Ever experience a sudden adverse unwanted situation? You may have found yourself holding your breath! This common automatic reaction actually heightens the sympathetic nervous system’s “fight/ flight/freeze” reaction, stimulates our limbic or “primitive brain”, and decreases our ability to think clearly and effectively. This is the reason why we focus so much on breathing in and out while doing basics or practicing our forms in tae kwon do.
When we train our breathing at the same time we are physically practicing tae kwon do, we increase the likelihood that we will be able to respond effectively using our whole brain and body if suddenly confronted with an unwanted situation.
One of the quickest ways to affect our nervous system and decrease stress and anxiety is to use something we have vitally available to us all the time: our breath.
Breathing techniques have been around for thousands of years as part of physical, spiritual and mental practices such as yoga. Even though breathwork seems like a simple tool, it is one of the most effective ways to create a calming, focused and energy conserving state in our brain and body.
Breathing techniques affect multiple systems in the body in a synchronized way. Breathwork shifts our brainwaves and heartbeat patterns, activating our internal “relaxation response”, resulting in decreased anxiety and feelings of improved ease, comfort and emotional control. Other benefits include increased oxygenation and activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is the executive function part of our brain responsible for self-regulation, problem solving, self-control and creativity. Other brain benefits include improved hypothalamus and pons function, which regulate several hormones and a number of automatic body functions. Even our brainwaves are positively affected- EEG studies demonstrate more alpha waves, which are predominant when humans are in a focused meditative state. Because breathing practices affect the calming parasympathetic part of our autonomic nervous system, lower heart rate and blood pressure also occur.
The powerful combination of heart, brain and hormonal effects contribute to indirectly decreasing inflammation in the body and improving immune system function. That’s good news during this time of COVID-19! One person who recovered from COVID-19 remarked on the power of breathwork and movement as a meditative approach and as ways to exercise and expand their lungs during the illness:
“Focused breathing is something I really feel helped me a lot. Taking deep breaths and holding it. Long meditations helped. For this, I kept a yoga mat open beside my bed so I could lie completely flat and my chest wasn’t compressed in any way.
Sitting up. I made myself sit upright in a chair for most of the day. The more time I spent in bed, the worse my chest felt and I had to cough much harder to expel what was trying to settle.
Movement. If I had the energy, I walked around the property with a mask on and talked to my spouse, the dog, or myself, to make my lungs work a little more.
Healthcare providers have also noted benefits with periodic “prone” positioning (laying on your stomach) as a way to increase oxygen and to expand more areas of the lungs.
Here are two of my favorite breathing techniques:
The 4-7-8 Breath
Sitting in a comfortable position with your back straight, place the tip of your tongue behind your upper front teeth.
Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.
Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
Hold your breath for a count of seven.
Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight. This is one cycle.
For a beginning practice, repeat the cycle for 3-4 times. Keep the time spent at each count comfortable for your own individual needs by adjusting the total speed of your breathing as needed, keeping exhalation time twice as long as your inhalation time.
If any dizziness or lightheadedness, decrease the amount of time spent at each count, but maintain the ratio of 4:7:8.
Straw Breath (or Beak Breath)
Bring your lips together to form an “O” as if sipping through a straw. Allow your tongue and jaw to be relaxed and your lips soft.
Slowly inhale through your nose and pause holding your breath for a second or two if comfortable.
Exhale slowly through your pursed lips, as if you were gently blowing on a candle, keeping the flame flickering but not going out, until all the air is expelled.
If it is comfortable for you, you can take a natural slight pause here until you are ready for your in-breath.
Gently allow the in-breath to fill your lungs as comfortably as possible, breathing in through your nose.
Repeat the cycle of exhaling slowly through your pursed lips, as if you were blowing slowly out through a straw, keeping the stream of out-going air calm and smooth.
It is important to follow your body and not create strain, so adjust the speed of your in-breath and out-breath for what feels right to you. Follow your body and only hold your breath for as long as it is comfortable for you. If any strain, dizziness or lightheadedness, stop.
A good starting point is to do 4 to 5 cycles of this. At the end, take a moment to return to your natural regular breathing pattern and notice how you feel.
Breathing practices can be used anytime, anywhere when more calm, focus and inner attention is desired. Adding your own personalized quiet or silent positive statement to each in-breath is another option to use the power of the mind-body connection, such as: “I am well” or “I am calm in my body and my mind.” See what you think!
Dr. Danna Park specializes in Integrative Medicine, Internal Medicine and Pediatrics. She received her M.D. degree from Tufts University, completed a combined residency in Internal Medicine and Pediatrics and is a graduate of the Residential Fellowship in Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona. She is Board-certified in all three specialties. Dr. Park provides integrative consultations for adults and children with a variety of medical conditions and also works with people who want to take an active approach in maintaining their wellness. Dr. Park has specialized training in mind-body medicine, vitamins and supplements, nutritional approaches for brain-based disorders and integrative cancer care. For more information, call 828-333-3339 or go to www.mountainintegrative.com .
Zaccaro A, Piarulli A, Laurino M, et al. How Breath-Control Can Change Your Life: A Systematic Review on Psycho-Physiological Correlates of Slow Breathing. Front Hum Neurosci. 2018;12:353.