We all do it, every day, throughout our lives. About 10 to 15 times per minute. We breathe. It’s one of those things that happens almost unnoticed, that our body does for us without us having to think much about it. We breathe in automatically and breathe out automatically, thereby supplying our body with oxygen. We rely on the fact that our organism already knows what to do. According to Timo Niessner, we sometimes miss the possibilities that our breathing still has to offer.

The Wahl-Grazer is a breathwork trainer and helps people find their way back to natural breathing – and achieve their goals with targeted breathing exercises. In an interview with Stern, he explains which areas our breathing influences, why most of us have forgotten how to breathe naturally and why breathing deeply isn’t necessarily the best idea when we’re stressed.

Mr. Niessner, you teach people how to breathe properly. Theoretically, we do this automatically throughout our lives. Can so much really go wrong that a trainer is needed? As long as we breathe, we live. And when we stop breathing, our life ends too. Our breathing is therefore something fundamental; it influences many areas of our mental and physical state. For me, breathing is also something like the key to another world because – when used correctly – it can also provide access to our subconscious.

In what way? Our breathing is directly linked to our autonomic nervous system. We can use that. Although we can’t easily lower our heart rate immediately, our breathing allows us to do so step by step. This makes it an enormously valuable tool.

When can we still use the breathing tool? Let’s say I’m nervous about our conversation and don’t want you to see me nervous. Then I can regulate my body by consciously breathing in and out. All I need to do is close my eyes, breathe into my stomach instead of my chest and thereby slow down my breathing. This automatically calms my nervous system.

Nervous system, heart rate – which areas of our body/being does breathing affect? How much time do we have? We can change everything from our sexual activity to circulatory problems to better concentration through targeted breathing exercises. There are even new studies that show that low-frequency breathing can influence whether or not we develop Alzheimer’s later in life. We can achieve a lot with the right breathing exercises.

Let’s imagine if I wanted to change my breathing, when could I expect the first effects? We can try that. How are you breathing right now?

Um…normal? Right now you have already changed your breathing, do you notice that?

That’s right, I adjust the length and depth of inhalation and exhalation. Exactly. Once we pay attention to how we breathe, we breathe differently, pay more attention to good balance, and become more aware of the process. This means that every thought, feeling and action influences our breathing. This can be positive – but it can also be counterproductive, for example when you are stressed.

Anyone who is stressed is often advised to take a deep breath. Not a good idea? The reflex itself is good, but unfortunately the implementation is often poor. The problem is that people breathe in deeply but then don’t breathe out enough. Especially when we are stressed or anxious, we should breathe out as much as possible. It’s best to do this until your stomach starts to tense up. Only then can we take a short break and breathe in again. Only then are our lungs completely empty so that we can fill them with fresh air. Instead, what we often observe in extreme situations: very shallow, chest-heavy breathing, in which the air does not even reach the depths of the lungs.

Why is breathing into the chest counterproductive? This is mainly because we have a much larger volume to work with in the horizontal abdominal cavity. Our chest limits the lungs’ ability to expand enormously; this is different in the abdominal area, where the lower flying ribs can open and create more space for the incoming air.

And why do so many of us still breathe into our chest? We forget how to breathe naturally between the ages of five and seven. As soon as we go to school and are exposed to the pressure to perform, one can statistically say that our breathing changes. The body essentially rebels against the stress.

As an adult, you always hear that abdominal breathing is better – and yet you often still don’t do it correctly. What’s the problem? Most of us are not even consciously aware of how we breathe. So why should they change anything about it? So you would first have to create a physical awareness of the power of breathing. I always say that playing with breathing strengthens our awareness of it.

In your book you also write about how focusing on breathing has also changed your perception, especially when freediving. It says, among other things: The sea is your mirror. What do you mean? I used to always have my head against the wall, I was a handball player, a rugby player, a real bundle of energy. And so I first tried to fight against the water and the depth that breathing brought with it while freediving. But I didn’t succeed. I could only flow with the water. I could only survive there if I was really with myself – with everything that goes with it.

Among other things, loneliness and pain, as you write. So does natural breathing lead us to places where we don’t actually want to look? Right there. And that is exactly what can enable us to live a much more authentic life if we let it.

And how exactly? The magic word is silence. In our noisy and performance-oriented society, we hardly allow ourselves to really tolerate boredom or silence. Also because we are afraid of what will come to light. If we then start to concentrate only on the breath and come to terms with ourselves, then we sit there and notice: I have problems with my body, a father-mother issue, I’m dissatisfied with my relationship or, or, or. These are all things that are part of life – but we tend to suppress them and distract ourselves externally.

What does natural breathing ideally look like? First we breathe in through our nose, our stomach should rise so that we come into primary diaphragmatic breathing. If we maintain this breathing, we are in a regenerative state throughout the day. For most people, however, it’s exactly the other way around. They are in a highly active state that requires a lot of energy and strength.

What characterizes this highly active state? It’s a kind of permanent alert. For example, when we use social media, our stomach wall becomes slightly tense after about ten minutes. Simply because we expect a new kick behind every swipe. That’s enough for us to no longer be able to breathe freely in this area. Most of us are constantly on the move in this state. You breathe shallowly into your chest area instead of deep into your stomach because your body has a basic tension. This in turn activates the nervous system, the body thinks there is danger. This state costs us a lot of energy because it is intended for extreme situations.

If I wanted to change that and get back to natural breathing, what beginner tip would you give me? I think the simplest and most important thing is to just close your eyes every now and then and consciously pay attention to your breathing. It’s not about influencing, it’s just about perception. How is my breathing? Do I breathe into my stomach or my chest? And how does it actually feel when the air flows through my body? It’s these simple things that often make a big difference.