Breathing is just one of the innumerable involuntary functions that our body performs. One doesn’t really know what exactly constitutes breath. We only know it as inhalation and exhalation of air. However, we do know through personal experiences and scientific studies that breath helps us to connect our body, mind and emotions. Scientific studies have also proven that managing our breath can improve our state of being. One wonders if the simple act of breathing can have such a profound impact on our lives then why aren’t we all generally happy. Through simple and small changes in our daily lives that can complement our breath we can live a happier and healthier life.
Our ability to breathe with awareness is called conscious breathing. It’s a natural wonder that we can seamlessly transform from breathing unconsciously to being conscious by just being aware. Conscious breathing is a tool utilized during yoga practice to deepen the physical connection that we hold with our bodies. Yogic theory introduces conscious breathing in the third limb of Ashtanga Yoga (the eight-limbed path) - the Asanas. We enter the asanas, or postures, by connecting the breath to our movements and deeply inhaling and exhaling through the nose. If practice becomes too heated, one can cool and calm the body by inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth. This can be further amplified if we use our mouth to deeply inhale and exhale. The fourth-limb of Ashtanga is known as Pranayama, or the breath of life. This is where the true power of our breath and its relation to our body can be realized. Deep-breathing techniques with awareness can be employed to move the breath through various energy channels of our body to create and manage pain and sensations.
Our breath is highly intertwined with our emotions and overall mental state. When one is angry, excited or agitated the breath tends to be very shallow and fast. When someone cries their breath becomes intermittent, and when someone’s happy their breath seems to be calm and involuntary. Breathing deeply is recommended during stressful situations to calm the body and mind, which will allow for proper thought formation. By breathing deeply, we give ourselves extra fuel that will help the mind to think clearly and act accordingly. Conscious breathing permits us to slow down and become more aware and mindful of our relationship with the world around us. Bringing this awareness to our actions allows us to make decisions from a place of clarity, resulting in thoughtful activity which will benefit ourselves and those around us.
Science has proven what we intuitively know about conscious breathing. Recent studies demonstrate that conscious breathing increases immunity and overall wellbeing when implemented regularly (Martarelli et al., 2011). Perciavalle et al., 2016 conducted a study on university students to understand the impact of relaxation technique like conscious breathing on individual stress levels. They analysed two separate groups of 19 students each, once a week, for 10 weeks. One group participated in a 10-week Anti-stress protocol practicing deep breathing, while the other Control Group sat for 90 minutes without participating in any treatment. They observed the salivary cortisol level (also known as the stress hormone) and cytokine (proteins associated with stress and inflammation) of all subjects. It was observed that those subjects that practiced deep breathing had less cortisol and lower levels of a variety of cytokines. Following the study these subjects also exhibited higher levels of melatonin, a natural hormone produced to regulate a daily rhythm in the body for sleep and wakefulness.
Symptoms associated with depression, insomnia, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder can all be alleviated by using various controlled breathing techniques. The moment we mindfully take an inhale and slow our breathing, the body sends a message to the brain indicating that all is well. This in turn activates the parasympathetic response system, which is responsible for the body’s ‘rest and digest’ state. During this time various metabolic processes, including digestion, are stimulated and allow the body to feel calm and secure. In any given traumatic situation, our body reacts subconsciously, through our nervous system, choosing to fight, take flight, or freeze. We freeze when hope for survival is diminished and our body has already given up, sending natural pain killers and relaxing hormones through the bloodstream. This response to trauma is what keeps us calm and motionless following a severe wound or an attack. When breathing becomes shallow or rapid our sympathetic nervous system, associated with the ‘fight or flight’ response, is engaged. Our body responds to this phenomenon by preparing the body for physical or mental activity by increasing our heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing pattern. During this time, our muscles become tense, pupils dilate, and mucous membranes dry to optimize chances for survival. All of these reactions allow the body to run faster, breathe with ease, fight harder, and have clearer vision. One of the most important element of parasympathetic nervous system is the vagus nerve. Its originates in the brain stem and then it spreads as nerve fibres to the throat and the upper body. Through these nerve fibres, signals wander to and fro between the body and brain. It connects the brain to the different organs and thus influencing vital body functions. Holding of a breath even for a brief moment and then slowing exhalation stimulates the vagus nerve which eventually brings peace to the body and mind. The neuro transmitter acetylcholine is released by the vagus nerve plays a pivotal role in increasing calmness and focus. The more we stimulate the vagus nerve, the more acetylcholine is released which lowers the anxiety levels.
