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Essential Oils to Improve Breathwork

By Jodi Cohen

Breathwork – or diaphragmatic breathing – is a powerful tool for calming the body and mind and sending safety cues to your nervous system to help activate the parasympathetic nervous system.

Your breath feeds and cleans your cells and supports efficient tissue repair. Supporting healthy breathing can also help to release tension, alleviate anxiety, and boost mood. When you are afraid, your first reaction is to hold your breath – which can increase feelings of anxiety, rachet up your body’s stress response, and interfere with healthy sleep patterns.

Essential oils can be inhaled in conjunction with breathwork to help enhance relaxation, and improve oxygen absorption and signal the body to inhale more deeply.

Breathwork is a mindfulness practice that involves intentionally changing breathing patterns to improve physical, mental, and emotional health. 

Your breath carries nourishing oxygen into your body with each inhale and releases toxins and stress with each exhale. 

When you are physically or emotionally stressed, your breath may become fast and shallow. This limits the oxygen entering your bloodstream. Your brain tells your body that there is a threat, and your body responds in fight or flight.

When you take time to slow down your breathing and intentionally extend your inhales and exhales, it stimulates your vagus nerve and sends cues of safety to your body and your brain that it is safe to relax. The fight or flight response decreases, and your body can begin to function normally again.

When you practice slow breathing, you build up more carbon dioxide in your bloodstream. With more CO2 present, your vagus nerve activates a cardio-inhibitory response that then stimulates the parasympathetic system, producing a relaxing sensation throughout your body.

Breathwork is believed to help:

  • Activate your parasympathetic “rest & digest” nervous system
  • Elevate your mood
  • Alleviate anxiety
  • Reduce inflammation
  • Deepen relaxation
  • Boost energy
  • Enhance focus and memory
  • Improve circulation and blood flow 
  • Alkalize blood PH
  • Decrease high blood pressure
  • Improve organ function
  • Optimize cellular detoxification
  • Enhance emotional regulation
  • Regulate your nervous system
  • Strengthen the diaphragm
  • Alleviate aches and pains

What’s more, a better oxygen supply significantly improves the quality of your blood. The more life-enhancing oxygen that is in the blood, the more energy you have, and the better your body functions. Deep breathing also improves the blood flow to your muscles, thus increasing physical strength, stamina, and drive.

The healing constituents of essential oils can help open airways to allow oxygen to flow more freely through the respiratory system which can be helpful for deep breathing techniques. 

Another advantage of using essential oils is their calming and grounding properties which allow you to drop into and feel more present in your body so you can focus fully on breathing. 

Essential oils, with their natural anti-inflammatory and decongestant properties, can help support your nasal passageways and improve your capacity to assimilate oxygen through the nostrils.

Essential oils, like eucalyptus, possess natural expectorant qualities that help to clear mucus from your respiratory tract. They work by lubricating your airway, which loosens up mucus and makes it thinner. This can alleviate nasal and chest congestion that may obstruct airways.

Adding essential oils to your breathwork ritual can be used simultaneously to help you increase your energy, lift your mood, breathe better, ease your mind, induce healing, and ground you. 

Essential oils may also help release your diaphragm by relaxing the smooth muscles with additional blood flow. Plant compounds, including the highly concentrated essence of plants found in essential oils, have been shown to help the veins contract, stimulating blood flow.

Breathing is in charge of cleansing as much as 70% of the toxins from your body with the release of carbon dioxide as you exhale. It basically helps the lymphatic system detoxify the body. And by improving blood oxygenation to allow more efficient absorption of essential nutrients and vitamins, deep breathing also protects the body from bacteria, viruses, and other illnesses.

Your diaphragm – a large, dome-shaped muscle located at the base of the lungs – is your main breathing muscle. It helps feed every cell with oxygen.

Your diaphragm is also one of the main respiratory pumps for your lymphatic system.

When you inhale, your diaphragm contracts and flattens and your chest cavity enlarges. This contraction creates a vacuum, which pulls air into the lungs. When you exhale, your diaphragm relaxes and returns to its domelike shape, and the air is forced out of your lungs.

Diaphragmatic breathing helps you consciously engage your abdominal muscles to help move your diaphragm, and give you more power to take deep breaths and empty your lungs.

When you breathe normally, you don’t use your lungs to their full capacity. Diaphragmatic breathing allows you to use your lungs at 100% capacity to increase lung efficiency.

You might think of your diaphragm as the engine for your breath – the large, strong core muscle in the center of your torso that moves all the time as you breathe. Picture an open umbrella below your stomach attaching to the bottom of the ribs all the way round. When you inhale, your diaphragm moves out and downwards, just like an umbrella opens and gets bigger, which pulls your breath in. When you exhale, your diaphragm moves in and upwards, like an umbrella slightly closing and moving up, which forces your breath out again.

If your diaphragm is tense it will stay pulled up, tight, and closed which restricts your breathing making it hard to get a deep breath in. When your diaphragm is tense and tight this will lead to tension in the stomach which is right beside it.

In addition to enhancing physical flexibility and respiratory movement, your diaphragm enables emotional flexibility. Breath is correlated to your ability to activate your parasympathetic nervous system and adapt. The act of breathing helps support your physical and emotional resilience, both by delivering nutrient-rich oxygen to the cells and expelling waste, but also by helping to stimulate the vagus nerve which innervates the diaphragm.

