I have been thinking a lot lately about breathing.
I think about it a lot anyway, since “mindful breathing” is so much at the center of both yoga practice and emotional stress relief techniques, and my work involves one or both of these every day.
But between the many days of smoky air this summer, and a cold I am still fighting as I write, I have been especially aware of how much I, at least, can take breathing itself for granted, not to mention the fresh, clean air that Oregonians enjoy more of than many people do, and which is so important to health.
I’ve also been interested in the growing number of personal accounts from people in our community about the benefits —some gradual, some rapid— experienced as a result of actually using the breathing skills learned in yoga, say, or in a community “Feeling Good” class. One person tells of the profound effects she has noticed on her long-time depression, not eliminating it completely, but very noticeably lightening her “baseline” mood level on a daily basis. Another tells of being able to literally breathe a severe headache away, by using one of the specific techniques she had learned.
And while there are plenty of tools and activities that relieve stress, isn’t it good to know and to (even more important:) remember that perhaps the most powerful of these (and the one that makes the others work anyway) is not something “out there” somewhere to buy or to do; it is literally as close as our own breath.
In addition to its benefits to mood and emotional stress, it turns out that deep, directed breathing has direct and powerful effects on cardiac function, brain function, digestion, and immune system health— and maybe even the expression of genes (that last one I won’t go into here, but it’s pretty interesting stuff!).
According to a physician in the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Integrative Medicine, numerous scientific studies have shown that people experiencing even such chronic and severe conditions as asthma, heart disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease benefit from breathing practices, often to a profound degree.
But what western science and medicine are just now coming to understand and appreciate about the importance of breath work, eastern medicine systems (Chinese medicine and Indian Ayurveda, among others) have known for centuries. In yoga, practitioners regularly use “pranayama” (which literally means “control of the life force”) breathing as a tool for affecting both the mind and body. Certain breath techniques are energizing, others are relaxing, others affect our experience of pain; others support the harmonious operation of the various bodily systems keep us feeling “in balance.” There are literally scores of specific breathing practices which can be used for these or other specific purposes. Some of these can be learned on one’s own (with a book or cd, for instance); some are so powerful that it is best to work with a teacher or other experienced practitioner, to learn the right technique.
But more importantly, intentional breathing techniques can be used as a method to train the body’s reaction to stressful situations and dampen the production of harmful stress hormones. As described in an earlier column, this is because the way we breathe either stimulates and maintains the activation of our sympathetic nervous system (the “fight or flight” response which is activated by stress) or our . parasympathetic nervous system, which is the one that calms us down.
If you are over 60 or so, you may remember the book “The Relaxation Response”, which Harvard researcher Herbert Benson published in 1975. In the book Benson describes and demonstrates how short periods of meditation which focus on the breath can profoundly alter the body’s stress responses. While there has been a lot more research and many more books published on the topic since, Benson’s is probably still as good as any: easy to find, easy to read, and only more, not less, relevant in 2017!
Needless to say, breathing is not a cure-all to every medical and behavioral problem. But I would also argue that it is and excellent place to start with addressing any and all of them, given how powerful it is in influencing our immediate reactions and long-term well-being. And best of all, it’s free, and literally right there under your nose!