What we now know scientifically about our breath and conscious breathing was known intuitively to mankind much before. It begs a question: why don’t we use the most natural instruments given to us, our breath to be more calm. As simple as it sounds, just by being aware of our breath doesn’t change our core value system or inherent behavior. There is a method that I refer to as ‘intention’ based deep breathing, which is a perfect companion to conscious breathing that helps lead a more peaceful life. One of the most effective ways to set an intention is through meditation. That intention could be a reminder to breathe deeply when you’re stressed or going through a difficult phase. This act of creating an intention will work like a trigger when one encounters a stressful situation, and may soon become habitual. It will help us overcome ways to manage our stress that is created by our existing habits. If you create an intention, as soon as stress arrives, something in the back of your head will remind you that you need to breathe deeply, slowly inhale and exhale. Like any other new component to be added to our lifestyle, it takes time and repeated effort to become part of our regular behavior. Hence a conscious consistent effort is required.
The other important question here is what constitutes meditation and what impact does it have on the body? Meditation can begin by sitting quietly and focusing on your breath for any amount of time with eyes closed. During meditation, the subject can observe his or her thoughts that comes to the mind and focus entirely on inhales and exhales. Recent scientific studies in the field of meditation have shown that it has a profound effect on neuronal activity (frequency of brain activity) (Hölzel et al., 2011). Nexus of different waves at various frequencies play a vital role in the normal functioning of the brain. The Beta waves are high frequency waves (12Hz to 40Hz) and are needed for effective functioning of our body and mind. It deals with conscious thought, logical thinking, focused attention. Overproduction of these waves may cause anxiety, stress and restlessness and underproduction causes depression and fatigue. Alpha waves (8Hz to 12 Hz) are the voice of the intuition and deals with imagination, improved problem solving skill, and enhanced immune system. Theta waves (4Hz to 8Hz) also known as the state of tranquil zone is associated with deep relaxation and enhanced creativity. By learning to breathe consciously during normal times and during meditation, our brain creates a balance in its chemistry by increasing the alpha and the theta waves. The latest neurobiological research has proven that meditation constitutes to restructuring of the brain (Hölzel et al., 2011). Regular practise of meditation shrinks the amygdala ‘fight or flight’ centre of the brain, which is involved in the initiation of the body’s response to stress. The shrinking of the amygdala during the deep breathing process thickens the pre-frontal cortex, which helps with higher order brain functions like attention control, emotion regulation. By responding thoughtfully in a given situation we are able to reduce the amount of stress we deal with.
Though intention-based breathing may help in some circumstances, there’s always the risk that the body may not respond at the appropriate time as intended. Self-reflection helps to accept the way a situation is. One can self-reflect by writing, walking, meditating or doing anything that gives the mind time to turn inward by focusing on our breath. Life is beautiful and will throw many stressful situations, and we can be ready to implement our learnings through self-reflection, the next time around. A conscious consistent effort is required to keep moving in this cycle of setting an intention and self-reflection. The result would help reduce stress and help us live a happier, healthier and fulfilling life. The only thing we need to do is breathe deeply and slowly!
Nitesh Batra is the Co-founder and Breath-Coach at The Mindful Initiative. He helps organizations and individuals bring mindfulness in their lives through visual media like photography and film-making. He is a graduate of Indian School of Business and University of Maryland, College Park and has worked for Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae in the past. He is a professional photographer and currently teaches Ashtanga Yoga in Bangalore.
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