The Power Of Breathwork
What Is Breathwork?
It refers to any type of breathing exercises or techniques. Breathwork is an active physical exercise significant in and of itself to the development of the individual and the whole person.
With origins in the ancient Vedic texts from India, breathwork was developed through 50 specific and distinct practices all collated for the practice of Pranayama, which means “controlling the breath” in Sanskrit. The practice entails either a short 5–20 minute session or a longer 45–60+ minute session of controlled breathing. The controlled breathing exercises always have some rhythmic pattern to them. This pattern allows for a deeper awareness of the breath as it enters, holds, and exits. The time, intensity, and volume are all important parts of the breath and breathwork exercise.
You have most likely encountered some version of breathwork in your everyday life. Often Yogis will end the class with a lion’s breath pose to help with energy. Or, maybe as an athlete you were taught how to control your breathing to rest and recover. Even swimmers and horn instrument players need to learn how to notice their breathing, control their breaths, and improve their ability.
So, not only have you experienced some form of breathwork, but also you have experienced the benefits of breathwork. Simply paying attention to your body allows you to control the reactions of your body and calm your mind.
What Are The Benefits Of Breathwork?
It is one thing to talk about the connection of the mind and body through practiced breathwork, but it is another to connect western science to this eastern practice. However, there are many studies that support what Yogis have been saying: your breathing matters. It matters because it allows you to draw inward and focus on the health and welfare of your whole self. Below is a short discussion of the benefits of breathwork western medicine has now recognized.
Breathing Can Calm Your Brain
It is easy to believe that during times of stress, anxiety, PTSD, and even depression. When you are having a bad day or evening you often need to take a moment for yourself, to listen to yourself and calm. This has massive beneficial effects on your stress and mental state. Practitioners have used controlled breathing for centuries across the world because it is believed to promote mental calming and contemplative states.
True to form, breathing does have an effect on higher order behavior and thinking. This is due to the interactions of breathing and brain function through the preBötzinger complex. This complex is a tight cluster of a few thousand neurons that propagates respiratory rhythm. In other words, it amplifies your controlled breathing through the high functions of your brain overpowering any out of rhythm thoughts, i.e. anxiety, stress, panic attacks. Breathing calms your thoughts, and relaxes your mind.
Breathing Can Regulate Your Blood Pressure
Slow and controlled breathing can have significant effects on your blood pressure. This is understandable since stress and blood pressure are so interrelated. Blood pressure is important to your daily health and to your long-term cardiovascular health. Too often a poor diet and work environment leads to hypertension and an increased risk to heart attack and stroke.
However, taking long and slow breaths can actually help control your blood pressure. A study from 2005 published in Hypertension, an AHA Journal concluded by saying that “slow breathing reduces blood pressure and enhances baroreflex sensitivity in hypertensive patients. These effects appear potentially beneficial in the management of hypertension.” What is baroreflex sensitivity? Baroreflex sensitivity is how your body regulates your blood pressure via your pulse. So, this means that not only does your blood pressure lower but also your ability to manage it over extended periods of time improves.
Counting Breaths Controls Emotional Chaos
A more interesting benefit studied by western medicine is the effect of breathwork on the emotional centers of the brain. Often our emotions can feel like a whirlwind or tornado, circling chaos that drives stress and anxiety. A 2018 study decided to explore the neurophysiology of the connection between breathwork and therapy. The basis for this is the idea that controlled and rhythmic breathing can help with patients and people in emotional distress or turmoil.
The key component to the study was counting. Physically requiring the individuals to count each breath forced the emotional centers of the brain to become more organized and systematic. The implication here is that breathwork does not just help with superficial or daily stress but deeper emotional stress and troubles.
Rhythmic Breathing Affects Memory
Breathing is obviously central to living and thinking. Proper oxygen content in the brain allows you to focus on the exterior stimuli instead of focusing on surviving. It is more difficult to think clearly if you are on the top of a mountain versus at the edge of an ocean.
So, it would make sense that parts of your brain would show effects during breathwork. Rhythmic breathing has shown to enhance the activity in the hippocampus where memories form, live, and are remembered. Certain types of breathing can show clear improvement in electrical activity in the amygdala, the brain’s emotional center.
Organized Breathing Can Help The Immune System And Metabolism
Lastly, but most importantly, breathwork has been shown to improve an individual’s general health through improved energy metabolism, insulin secretion and inflammatory pathways. What does this mean? Well, it means that breathwork operates on a more fundamental physiological basis than just stress, emotions, and blood pressure. It works on your immune system.
Breathing directly affects the parasympathetic nervous system, which is in charge of stimulation of the “rest-and-digest” or “feed and breed” activities. These are the most primal of human activities. When the body is healthy it is active. If it is sick it isn’t. Breathwork triggers a parasympathetic nervous system response. It is akin to a reset button on a digital device, or flicking your on/off switch. Your body fully resets.
Is Breathwork For Me?
Like yoga asanas and meditation, breathwork is a commitment that yields vast physical, mental, and eternal benefits to the whole individual (mind and body integrated). The benefits are real. However, remember that as an inner practice, yoga, meditation, and breathwork are more than just the sum of their parts. The benefits listed above are only one aspect of the mind-body connection. What is important is your relationship with your physically, emotionally healthier self and mind.