Conscious breathing for better sleep and less stress
Phil Simha | Breathing Coach, Clinique La Prairie
BY PETER BOWES | SUNDAY AUGUST 27, 2023
The art of controlled breathing is a powerful tool in the quest to live a longer, healthier life. There is evidence that breath work can help us improve sleep, control physical and mental stress, boost our metabolism and fuel the immune system. Phil Simha is the resident breathing coach at Clinique La Prairie (CLP), the Swiss medical spa that specializes in treatments that nurture our longevity. An experienced free diving instructor and teacher of yoga and pranayama (the practice of breath regulation), Phil believes slower breathing can help us live better while nurturing our healthspan. I met Phil in his studio at CLP to learn more about his passion for improving peoples’ health; his love of life and the planet and the free spirit that propels his journey of discovery around the world.
In this conversation we cover:
- The importance of conscious breathing and its benefits for physical and mental well-being. Breathing is a natural function that we don’t usually think about, but as humans, we have the ability to control our breathing and derive numerous benefits from it.
- The correlation between breathing techniques and longevity. Breathing deeply and slowly improves oxygen delivery to the cells and removes toxins from the body.
- How slow breathing can help slow down the heart rate and induce a state of relaxation, reducing stress and mental agitation.
- The role of breathing in energy production and detoxification.
- Different breathing rates and their impact on health. The ideal breathing rate for optimal health is slower than the average adult rate of 15-20 breaths per minute.
- The distinction between breathing practices and yoga.
- How inhaling through the nose filters and humidifies the air, while exhaling through the nose can further enhance the benefits.
- Techniques for better sleep and stress control through conscious breathing, such as the 4-5-3 breath (inhale 4-5 seconds, hold briefly, exhale 3-4 times) which can be used to quickly fall back asleep during the night.
- The potential impact of breathing practices on overall health and longevity.
- The daily routine and personal practices of the breathing coach. Developing a daily routine of stretching exercises and dedicated breathwork in the morning can set the tone for a calmer and more focused day.
Stills and video courtesy: Phil Simha, Chris Blaser, Roldy Cueto, Franck Seguin
TRANSCRIPT – This conversation with Phil Simha was recorded on April 27, 2023 and transcribed using Sonix AI. Please check against audio recording for absolute accuracy.
Peter Bowes: Phil Simha welcome to the Live Long and Master Aging podcast.
Phil Simha: Thank you Peter. It’s an honor to be here.
Peter Bowes: It’s really good to see you in this beautiful setting. I’m curious, just right at the outset. We all breathe. We all breathe all the time.
Phil Simha: We do.
Peter Bowes: Can we be taught anything about how to do it? Isn’t it part of our instinct?
Phil Simha: It’s a very good question. And it’s really the the starting point of the work that I do here with the guests. Breathing is a totally natural function. It’s something we don’t need to think about. It’s part of the sympathetic nervous system, just like the heart beating or digestion. So usually we don’t have to think about these functions. However, as human beings, we are the only living creatures that have the power to control breathing, take control of it, even voluntarily suspend the breath. And we do have multiple benefits from that in terms of general health and longevity and well-being and energizing. It’s just such a long list of things that we can benefit from when we actually take charge of breathing. So learning to breathe consciously can make a big difference in someone’s life.
Peter Bowes: Well, I want to dive into all of that. Look at the different breathing techniques that you teach. And I use the word dive there. That is what you’ve been doing for much of your career. You’ve been a diver. You’ve been a photographer as well. Just tell me a little bit about yourself. And I’m interested just to know what brought you to this point in your career. What have you done.
