The case for conscious, controlled breathing
Job demands. Relationship woes. Parenting. Grandparenting. Garden-variety stressors. Worries.
Regardless of who we are or what we do, our lives are not without some level of agitation. And with so many factors and circumstances out of our control, the one thing we do have control over is how we react.
It has been said that cooler heads prevail.
But it’s hard to keep a level head when the proverbial steam escapes our ears, and we start seeing red.
We must pay attention to our breath, that’s what.
In moments of crisis, that can be an extremely hard thing to do, for sure.
Worth trying, anyway? Also, yes.
And here’s why: An engaged breath practice can help relieve minor fatigue, anxiety, and depression. Yoga Journal’s Richard Rosen writes, “In stressful times, we typically breathe too rapidly. This leads to a buildup of oxygen in the bloodstream and a corresponding decrease in the relative amount of carbon dioxide, which in turn upsets the ideal acid-alkaline balance—the pH level—of the blood.”
Muscle twitching, nausea, irritability, lightheadedness, confusion, and anxiety often follow. This leads to our immune system becoming suppressed, which can trigger other health problems, including high blood pressure.
To the contrary, a controlled, slowed breath raises carbon dioxide levels in the blood, and as the blood’s pH level changes, the parasympathetic nervous system calms us in a variety of ways, including telling the vagus nerve to secrete acetylcholine. In layman’s terms: our heart rate lowers.
All this…just from controlling our breath.
Enter the ancient yogic practice of pranayama (pronounced PRA•nuh•YA•muh). “Prana” means life force or breath sustaining the body; “Yama” translates to “to extend or draw out.” Together, the two mean breath extension or control.
A variety of mindful breathing exercises have been shown to produce a plethora of benefits—stress reduction and relaxation are among them. One technique is 4-7-8 breathing, which was developed by Dr. Andrew Weil. He refers to this method as a “natural tranquilizer for the nervous system”.
Here’s how to do it:
1. Find a comfortable place to sit with your back straight.
2. Place your tongue against the back of your top teeth and keep it there.
3. Exhale completely through your mouth around your tongue, making a whoosh sound. Purse your lips if it helps.
4. Close your lips and inhale through your nose for a count of four (4).
5. Hold your breath for a count of seven (7).
6. Exhale completely through your mouth making a whoosh sound for a count of eight (8).
This completes one cycle. Repeat for three more cycles.
Practice 4-7-8 breathing anywhere, at any time. When you’re first learning, try to practice at least twice a day. You can do it as often as you’d like—especially when feeling stressed. Aim for four cycles in a row—max—in the beginning. After you get used to it, you can work up to eight cycles. You may feel lightheaded at first, but this will pass.
The more you practice this technique, the more powerful it becomes. Practice doing it before you respond to an upsetting situation and whenever you’re having trouble getting to sleep.
Mindful breathing practices such as 4-7-8 breathing can produce what Dr. Herbert Benson, Harvard cardiologist and founder of the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital, called the relaxation response. You have a natural stress response that’s designed to help you deal with dangerous situations. This fight-or-flight response can help you survive, but it can also take a toll on your health when it’s overused for everyday stresses.
The relaxation that’s prompted by 4-7-8 breathing can act as a salve for over-worked nerves.
Other benefits may include:
Reduced anxiety: A study of college students showed that practicing pranayama reduced test anxiety in students. Another study of senior citizens showed decreased anxiety after two months of deep breathing exercises.
Lower blood pressure: Slow deep breathing for five minutes has been shown to reduce blood pressure and heart rate in people who practice it.
Improved sleep: One of the negative side effects of stress can be trouble sleeping. It can be almost impossible to fall asleep when your body is caught up in the stress response. Practicing deep, slow breathing techniques such as 4-7-8 breathing can trigger your body’s relaxation response and help you get to sleep.
Again—because it bears repeating: All these benefits come from simply controlling our breath.
We don’t have anything to lose. Except our anger and uneasiness, of course.
And we could all do with a little less of that.