karamehmet.
Fast breathing, slow breathing, shallow breathing, diaphragmatic breathing, and chest breathing can all be dysfunctional breathing habits that start as early as age 3.
“Life gets intense, and we get overwhelmed when we are children and start to manipulate our breath,” she said. The disordered breathing becomes a way to cope with our feelings.
Over 20 years of working with breath and seeing thousands of clients, Karamehmet has found that fixing this dysfunctional coping mechanism can ease health issues that arise later. Restoring natural breathing can also help restore focus and energy.
While we cannot say all diseases are caused by dysfunctional breathing habits, if you have a symptom that is triggered by a dysfunctional habit, then working on it and learning a functional habit can relieve that symptom, and, in turn, the ailment will be gone, says Karamehet.
This discovery often surprises doctors and health professionals Karamehmet meets as she lectures throughout Europe. Many express surprise at missing the connection.
Karamehmet’s four-pronged approach to restoring natural breath differs from breathwork techniques, in that it combines breath coaching, breath exercise, behavioral science, and coaching.
First, the breathing coach works at getting you into your dysfunctional breathing habit and coaches you to become aware of it.
Karamehmet does this by hooking clients up to a capnograph, a machine that shows carbon dioxide levels. It’s valuable to see the precise point of dysfunctional breathing, which can reveal a correlation with negative thoughts, emotions, or tiredness. Clients can see how the breathing habit stresses their physiology in real time.
As dysfunctional breathing takes hold, focus is lost. Getting tired is not the reason you’re not focused, says Karamehmet, but rather the breathing habit that gets triggered when you are tired leads you to lose focus. The moment you realize you are doing something with your breath, you can change it.
Karamehet says a typical coaching session may go like this, after putting a client into their dysfunctional breathing habit:
Client: “I remember going to catch a bus when I was young, and I was really breathing fast, and I was feeling anxious.”
Karamehet: “Just like in this session?”
Client: “Yes. Every time I feel anxious, my fast breathing starts.”
Karamehet: “When does that breathing happen during the day?”
Client: “In meetings, when I feel anxious.”
Karamehet: “Do you realize you feel anxious like that not because you are in a meeting, but because of what you’re doing with your breath?”
The breathing habit that comes about at such a moment unsettles the body and leads to anxiety, Karamehet says.
To correct our breath may seem beyond our ability and unnatural, but Karamehmet says that with her method, clients learn to control breath and be aware of it to such an extent they can start breathing correctly and attain better health.
A decade from now, Karamehmet hopes to have a breath coach in every hospital. She’s already founded the Breath Coaching Federation, a professional organization for breath coaches. For now, she’s in New York and on a mission to help us breathe right, and get better.
For more information, including upcoming workshops with Nevsah Fidan Karamehmet in New York, visit BreathCoachingFederation.org