Phil Simha: It’s a it’s a long path, a little bit atypical. I started my adult life as a musician. Not such a healthy lifestyle, went back to outdoors and sports created a bungee jumping company that turned out to be quite large. Too much work. I left that went on a trip to Asia. I was attracted to high altitude mountaineering that took place in Nepal. I discovered meditation at the same time there and realized that even though we’re looking at two things that seem extremely opposed, breathing was the key to success in both of these areas. And after some years of that, I moved on to being a professional diver, scuba diver, free diver, underwater photographer for 15 years. And now for the past few years, I’ve dedicated most of my work to breathwork, but actually mostly in the sense that I teach and train people on breath holding, so on free diving.
Peter Bowes: So you’re really a genuine world traveler. Where do you call home?
Phil Simha: I was raised in Geneva, in Switzerland. Originally I’m Greek, so I feel very much at home in any Mediterranean country. And and I think I’ve got different homes around the world. My my dad used to work for the United Nations. He was a major traveler. So I was raised in the spirit that people have all kinds of colors, cultures, languages, religions. And the world is a village, and it’s perfectly okay to just go and live everywhere.
Peter Bowes: And now that we’ve had a little glimpse into your life and you talk about diving, clearly the mastering the art of of breathing clearly is very relevant to that situation. So what brings you here?
Phil Simha: Well, the project started at the end of 2021, actually. Someone who was highly involved in the management of the clinic was one of my students on a free diving workshop. And he was just like really fascinated by the breath work that we did and how we could work on state of deep relaxation. And at the end of the day, he approached me and said. Well, this is what I do for a living, and I’d be really interested to develop a project with you that could bring conscious breathing practices into the environment of the clinic.
Peter Bowes: So where do we start? As I mentioned, breathing is something we all do all of the time, and you’ve given us a little bit of an idea as to why we should perhaps think about it a little more and why it could help us. But for for a novice, for a novice, someone who hasn’t spent a huge amount of time playing around with different breathing techniques, where would you start?
Phil Simha: The first step, I would say, is to make that little switch from breathing is something that we do naturally and spontaneously to, okay, let’s take time to focus on the breath. Let’s develop an awareness, let’s feel the air that we breathe in. Let’s see where we drive in place, this air. Let’s be totally aware of the breath that comes out. Let’s observe these and see how the simple observation of what seems totally natural can actually already induce a major change in the way we feel and in our state of mind. So that’s really the first step is is consciously using the lungs and observing what then happens in the body and the mind.
Peter Bowes: Let’s break it down even further. When we breathe, it’s obvious why we breathe. We need oxygen,
Phil Simha: Absolutely.
Peter Bowes: But physically, what is happening to us?
Phil Simha: Well, as as you just said, oxygen is the number one source of energy for all of our body and brain normal functioning functions. So when we breathe, we have the oxygen, the nitrogen, the nitrogen doesn’t play a big part. It’s essentially a diluent when it comes to what we breathe because we can’t be 100% oxygen all the time. The oxygen is being driven into the lungs from the lungs it’s going to go into the bloodstream and through the bloodstream. it’s going to go into the tissues, into the cells, and in the cells take place what is actually called cellular breathing. So the cells, which are the fundament of our person, are actually essentially feeding on oxygen. And as we use the oxygen, we produce carbon dioxide. And carbon dioxide has to make the way back out of the body. And as it comes out of the body, it’s going to carry a whole lot of toxins that it meets on the way, even fat cells, which is sometimes very surprising for people. And so when we breathe consciously, we improve the quality of oxygen delivery, so we improve the way we feed the cells. And in return, we also each exhale turns into an act of cleansing, detoxing, and not only for the body, because as it is with the concentration on the breath, we’re doing actually the same thing to the brain without noticing it first.
Peter Bowes: And now it’s beginning to come clear to me why breathing and different breathing techniques are so important for for general health today, but also potentially for longevity.
Phil Simha: Yeah, a big part of my background has been the study of yoga and yogic practices because it is definitely one of the cultures where there is a real awareness of the breath from birth. Actually, children are taught to breathe as well in places like India and in yoga we have a saying that is if you breathe as fast as a chicken, you’re going to have a very short lifespan. If you can breathe as slow as a turtle, then you can expect to live for 100 years. So the reasoning behind that is that we have a breathing capital for our lifetime. So the faster you breathe, the sooner you spend the capital. And if you can teach yourself and train yourself to breathe slower through practical exercises, that will in turn actually make you a slower breather throughout the day, then you’re actually gaining on your capital.
