Breathing is essential for life, yet few of us breathe properly.
We are a society living in a state of constant hyperarousal, taking short, shallow, upper chest breaths all day long. Research suggests that a breathing rate of six breaths per minute is optimal for both physical and mental well-being, because it synchronizes the cardiovascular, nervous, and respiratory systems. Alarmingly, most of us are taking upward of fifteen breaths per minute. This month, honor your health by nourishing your relationship to your breath.
Your breath acts as a conductor, synchronizing the orchestration of hormones and neurotransmitters (molecules of information and communication) circulating through your body. These molecules of information deliver important messages (i.e., induce feelings of calm or feelings of arousal, increase inflammation or decrease inflammation), affecting all your healing and repair processes. Erratic, short breathing throws the cardiovascular, nervous, and endocrine systems out of synch, and consequently the symphony of hormones needed for health and happiness.
Techniques and tools to slow down and regulate the breath are prevalent across culturally distinct religious traditions. From chanting in yoga to call-and-response prayer in Christianity, the question emerges: Beyond merely solidifying religious communities, do these sacred rituals serve to support the physiology of well-being by training the breath? A fascinating study from the British Medical Journal suggests just this. Researchers found that recitation of the rosary (using the traditional Latin prayer Ave Maria) and mala repetition of a common yoga mantra (”om-mani-padme-om”) both slow respiration to exactly six breaths per minute. How cool is that!
As someone who once suffered from debilitating anxiety and a host of stress-related digestive disorders, I am a living testament to the healing power of proper breathing. Slowing down your breath tells your brain that you are safe, synchronizing the dance of hormones needed for a healthy body and mood. Dr. Andrew Weil, a pioneer in mind-body medicine, has transitioned many people off antidepressant medication through a combination of lifestyle modification and breathing exercises. He concludes, “I can recommend no single more powerful, or more simple, daily practice to further your health and well-being.”
Our bodies have been breathing for us since the day we were born, yet most of us fail to appreciate this most fundamental process of life. Nourish your relationship with your breath by incorporating new breath practices into your daily life.
- Start your morning with 5 minutes of deep breathing. While still in bed, place your hand on your belly. Don’t try to change your breath in any way, just observe it. Feel your lungs expand as you inhale, feel your whole body relax as you exhale. Focus on the sensation of the air as it moves through your nose, down the throat, into your chest and belly. Your breath will naturally become longer and deeper.
- Take moments throughout your day. Set a timer to go off during the middle of the day to remind you to pause and notice your breath. Stop what you are doing and try this powerful exercise: Inhale quietly through your nose for a count of 4, hold your breath for a count of 7, and exhale through your mouth for a count of 8. Repeat the processes 3 more times, maintaining the 4:7:8 ratio. Notice how you feel.
- Practice rolled tongue breathing. At the end of your day, calm your nervous system with the yogic technique called Sitali (“rolled tongue”) breathing. Curl up both edges of your tongue so that it forms a tube shape. Breathe in through this tube. At the end of your inhalation, draw your tongue back into your mouth, close your lips, and breath out through your nose. Repeat and continue for at least 3 minutes.