Growing up, my father always told me, “No matter how crazy life becomes, remember you always have your breath.”
As a child, I had no idea how profound those simple words truly were. I also had no idea how life-sustaining they would prove to be.
After practicing and teaching yoga for nearly a decade, I have come to understand that my breath is arguably the most powerful tool I have for finding the center of any storm. My breath is the anchor that grounds me when I feel tossed around in the sea of life.
All those years of study have shown me, physiologically speaking, why the breath is so powerful. The breath directly interfaces with the Autonomic Nervous System.
The inhale component of the breath is activating and can be linked to the Sympathetic component of the Autonomic Nervous System. This is the stress response or the “fight or flight” response. It serves as a necessary part of our being, as it gives us a quick surge of energy to escape danger.
The exhale part of the breath is linked to the Parasympathetic component of the Autonomic Nervous System. This part of the nervous system is responsible for relaxing, resting, and digesting.
Both parts are essential for life. And it is so empowering to know that the breath can be used to help regulate the nervous system. We do not have to be at the mercy of life. Rather, through mindful breathing, we can gain control of life even if at first it feels impossible.
The Autonomic Nervous System that connects the brain to the body is a two-way street. When I am stressed by the events in my life or simply the thoughts about those events, my brain, via the nerves of the Autonomic Nervous System, activates the Sympathetic part of that system. Some of the physiological changes caused by Sympathetic activation are an increased heart rate and increased blood pressure.
But the empowering thing is that the lungs and heart can feed back to the brain and essentially convince the brain that things are calm and peaceful, even if there are still stressful circumstances. The breath serves as this link.
In each round of the breath, during your inhalation, your heart gets stimulated to beat a little faster. Then during the exhalation, your heart gets told to slow down. The heart rate varies little from minute to minute. But when you make one part of the breath cycle longer than the other (either the inhale or the exhale) and you do this for several minutes, the accumulated effect is that you will either slow the heart rate down or speed it up from where you started.
In my daily life, I often turn to the simple extended exhale breathing practice to find solace when everything around me feels challenging or impossible. For example, if I am standing before a triggering person, I have conditioned myself, through years of faithful practice, to turn to my breath and simply start lengthening my exhale through my mouth as a form of release.
I like to breathe in through my nose for a count of four and exhale or sigh out through my mouth for a count of six. That breathing practice anchors or shifts me into the present moment or into the energy of presence which is a dimension or space where I am less reactive, more responsive, and able to navigate the rocky waters of life with relative ease.
- Improves digestion
- Reduces hypertension
- Boosts immune function
- The presence cultivated by pranayama can aid with healthy eating habits and weight loss (i.e. taps into neuroplasticity)
- Strengthens respiratory function
- Helpful for reducing stress and managing anxiety
- Helpful for mood regulation
- Helpful for improving sleep and reducing insomnia
- Calms the stress response
- Improves perception of pain
Guest post by studio BE mindfulness teacher Michelle Smith.
Michelle Smith is program manager of Geisinger Medical Center’s House of Care, an outpatient home for cancer patients undergoing treatment, and has worked to helped create an Integrative Medicine program for the health system. Michelle has introduced yoga therapy, vibrational sound therapy, and Reiki to many staff, patients, and family members.
In addition to her work at Geisinger Medical Center, Michelle teaches yoga at several studios in Northeast Pennsylvania and several yoga and mindfulness courses at Luzerne County Community College. Michelle also volunteers her time at a local addiction treatment center teaching patients how to use the many tools of Integrative Medicine to find freedom and peace.