Congested People Want To Know: Can You Do Breathwork With Allergies?

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The other night, I was struggling to quiet my mind before bed and thought a breathwork exercise would help. I lit a candle and some incense, put a pillow on the back of my desk chair, and flipped through the pages of Ashley Neese's new book, How To Breathe for inspiration and guidance on technique. The stage was set; I was ready for a wave of release and relaxation. But alas, my allergies had other plans.

Like 36 million others across the U.S., the moment spring hits I start to suffer from congestion, watery eyes, and a runny nose. I've had seasonal allergies for as long as I can remember, and they've become easy enough to accept as part of daily life—except, that is, when I'm trying to do an exercise like breathwork that is entirely dependent on the openness of my nasal passages.

Frustrated, stuffy, and still very much monkey minded, I reached out to Neese and Gwen Dittmar, another breathwork teacher, for advice on how to reap the benefits of the breath when it's difficult to, well, breathe.

Are there any types of breathwork that is easier to do when congested?

"I typically suggest not doing any breathwork that activates the sympathetic nervous system while congested," Neese advises. "Steer away from fast-paced, intense practices that take up too much of your energy until the congestion has cleared." That makes intense, heat-promoting series like the breath of fire off-limits, but more relaxing ones fair game.

"Breathing practices that engage with the parasympathetic system are great when congested, depending on how stuffy you are," Neese explains. This includes alternate-nostril breathing, or taking deep breaths through one nostril at a time, and exhaling through the other. "Note, if you can only breathe out of one nostril you can simply practice slowly inhaling and exhaling through that nostril for a couple minutes to bring your nervous system into a regulated state."

Dittmar adds that breathing through the mouth can be more comfortable for people with congestion and recommends this three-part routine from her teacher David Elliot: "You breathe into the belly, then chest, and then exhale. One inhale, one inhale, and an exhale. You should do it kind of rapidly, but it doesn't have to be ridiculously fast. Do it for three to seven minutes."

Both practitioners believe that breathwork can actually help relieve symptoms of allergies or the common cold when done correctly. "I find it so helpful when I'm sick," says Dittmar. "Usually after the breathwork, either the cold is gone or it's dissipated." In addition to lowering cortisol levels and regulating blood pressure, diaphragmatic breathing has indeed been shown to increase respiratory capacity in clinical studies.

Anything else for us stuffy folks to keep in mind?

Before getting started with you alternate-nostril or belly breath, Neese recommends using a neti pot to flush out your sinuses and says to practice sitting up to relieve pressure in your head. "It is possible to still receive the benefits of practice while congested," she affirms. "Just be prepared for it feeling very different. And go very slowly!"

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