by Marlaina Donato
Our first breath is instinctual and belly-deep, but as we grow into life, everyday stress and trauma can bring us into the shallows. Mindful breathing can help guide our breath back to its original, healthy rhythm. Both the brain and organs benefit from increased oxygen, and the vagus nerve that connects the two—prompted by changes in the body’s pH levels—releases acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter responsible for lowering heart rate.
Breathwork can improve vagal tone, a major component in a wide range of conditions like depression, pain syndromes, sleep disturbances, anxiety disorders and chronic inflammation. A 2016 study by the Medical University of South Carolina published in the journal BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine shows a lower number of proteins associated with inflammation in the saliva of participants that employed breathing exercises. A study that appeared in the journal Psychophysiology in 2015 found that 20 minutes of mindful breathing at bedtime fostered a good night’s rest for people with insomnia.
From traditional rebirthing techniques using circular breathing to Middendorf Breath Work for somatic awareness, there are many styles of conscious breathing. The gentler approaches best suit everyday needs and taking a breathing break can actually provide more refreshment than one featuring coffee.
“Many people have found that a regular breathing practice has helped them increase energy and decrease anxiety. It is a powerful tool to reset the nervous system when we’re overwhelmed and stressed,” says Somatic Breath Therapy (SBT) practitioner Rachael Walter, owner of Breathe-Here-Now, in Keene, New Hampshire. Like many forms of breathwork, SBT bridges the chasm between mind and body. “Conscious breathing can also help people access and understand their emotions,” notes Walter.
Pranayama, an ancient technique of yoga that focuses on breath control and employs alternate nostril breathing, can be performed while lying down, seated or on the yoga mat. Kundalini yoga teacher Melissa Crowder, owner of 4 States Yoga, in Joplin, Missouri, advises students to start out slowly, three to six minutes a day, and then work up to a longer practice. “Alternate nostril breathing is a great practice for everyone. As little as six minutes of yogic breathing, as needed, can make a profound difference in decreasing pain and stress,” she says.
The American Lung Association recommends a variety of exercises, including diaphragmatic (belly) breathing, for conditions like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Engaging the diaphragm is key in breathing to fullest capacity. Walter explains, “An open, healthy breath is one in which we use the diaphragm to initiate the breath, followed by the belly expanding and the breath moving into the chest.”
Most of us unconsciously fall into shallow and sometimes self-conscious breathing patterns at an early age. “During my training, I read that by age 6 we pick up on cues telling us to tuck in our tummies. This simple, bad habit begins a cascade of physiological responses. Upper chest breathing can create anxiety symptoms and poor digestion,” explains Colleen Breeckner, owner of Colleen Lila Yoga, in New York City. “Diaphragmatic breathing causes the diaphragm to become flat and wide, and in turn, presses upon the stomach and helps to churn the gastric juices. For this reason, it can aid earlier stages of digestion.”
When used in conjunction with other modalities such as cognitive behavioral therapy, diaphragmatic breathing might be beneficial for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Breathing Into Feelings
The depth and quality of the breath can help us to become aware of emotional states that include “holding patterns”. “Conscious breathing is a doorway into deep meditation, which can help alleviate anger and insecurities. It can also be helpful in dropping addictions,” says Crowder. “Linking pranayama with physical movement [asanas] helps to release tension and emotions that can be held in the body’s soft tissues.”
Breeckner agrees, “Developing this awareness can help us to move unpleasant and stuck emotions through the body.”
Well-being can be just a breath away, says Walter. “When we open up our breath, we open ourselves to a fuller experience of being human. It has the capacity to bring us into the present moment to access our joy and our life’s purpose.”
Marlaina Donato is an author and a composer. Connect at AutumnEmbersMusic.com.