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Breathing Lessons


Posted on September 19, 2017

The bridge between mind and body is hiding in plain sight.

Illustration by Hannah Agosta

It’s what marks our arrival into this world and the last thing we do before we leave it. In the meantime, during all the days and months and years that stretch out between our first day and our last, it remains the constant source of fuel that powers our every action, every step, every word. And most of us will go our entire lives without giving it much thought, taking it for granted because it is so automatic it requires little attention. But what do we miss out on when we take our breath for granted?

More than any other automatically occurring bodily function, we can affect our breath at will. Most functions of the autonomic nervous system, which includes respiration as well as digestion, heart rate and sexual arousal, among other things, operate entirely independently of our command—often much to our chagrin. Right now, as you read this, regardless of where you are or how you feel, however, you can easily quicken or slow your breath. There’s a good chance you just took a deep breath or perhaps momentarily held it as you read that, aware of your breath for the first time in a while.

If you did, in fact, just take a deep breath, you sent a signal to several other systems within your body as well. A deep breath can slow the heart rate, increase cognitive performance and reduce stress. Military units, police forces and trauma counselors employ breathing techniques for these very reasons. No matter how trite the instruction to “take a deep breath” can sound in the face of anger, panic or fear, science actually backs it up. In our breath we have a tool that can actually reverse certain reactions of the autonomic nervous system. When watching a scary movie, for example, as you feel fear in your mind, your heart rate and breath quicken in your body. If you’re aware of this as it unfolds, you might intentionally slow and deepen your breathing, which in turn slows your heart rate, which then lessens the feeling of fear in the mind.

You see clearly in that example that the breath can function as a bridge between what is happening in your physical body and what is happening in your mind, and that the bridge can be crossed reactively or intentionally. Moreover, the bridge can be crossed in both directions: The breath responds to the body, but the body can also respond to the breath. How might an intentional approach to breathing affect you on an ordinary day, though? When your heart rate is calm, your stress level average and your mind functioning clearly? If breathing can function as such an effective bridge between what is happening in your body and what is happening in your mind when you’re confronted with Hollywood’s most lifelike version of your greatest fear, how can you utilize that bridge in positive ways in your everyday life?

The first step is to take care of your respiratory system and use your breath to its fullest, according to Christian Sandrock, M.D., a professor of medicine at UC Davis’s division of Pulmonology and Critical Care. “Cardiovascular exercise like running or biking, added to regular, near maximal use of your respiratory muscles, keeps you in good general shape,” says Sandrock about the best proactive strategy for maintaining a healthy respiratory system. “One of the best things we do for our pulmonary patients in rehab is honestly monitored and glorified exercise under a coordinated program,” he says.

Sacramentans looking to embark on a cardio exercise program should be mindful of air quality, however. “On Spare The Air days and really hot days, the air quality is poor,” says Sandrock. “And when you exercise, you certainly take in more free-radical air toxins and pollutants that can damage your lungs. This is one of the more important or limiting things about hot summers and smoky times. You can’t just exercise outside easily and should choose to exercise, or breathe, inside on these days.”

Once you’ve established you’re in good respiratory health, simply noticing the breath can be a profound tool in navigating the bridge between mind and body. “From a mind-body perspective, breathing and heart rate are the main things we require second to second and minute to minute. But it can be hard to feel or think about your heartbeat. Breath is a nice, slower alternative to focus on,” notes Sandrock. “Traditional medication and some yoga use breathing as a focus to allow you to clear your mind, so that kind of work can be beneficial from a mental-health standpoint. The idea that you can slow down racing thoughts and focus on slow, controlled, deep breath helps.”

Summer Ward, a local yoga teacher with a specialization in pranayama (Sanskrit for “breath control”), seconds the importance of simply paying attention to the breath as one of the most valuable ways to tap into its benefits. Ward, who’s been teaching Conscious Breath workshops for five years, posits that one of the main benefits of bringing a sense of awareness to your breath is that it acts as a mental anchor to the present moment. “In the practice of mindfulness,” she says, “it can seem impossible to truly clear your mind of any conscious thoughts, but focusing on the breath gives you something to hold onto and pay attention to. A singlepointed focus on the rhythmic aspect of it keeps you grounded to stay in the moment. A lot of our stress and anxiety usually comes from obsessing over the past or playing out worst-case scenarios we imagine in the future. But when we’re focused on the present moment, most of the time we’re actually OK. The breath is that anchor to the present moment.”

After cultivating an intentional awareness of your breath, you can begin to more purposely affect it. “The more conscious we are of our breathing, the more we’re able to control it and use it,” says Ward. “Deep breathing is diaphragmatic; it’s a muscle. If no one’s ever taught you to pay attention to it, it’s challenging to control.” Diaphragmatic breathing, a technical term for what most people refer to as simply deep breathing, involves contracting the diaphragm, the muscle that horizontally separates the lungs from the abdomen. In this type of breathing, the chest rises and the belly expands as air is taken in. Demonstrated benefits include improvement in pulmonary function, cardiorespiratory fitness, respiratory muscle length and respiratory muscle strength.

Sandrock adds that pairing breathing exercises with movement can help with this. “If you time your breath with something additional, such as yoga, a stretch or a body movement, you have a chance to become more aware—or mindful—and focused,” he says. He points out that Oliver Sacks, M.D., a neurologist and author of 15 books including “Awakenings,” which was adapted into a film starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro, was known for lifting his arms above his head while doing breathing exercises for relaxation. “Even basic stretching can help,” says Sandrock, “such as a rib stretch or yoga. That can allow the back and other chest muscles to expand and have some better function.”

In her Conscious Breath workshops, Ward utilizes several di‹fferent techniques to help clients effectively use their breath to aff‹ect their mental state. Each technique is intended to either invigorate or relax, depending on which direction across that mind-body bridge a person may need to travel. More forceful breathing, including a breathing technique known as “breath of fire,” brings a flood of oxygen into the body, which has an energizing e‹ffect. “It’s like opening up all the doors and windows,” says Ward, noting that most people are less familiar with these types of breath techniques.

Slower, more refi ned breathing exercises, which are more commonly understood, have a calming e‹ffect. One of the most e‹ffective and widely used breathing practices that falls into this category is known as box breathing. In box breathing, the breath cycle is broken up into four parts: the inhale, holding the breath with full lungs, the exhale and holding the breath with empty lungs. Each of the four parts is executed for the same amount of time, usually a four-to-six count depending on what feels comfortable.

“Most people are surprised following a breath workshop,” says Ward. “They didn’t realize how e‹ffective breathing exercises could be. We’re taught we need to be busy and push hard. That’s our culture.”

Ironically, though, Ward points out that her Conscious Breath workshops are often not as highly attended as her more traditional yoga classes and workshops involving resources like essential oils. “People want something that’s outside of themselves,” she says. “If you haven’t had much exposure to breathwork, it can seem pretty weird. . . . It seems less vulnerable to rely on something other than just yourself.”

In a way, it makes all the sense in the world that the most e‹ffective link between your body and your mind would exist solely within yourself. No gadgets or expertise required, just the one thing that’s naturally occurring in your body every day of your life whether you pay attention to it or not. The bridge is there; it’s up to you to find it in the jungle of your thoughts and tasks and endless distractions, then learn how to travel across it. One breath at a time.

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