Our breath is closely linked to our nervous system, read on to find out more!
Just for a moment, before reading any further, take a long, slow breath in. And then exhale for twice the amount of time it took to breathe in. Take note of what effects you might notice; maybe your body relaxes where you didn’t realise tension was being held, for example muscles in the face, shoulders, chest. Perhaps you notice a subtle shift in your mind set, perhaps you suddenly see more colours in the environment where you’re sat. A lot can change from just that one, single, lovely and purposeful breath. And when this is practiced for more than one breath and daily, perhaps taught regularly in a yoga or meditation class, the long terms effects can be phenomenal.
We’re here to look at the link between the quality of our breath and it’s effects on our nervous system, the system that we often see as our stress response to life and it’s curveballs.
And why are we doing that? Well very often we read about how breathing techniques and patterns are regularly praised for relaxation, stress management, control of psycho physiological states and to improve organ function (reference from this article) .
I also noticed in a persons’ tendencies to smoke, and what they’re doing. If you put the nicotine rush and the tar in lungs aside, they’re taking time out for themselves for 5 minutes to focus their breath. They’re taking long inhales, holding the breath, and slowly releasing. I bet we could all benefit from taking a 5 minute breather break (minus the cigarette in hand of course) every few hours.
I’ve realised it’s really useful to understand what we are doing to ourselves when we breathe well, and when we don’t breathe well. So in this article I will endeavour to put that in plain English!
Basics of Breathing
When we breathe we use the diaphragm and the intercostal muscles.
As we inhale both the diaphragm and the intercostal muscles contract. The diaphragm (a dome shaped muscle that extends across the bottom of the thoracic cavity) moves downwards, and the intercostals (a muscle group situated between the ribs) pull the ribs up and outward. Both these actions cause the thoracic cavity (the chest as we know it) to expand. This way air can pass into our lungs.
So it’s not the lungs that make any muscular effort. Imagine them more like sponges that soak up air. It’s the diaphragm and the intercostal muscles that create space for the air to fill in.
So as we exhale, these muscles relax, restoring the thoracic cavity (chest) back to it’s original volume, forcing the air out of us and back into the world.
Autonomic nervous system and breath
So what is the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS)? The ANS regulates certain body processes such as digestion, blood pressure, heart rate, breathing etc. The magic thing about the ANS is that it all happens without us having to think about it. It’s our own body wisdom keeping us alive!
The ANS has 2 main divisions, the Sympathetic and the Parasympathetic. The Sympathetic division is our fight or flight response, it’s very useful for situations where we’re in danger and need to think fast. When we perceive a threat from our outside environment our ANS kicks us into Sympathetic and increases our heart rate, sweaty palms, hair standing on end, whilst slowing down energy consuming functions such as digestion and urination.
Our issue nowadays is that our stress response kicks in very often for many long-term situations eg. a stressful job or constant time constraints. Some people literally live most of their lives in stressed out Sympathetic which has long term damaging effects to our health.
The Parasympathetic is the more relaxed, softer state we can live in. It slows the heart rate, decreases blood pressure, gets your digestive system in action “rest and digest”. Energy from food is used to restore and build tissues.
Now you can do a little experiment of your own, sit back, close your eyes and listen to your heart beat. Then really slow down and relax your breath. After a while of relaxing and deepening the breath, you might find your heart rate slows down.
All of the functions of the ANS happen without our needing to think of it, but also without our choice. We can’t decide we want our heart to stop beating and then it suddenly stop! However there is one function that we CAN control, and it’s the breath. It can happen in the background automatically without our thinking of it, or we can choose to think about our breath, and change the rate, depth, rhythm of the breathing pattern. This obviously takes a bit of focus! (Disclaimer: We also can’t decide not to breathe, once we get too low on our oxygen supply our automatic response will kick in and force us to take a breath!)
The bottom line is, when we consciously decide to control our breath in order to access our “rest and digest” Parasympathetic branch, we can make the choice not to live in stress!
Yoga and Breath
There is a wide variety of breath exercises, referred to as Pranayama, in Yoga. Prana, when translated, refers to ‘life force’ or ‘vital energy’. We can think about this on a material level as the oxygen that we ingest during breath is fed to cells to produce energy and keep us alive.
There are a lot of Pranayama exercises on offer to a Yoga practitioner, the most common in a drop in yoga class are; three part breath, alternate nostril breathing, belly breathing and interval breathing, to list a few. It’s really important to regularly go to a teacher to learn these exercises if you can, whilst also establishing a daily practice at home, to reap the full benefits of these Pranayama.
“Much of the aim of Pranayama breathing appears to shift the autonomic nervous system away from its sympathetic (excitatory) dominance. Pranayama breathing has been shown to positively affect immune function, hypertension, asthma, autonomic nervous system imbalances, and psychological or stress-related disorders (Jerath et al)” (Source The Science of Breathing).
If we can regularly practice Pranayama exercises we can start to increase our own awareness and understanding of the relationship between our cognitive states, physical functioning and breathing patterns.
It isn’t solely in the Pranayama however. When we practice Asana, the physical aspect of Yoga, we control the breath to link in with the flow of our movements. In this way we become mindful of how to breathe effectively, even in physically taxing situations. The benefit of focussing on breath whilst practicing Asana is that we are more likely to keep a strong focus for the period of practice, when you couple that with physical exertion and stretching, we can reach a bliss like state that is a far cry from the stressed out version of ourselves!
Some breath work within the practice of Yoga do actually instruct us to speed up our rate of breath, which can activate the stress response. It’s likely we would want to steer clear of them until we feel ready to be taught these practices. So it seems that to begin with at least, slow and methodic breath practices are what we’re looking for to help reduce our stress levels. “Investigations have demonstrated that slow breathing pranayama techniques activate the parasympathetic (inhibitory) nervous system, thus slowing certain physiological processes down that may be functioning too fast or conflicting with the homeostasis of the cells (Jerath et al., 2006) Source The Science of Breathing”.
This is why there are sayings out there such as “take a deep breath and count to ten before responding”! Often when something occurs, or is said to us, and it’s not overly pleasant we switch into the reactive, Sympathetic mode. If we take a few deep breaths, we can calm our stress response (nervous system) down and more likely react appropriately to the situation at hand.
Effect of regular Pranayama
To begin with we only need to dedicate 10-15 minutes per day to Pranayama exercises in order to start to see the benefits. Once we become accustomed to watching our breath we can become accustomed to our moods and stress levels. Certainly as life throws us curveballs, from one day to another, we’ll notice if there’s resistance to practicing or if there’s certain days the we respond better/worse to the practice, depending on how we feel.
Over time it’s very likely that we start to bring this mindful attention to our breath and stress response levels into daily life. And we can start to work on ourselves to better change the way we react and adapt to life and it’s challenges. Soon we start to notice that we’re able to create better environments in our lives as we can act more out of a place of self-love, instead of a place of stress.
There is a lot of scientific research out there into the effect of breath on the nervous system, take a look when you get a chance!
For now, it’s clear that getting to a class where you can learn control of your breath with breath exercises and physical work, we can learn techniques and tools to help us manage our stress levels better. What’s great about this is that it doesn’t just stay on the mat! After we get used to practicing on our own regularly as well as going to class, we can become more attuned to ourselves and tap into exercises that calm us down in many daily situations.