Peter Bowes: And is there a wide range of breathing rates amongst people? Is there an optimum breathing rate?
Phil Simha: If we’re looking at the average adult, we are breathing about 15 to 20 times a minute. So that is one breath cycle every 3 to 4 seconds. As soon as we get into conscious breathing and we start observing what we’re doing, we are very likely able to divide that by two. So get down to something like 6 or 7 breaths a minute, which in respect of what we just said means. You’re already making your life longer. And when we turn to deeper breathing and an even stronger awareness, we might go down 2 to 3 breaths a minute. Trained people can actually spend ten minutes breathing once a minute. And we’re not yet talking about breath holding. We are breathing, which is doing it very slowly.
Peter Bowes: That must be a high degree of training to get to that point and obviously not something for your average everyday person.
Phil Simha: I think one of the things that really interesting about it is that many people feel like, Oh, but that’s like that’s out of reach for me. It’s not something it takes years of training sitting in a little cave in the Himalayas or something like that. And actually it’s just like breath hold training. It’s amazing to see that with the real focus and the concentration. Most people are able to achieve amazing results in a very short time.
Peter Bowes: That’s quite extraordinary. Is there a correlation with heart rate? Because I’ve heard the same analogy in terms of those people with a slow heart rate could well live longer. Those with a constant high heart rate perhaps will live a shorter life.
Phil Simha: Yeah, I think there’s a clear correlation because we can observe it as well. If you’re using smartwatches or any other way, you would have to read and observe what your heart rate is doing. When we start being aware of the breath, the first step in the practice that we have is to actually open a little gate into our nervous system. And we’re giving the nervous system the information that you’re not in charge anymore. I’m taking control of my breathing and I voluntarily will slow down my breath. Don’t worry about it. All is fine. And as soon as the process starts taking place, it seems like the whole nervous system is observing it and saying, Oh wow, this feels good. So we don’t need to spend as much as we usually spend in terms of energy. So we can we can lift off the foot and slow down the engine so the heartbeat slows down as well. And because the heart is the engine that drives everything inside of us, the mind will naturally follow and slow down as well.
Peter Bowes: Now, there are in my mind, there are two ways to breathe through my nose or through my mouth. Or both.
Phil Simha: Right.
Peter Bowes: Alternately, perhaps in certain situations, is an either or situation the best scenario or what would you advise people to?
Phil Simha: Our natural breathing organ is the nose. It’s equipped with filters. It hydrates the air that we breathe in. You may with good observation skills of your breathing. You may notice that the air you inhale is always drier than the breath that comes out because the breath has gone through the humidity of the body. And so ideally, we should always inhale through the nose. If it feels more comfortable breathing out through the mouth, that is okay. It won’t make as much as a difference. But if we can also exhale through the nose, it’s actually what the nose was designed from. Really?
Peter Bowes: And that makes sense when you think it takes longer to breathe in through your nose than it does through your mouth. Because clearly there’s that filtering process.
Phil Simha: Right. And which is why we often observe in sports or when you’re, you know, exerting yourself that you might turn to breathing through the mouth simply because you realize that you can get in larger volumes of oxygen with one inhale and expel much more CO2 with with the exhale. So even in sports, like I work with athletes in different kinds of sports and they will actually notice that there is a difference and an improvement also in the cardiac coherence when they at least breathe in through the nose and eventually make the long exhale through the mouth.
Peter Bowes: There’s a technique that I use sometimes I know others do as well when working in the gym, when lifting weights, and it’s getting pretty intense. And that is putting my tongue just behind my lower teeth and breathing in through the mouth. Yeah, that kind of situation. Why does that help?