Releasing your diaphragm may help “contribute to the transformation of physical and emotional habit patterns; which, although protective, may be limiting,” according to a study on The Role of the Diaphragm in Self-Awareness and Transformation. The study found that “facilitating the release of the diaphragm helped to free the natural breath. A released diaphragm indicates an inner sense of safety and increased relaxation and contributes to the transformation of physical and emotional habit patterns, which, although protective, may be limiting our full potential.” The study also found that the “pattern of our breathing is also influenced by the emotional centers located in the brain’s limbic system. The emotional pathway connects with the respiratory control center in the brain stem and travels through the phrenic nerves to the diaphragm.”

In addition to helping you breathe, your diaphragm increases pressure inside your abdomen, which helps move blood and lymphatic fluid, improving digestive, renal, adrenal, liver, uterine, ovarian, pelvic floor, bowel, and bladder function. When your diaphragm is relaxed and moving freely, it works harmoniously with the respiratory system and nervous system, helping to improve sleep, reduce stress, enhance concentration and improve digestion.

Inhaling specific essential oil blends in conjunction with your breath work practice can further enhance results. The natural expectorant properties of many essential oils can help open up airways to allow increased oxygen intake and lung efficiency.

Consider including the following essential oil blends in your breathwork practice:

Breathe™ blend contains oils with expectorant properties that can help open your airways. Expectorants help expel mucus from your body and support your respiratory detoxification. In particular, eucalyptus oil possesses potent antibacterial, antiseptic, expectorant, and decongestant that can help clean and strengthen the lungs. 

Peppermint™ essential oil possesses expectorant qualities that may help support upper-respiratory congestion, caused by asthma, bronchitis, allergies, cold, or flu.

Eucalyptus radiata can be used on its own or as part of Breathe™ blend to help soothe inflammation in the lungs and calm bronchial spasms that can result in coughing fits. Since eucalyptus oil can be “hot,” meaning it can cause a hot or warming sensation when applied to the skin, including causing the skin to turn red, I recommend you dilute more aggressively with a carrier oil.

Formulated to support healthy circulation to deliver oxygen and nutrient-rich blood to the body and the brain, while simultaneously carrying toxins and waste to the kidney and liver to be eliminated. 

Circulation includes Cypress essential oil, which gives energy to improve circulation and brings energy to the diaphragm to support the release of constriction and tension. Cypress creates flexibility and supports letting go of stagnant energies to help you release the past. Cypress essential oil is especially helpful when you are feeling mentally or emotionally stuck, stiff, rigid, or tense or feel the need to control or force things in life, rather than allowing them to unfold naturally. Cypress encourages us to cast aside our worries and let go of control so we can experience trust in the flow of life. Just smelling Cypress can help create a feeling of security and grounding to help enhance emotional flexibility.

On the physical level, Cypress oil is known to clear up congestion and eliminate phlegm that builds up in the respiratory tract and lungs. The oil calms the respiratory system and works as an antispasmodic agent. Essential oils, like Cypress, can be warming in nature which helps them enhance blood flow and improve circulation by relaxing the blood vessels and supporting the health of the blood vessels.

The Circulation™ blend contains a proprietary formulation of organic and/or wild-crafted essential oils that work synergistically to support healthy circulation and blood flow to the body and the brain.

All of the diaphragm muscle is fascia. Fascia Release™ is formulated with Lavender oil which is known for its calming and soothing effects. Lavender is known to help relieve muscle tension and promote relaxation, which can indirectly support flexibility. Cypress allows for improved flexibility and resilience. Frankincense™ helps calm your nervous system and supports mental flexibility. Black pepper and Rosemary oil are stimulating and invigorating which may help improve circulation and alleviate muscle tension, which can support flexibility.

Your diaphragm is one of our main respiratory pumps for the lymphoid system and diaphragmatic breathing has a vital role in the lymphatic system. Since Lymph nodes do not have their own muscular layer, they must rely on pressure changes to empty their contents. Diaphragmic breathing helps change the intra-abdominal pressure, which causes a “wringing” effect on the lymph nodes, which stimulates flow. You can enhance this flow by topically applying Lymph™ blend. To enhance lymphatic flow and drainage, liberally apply 2 to 3 drops of Lymph™ over the lymphatic organs and key lymph nodes located under the arms, over the diaphragm, and around the inguinal ligament (bikini line area – think where your leg creases when you lift it) to ensure optimal drainage and health.

The vagus nerve passes right through the diaphragm, so when you are stimulating the diaphragm, you are also stimulating the vagus nerve. You can also stimulate the vagus nerve by topically applying Parasympathetic® essential oil on the vagus nerve behind the mastoid bone to stimulate and release the diaphragm.

You can combine the topical application of Parasympathetic® with Vagal Toning BreathConsider this breathing technique when you are feeling anxious, angry, afraid, or easily irritated or annoyed. Simply place your hands gently over your belly, inhale into your lower abdomen, exhale slowly, and say in a low vibratory tone “vooooo” which cues long exhales. Repeat for 1-2 min. 

You can apply oils over the diaphragm or inhale directly from the bottle and practice the following diaphragmatic breathing exercises:

  1. Sit comfortably in a chair, with your knees bent and your shoulders, head, and neck relaxed.
  2. Place one hand on your upper chest and the other just below your rib cage. This will allow you to feel your diaphragm move as you breathe.
  3. Breathe in slowly through your nose so that your stomach moves out against your hand. The hand on your upper chest should remain as still as possible.
  4. Tighten your stomach muscles, so that your stomach moves back in, as you exhale through pursed lips. The hand on your upper chest must remain as still as possible.

About The Author

Jodi Cohen

Jodi Sternoff Cohen is the founder of Vibrant Blue Oils. An author, speaker, nutritional therapist, and a leading international authority on essential oils, Jodi has helped over 50,000 individuals support their health with essential oils.