A smiling Sophie Hellyer stood on the edge of a rock pool wearing a dryrobe, with the sea behind her

Blog - What is breathwork and how can it transform your health and wellbeing? With Sophie Hellyer

What is breathwork and how can it transform your health and wellbeing? With Sophie Hellyer

5 Minuten Lesezeit

Breathing is something we do every day yet most of the time we’re unaware that we’re even doing it.

At rest, the normal breathing rate according to the NHS is between 12-16 breaths per minute. Not only is breathing imperative for us to survive but practicing certain techniques can affect how we’re feeling. For example, it can help to relieve stress and improve feelings of relaxation.

Surfer, Rise Fierce founder, environmental advocate, and dryrobe® Ambassador Sophie Hellyer has recently qualified as a breathwork coach. She shares her insightful journey of realisation on the power of breathwork and offers advice on how to practice it.

Twenty years ago I woke up and felt like I couldn’t breathe.

Every breath caused me excruciating pain and my chest movement was completely restricted.

Nothing abnormal had happened beforehand: I’d gone for a surf the previous day at my local spot in Westward Ho!, North Devon, then went straight to my evening shift at a little restaurant by the beach, before going to bed feeling well.

Yet I spent the next month in hospital, missed my A-Levels and my school prom, lost two stone in weight in two weeks, and ended up having a life-saving lung procedure to drain my lungs. Doctors said I had a nasty case of pneumonia, pleurisy, and empyema, and my left lung was basically solid with pus.

Why? It all went back to that fun little surf when I had apparently inhaled some sewage after falling off a wave.

Since then, I’ve valued my health immensely and I've realised that functional breathing is a fundamental element of that. Mindful breathing is also really important when pursuing a passion for cold-water swimming. It has so many scientifically proven benefits that it seems crazy not to learn and embrace it.

In fact, I recently qualified as a breathwork coach and I now help people to understand and improve their own breathing. Ironically, last month I found myself back in a hospital bed, struggling to breathe again, with another dose of nasty pneumonia. There was no sewage to blame this time, just a nasty virus. As I’m healing, I want to shout from the rooftops more than ever about the power of breathwork.

“Breathwork”

I use the term breathwork as an umbrella term for any time you consciously take control of your breath in order to shift your physiology or state of mind. For cold-water swimming, I use breathwork to relax the mind and calm the nervous system.

I’ve now started to use these same techniques to unwind throughout the day, or when I wake in the middle of the night (hello toddler!).

By understanding our own breathing patterns, we can manage our health and well-being much better. The best thing about it is, that you already have all the tools you need – it's completely free, no new yoga mat or gym kit – and you can do it on your own, almost anywhere you go. 

The basic science is fairly simple: the rhythm, rate, and depth of our breath are constantly sending signals to our brain and nervous system

As you breathe in, the heart rate goes up; as you breathe out, the heart rate slows down

By breathing deeply and slowly and by extending your exhalations, you can slow your heart rate down (and your mind too). This activates the parasympathetic branch of our nervous system (a.k.a. "rest and digest"), bringing us into a more relaxed state. In a world where most of us are chronically stressed, learning how to consciously unwind through breathwork is a pretty good skill.

The Practice

Find a comfortable position and just take a moment to become aware of your breathing. Is it fast or slow? Is your chest rising or your belly? Don’t judge yourself, just observe.

Our breath can tell us so much about how we feel in the moment, and becoming aware of the breath is the first step in adjusting it.

Then take three deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth – this should help to release any tension and prepare you for the first round of breathwork.

Now start by placing your hands on either side of your body, on your lower ribs, notice the space between your ribs widening and contracting as you breathe in and out. You want to breathe slowly and softly. With each inhalation, take the air deep into the belly and pay attention to the ribs expanding.


My favourite breathing ratio is 4:6. This means that you should breathe in through the nose for a count of four seconds, and breathe out through the nose for a count of six seconds. Doing so reduces your breathing rate to six breaths per minute– that's nice and slow, and hopefully very relaxing for your nervous system. Continue this for a couple of minutes until you feel calmer.

If you find that comfortable and if you have no medical conditions that would inhibit it, you could try a more advanced 4:7:8 breathing pattern: breathe in the nose for four seconds, hold your breath for seven seconds, and then slowly exhale for eight seconds. This pattern should help you to slow your heart rate and activate your parasympathetic nervous system.

Remember, our breath is one of the most accessible and powerful tools we have at our disposal to transform our physical and emotional state.

So breathe deep, go slow and relax!


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