Phil Simha: It’s going to have an influence on the shape of the soft palate inside the mouth. It’s going to have an influence on the muscles that are connected to the glottis. And these are all the areas that the air actually has to go through to then reach and go into the lungs. So simply because when placing the tongue behind the teeth and you said the lower teeth, I think some people will naturally place it behind the upper teeth. And it’s only when you really observe it that you may notice the difference is probably going to help loosen up the muscles that allow. The breath to circulate into your body. So it just simply makes your. Your breathing easier without you really knowing why. So it’s just a natural response of your body to, Oh, how can I make breathing easier and make it more comfortable?
Peter Bowes: So I’ve been doing some breathing practice with you over the last couple of days. And my first thought when I initially walked into the room, into this room and saw the setup was, Is this going to be yoga? Is this like yoga? Is there, in your mind, a distinct difference between focusing on breathing practice and actually practicing yoga?
Phil Simha: Through my studies in India in particular, one saying kept coming back, which is that yoga without breathing is just gymnastics. So in our side of the world, or generally speaking, the Western world, yoga is very often perceived and used as a physical activity, which is already a really good thing. But if you include the breathwork in the practice of yoga, the asanas, the postures, the whole flow of energy and the whole circulation that we aim at through the poses, it’s going to be multiplied and the benefits are going to be much higher. So I’m sometimes wary of the word yoga in the work that I do in these kinds of environments, because I do not want people to feel like, Oh, if you can’t place your foot behind your head, this is not going to work for you. So I distinguish the two things. However, the yoga is very present in my practice because it’s essentially the fundaments, the observation of the breathing work in the world of yoga, which we actually call Prana Yama. And we can get back to that, which is the fundamental of the work and the the practices that we developed here in the clinic.
Peter Bowes: Because I think it’s the spiritual side of yoga that clearly is very appealing to some people, but it’s also not appealing to others that people have no interest in that side but still want to be as physically healthy as possible.
Phil Simha: Yeah, I think the maybe the word spiritual can lead to some misunderstandings.
Peter Bowes: What’s your understanding?
Phil Simha: Well, if you look at it and feel like you’re looking at the spiritual as part of something religious, that’s fine. But then it it means you have religious conscience and you have a religious practice and maybe then spiritual for you is definitely linked to that. But spiritual essentially means something that has to do with the spirit and the spirit in a neutral way to use the word is basically your mind, what is happening in your head. And actually and you’ve observed yourself with breathwork, we can actually totally change our mindset, influence our state of mind, and even get to the point where we can totally clear the mind and remove all the thoughts that are negative. So in that sense, breathwork is spiritual, but it shouldn’t be connected to any kind of religious activities because it’s just something that’s for human beings, whatever the background.
Peter Bowes: So let’s delve into the techniques a little bit. The very first thing that you do with people and that well, you explain to me what that technique is and, and really, as I’ve experienced, how actually simple and revealing it is, and you see results, if we’re talking results here, what actually happens within seconds, if not minutes?
Phil Simha: Right. The first step of the practice is always to push open this gate into our nervous system. So normal breathing is managed by the sympathetic nervous system. Taking control of the breath means we have to access the parasympathetic nervous system and to push that gate, we have to stimulate the vagus nerve. And there’s a very simple way to do that, which is to drive the breath into the belly. So obviously we’re not breathing with the belly itself, but because air normally goes upwards. Normal breathing happens behind the rib cage just where the diaphragm is leaning. So when we focus and drive the breath into the belly, the lower belly, what we’re actually doing is we’re just slightly readjusting the movements of the diaphragm. So it feels like on each inhale, the belly is inflating and each exhale. … We’re actually pulling the belly back in and in the process, because of the awareness we’re naturally gradually going to reduce the number of breaths were naturally increasing already at this stage, the volumes that we inhale and exhale and we focus on a prolonged exhale because the exhale is the part where we move out the CO2 and all the toxins out of the system.
