Breath as Medicine: Better than any Drug
Breathing is, generally speaking, automatic: the brain stem controls the rate of breathing in response to blood-oxygen levels, as measured by receptors in the aorta. These blood-oxygen levels change in response to demands made by other systems in the body — for example, if you burst into a run, the demand for blood oxygen immediately increases, causing you to breathe faster.
When “high alert” moments happen- whether from a conscious choice like “I think I will run now”, an external threat or an internal thought- the amygdala emits a message to the body to pay attention — the sympathetic nervous system is activated. Breathing speeds up, the heart beats faster, blood flow is diverted from things like digestion and other secondary systems such as cell repair, and into the muscles — just in case a “fight or flight” moment is coming.
If the sense of high alert continues, the limbic system adds more fuel: adrenaline and cortisol are dumped into the bloodstream — what we call the stress hormones. This is not only okay in the short term, it is necessary in the face of true dangers. However, if elevated stress hormones and resource diversion continue for an extended period, we have a problem. Chronic stressors take energy away from long-term system health and optimization: this is where we see conditions such as heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes.
Chronic nervous system “high-alert” also changes the way the brain functions, and decreases the capacity to “stand-down” in the face of perceived stressors. If we are on high alert, in defensive mode, we can’t connect — not to ourselves or anyone else.
But guess what? We’re wired for healing. We have an entrypoint to take charge of the autonomic nervous system. And that entrypoint is the breath.
Breathwork, or voluntary control of the breath, is the entry point to control of the autonomic nervous system. Respiration, in fact, is the only system of the ANS over which we have control.It helps us override physical, conditioned responses to perceived threats. In turn, respiration controls heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, excretion and absorption.
By controlling breathing, we bring the autonomic nervous and the related glandular and hormonal triggers back into balance. AND we become love warriors — we gain the internal fortitude to stay connected, supple and strong in the face of stressful or challenging situations.
Breathwork improves respiratory and cardiovascular function, decreases the effects of stress, and improves physical and mental health (Pal, Velkumary, and Madanmohan, 2004). It positively affects immune function, hypertension, asthma, autonomic nervous system imbalances, and psychological or stress-related disorders (Jerath et al., 2006). And it alters the brain’s information processing, making it an intervention that improves a person’s psychological functioning.
When people think of breathwork, they usually think of “deep slow breathing”, but there are many techniques that work in different ways to override the autonomic nervous system, to reset it and to put us back into control.
Here are 4 common ways to use the breath — all of which will be taught in the course of learning any halfway decent yoga practice:
Optimizing lung capacity. Ujjayi breathing (deep controlled directed breathing through the nose) increases the capacity and efficiency of the lungs — just like physical exercise, but in a more focused manner. While the deep breathing itself brings oxygen to more cells in the lungs then normal respiration, thus enhancing blood flow throughout the body, the main difference is in how ujjayi interacts with the physiology of the head and neck. The technique calls for breathing through the nose, and slightly contracting the throat on inhale and exhale. When done properly, ujjayi makes a sound somewhere between gentle ocean surf and Darth Vader. This breathing action directs air to the soft palate, and puts pressure on the carotid sinuses — which lowers the blood pressure and reduces tension.
Waking us up: Kapalabhati (rapid controlled rhythmic breathing — a fluttering or pumping of the diaphragm) was once described to me as “as good as a strong cup of coffee in the morning”. This technique increases blood flow to the brain almost 10-fold. According to yogic texts, normal respiration consists of 12–18 pumps of oxygen to the brain per minute, whereas kapalabhati creates up to 120 pumps per minute. This increases blood volume throughout the brain, stimulates the pineal and pituitary glands, and dramatically affects the carbon dioxide, chemical, acid and alkalis in the blood.
Increasing resilience in the face of stressors: Kumbhaka (rhythmically holding the breath in or out) is sort of like getting a back rub on a beach with gentle surf sounds: it slows you wayyyyyyy down. Kumbhaka is the most accurate tool for slowing the rhythms of body and brain, both in an urgent situation and with a long term training plan. When practiced over time, it teaches the body and mind to stay calm under stress. Dirga, or three-part breath, is a variation on Khumbaka.
Bringing the brain into balance for better decisions and emotional regulation: Nadi Shodhana (alternate nostril breathing) stimulates equally the left and right sides of the brain and body, and brings us back into center. Throughout the course of the day, the respiratory system is cycling between left nostril and right nostril dominance. In the transitions, there is balance between the two. This breathing practice takes over the sine wave, and brings both into balance immediately. The equalized breath state is the best place to initiate coherent decision making.
There are other techniques, and dozens of variations on each one- it truly is a science, developed over thousands of years. For example, to diverting anxiety and anger, a good yoga teacher will prescribe Bee Breath/ Brahmari. For headaches and tension in the face and jaw, and to clean the back of the throat, Lion’s Breath. This is also suggested for endocrine/thyroid stimulation.
Our bodies are designed to heal, and the breath is one of the best toolsets we have for taking charge of the body’s unconscious systems and redirecting their actions and flow.
Better than any drug.