Peter Bowes: I just want to ask you about that. Delving into the impact on us toxins is a huge one, isn’t it?
Phil Simha: It is. We all have toxins. Whatever the lifestyle, obviously, the healthier the lifestyle may be, the less will be present in the system. But there’s not many ways we can actually reach into the heart of our cells in a totally natural way and, you know, have allow our biology to enter that realm, go inside and say, oh, all this stuff is not good for me. And so when we’re breathing deeper and slower, naturally, the buildup of CO2 will allow us to gather more of these toxins. And with these long exhale, each time we breathe out, it’s an act of cleansing, purification. And so we are factually and it’s measurable. It is measured, removing toxins that way.
Peter Bowes: And there are so many other benefits as well. Energy, more energy. Control of stress. People will go into a situation very stressed out and hopefully walk out of it feeling a little bit more relaxed. And the one that really fascinates me is, is sleep and the benefit of breathing techniques to get to sleep and to stay asleep. You wake up in the middle of the night, there’s there are techniques that you can use to then quickly fall back to sleep.
Phil Simha: Yeah, It’s one of the things that’s also really interesting in developing these techniques in within an environment such as the one we are in here, we actually do have guests coming here for better sleep programs and who have serious issues with that. So when we start working with our guests, we have the feedback from the doctors they have visited with, and we have a good idea of the overall health issues or the sleeping issues. And we tend to realize more and more that stress and mental agitation are usually the main factors that are behind issues and trouble with sleep. And we all know that when sleeping, your brain reaches into the unconscious as well. And so all the mental agitation that is stuck into the brain, even if you’re not totally aware of it, might induce problems with sleeping. And when we use conscious breathing and deep relaxation techniques such as the one we practiced together, then we actually have this capacity to not only totally relax the body, remove lots of the pains and tensions that can be also causes for disturbance during sleep, improve the overall breathing quality before and while falling asleep, which for people who have sleeping apnea might be a reason for not feeling rested after a night and cleansing the mind and kind of making a tabula rasa of all the mess that’s in our brain. When we go to bed through all these micro achievements, all put together means suddenly you can have an amazing night of sleep.
Peter Bowes: In terms of techniques, certainly the one that I’ve adopted and it’s quite commonly used, is waking up in the middle of the night and doing a little breathing exercise, which involves inhaling quite slowly, 4 or 5 seconds, holding my breath for a second or two. Just that little pause that you often talk about and then slowly exhaling 3 or 4 times. And when I started to do that, I thought, This isn’t going to work. I’ll still be awake in five minutes. And then all of a sudden it’s three hours later. Yeah, it’s quite extraordinary. How that. Do you teach that kind of technique?
Phil Simha: Yeah, we use that a lot because once again, pulling into my background in yoga, we have these so called yogic sleep or yoga nidra, which is. kind of a guided meditation where you’re in a totally relaxed state lying on a mat in a position that really favors all muscles, relaxing, all tensions being removed out of the body. And we use the breathing technique to realign the body and the mind. If you have these scenarios where you wake up in the middle of the night, there can be different reasons for that. It could be a physical pain. It could be the mental agitation that your subconscious is suddenly bringing up into the active part of your brain and you’re not really sure why. And it might cause some kind of distress, and eventually you end up staring at the ceiling through the night. But if we go back to using the breathing techniques and again, we take charge, slow down everything in our body and using the techniques of the yoga nidra the yogic sleep, we can actually observe the body step by step, make sure that each part of the body is deeply, profoundly relaxed. Remove any pain or any tension that could be there. And while doing that, at the same time, we’re also removing the toxic thoughts from the brain. So without realizing basically you just go back to sleep and as you said, you’re like, oh, wow, you think that you wake up five minutes later, but when you look at the clock, it’s like, oh my gosh. Or it’s just the clock ringing that wakes you up and you can be suddenly very surprised that you’ve spent that many hours sleeping again. Because when using these techniques, when we actually practice it as a kind of a guided meditation, in 10 to 15 minutes, we can provide the body and the mind the equivalent of 3 to 4 hours of deep sleep. So it interconnects in in the application.
Peter Bowes: A really powerful tool.
Peter Bowes: It is.
Phil Simha: Phil, let me ask you about your daily regime, how you use all the knowledge that you have, all the knowledge that you’ve gleaned from your diving career, from your photography career, and now here teaching breathing techniques. Do you have a daily routine that is focused on your own personal health and potentially longevity?
Phil Simha: Definitely do. First of all, because I love life and I think there are so many things to be experienced in it that I feel like the longer, the better. I can’t say what I’ll be doing in ten years from now. All I know is that being physically and mentally fit will contribute to my freedom as I age. So I really cherish that. And for a long time, while I was a very dedicated student, I said, Well, I will not turn this into a job like I’ve done with all my other passions in life. It just happened by itself. And I think sometimes the danger with that is that because you turn a passion into a professional activity, you might deviate from your own practice. So what I’ve learned with time and I always tell my guests and my students is if you have two hours for your practice, do two hours. But if you have only 15 minutes, at least do something with these 15 minutes. So waking up for me involves a routine with hot water and lemon, then obviously emptying the bowels because we need to be comfortable to work on breathing. And then if I don’t have more than that available, the first 15 minutes of my morning will be dedicated to specific stretching exercises that are designed to open up the rib cage, create space in the lungs, and then 15 to 20 minutes at least will be dedicated solely to breathwork and needless to say, to me, it’s a very, very important part of it. There is no way the phone should be turned on before doing that because that is one of the major causes of agitation. And if you start the day with a mental agitation is likely that you spend the day with a mental agitation. Whereas if you dedicate these few moments to yourself and to your calm and to your peace of mind in the morning, when you turn on to the real world, everything is going to be it’s much easier, it’s much smoother. And I’m not affected by stress as much as I’m usually. So right away you get benefits that you can experience throughout the day. And then in terms of long life as well.
Peter Bowes: And does that phone rule apply to later in the day as well, especially just before you go to bed?
Phil Simha: Totally. Actually, I very often joke about it in this environment. In other environments, when I ask people to leave the phone out, sometimes it seems to be very disturbing. And so I just demonstrate, you know, this this little thing that, look, you know, when you when you pull down on the screen, you can push that little plane button and you activate the airplane mode of your phone. You’re not switching it off. You’re just disconnecting. And I say that what we do with breathwork is a way to activate the airplane mode of the brain. And so definitely the phone is not a friend that should be taken to bed. Definitely not.
Peter Bowes: And what is your you say you don’t know what you’re going to be doing in ten years time. Do you have longevity aspirations? Do you think about the decades ahead and perhaps what you might like to do?
Phil Simha: Yeah, it’s going slightly, maybe out of the scope of this conversation, but I’m totally convinced. I think it’s been a quest in my life that the body and the mind are an ecosystem and we have to interact with the world, which is an ecosystem. So I think the more I age or the more I go forward in life, the more I feel concerned with how can I help the world live longer so that I can also have a higher life quality for all the years to come? Because I expect to be around for decades. And I’d like that to happen in a world where I can breathe fresh air, where I can see the fish and the coral in the ocean, where I can still find snow on the mountains that I like to climb. And so this is probably the way I’m moving forward now is always increasing the awareness of the deep interaction between the ecosystem that we are and the natural world that we have to live in.
Peter Bowes: Phil it’s been a great pleasure meeting you. Great pleasure talking to you as well.
Phil Simha: Thank you very much, Peter.
Peter Bowes: Thank you so much.
The Live Long and Master Aging (LLAMA) podcast, a HealthSpan Media LLC production, shares ideas but does not offer medical advice. If you have health concerns of any kind, or you are considering adopting a new diet or exercise regime, you should consult your doctor.