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The Magic of Breathing: Stop and Smell the Roses


It is so easy to take each breath or breathing for granted, yet it is the very essence of life. Breathing is effortless and doesn't require an annual subscription. As I grow older and realize I might be a bit out of shape, breathing becomes more front and center.

Mary and I decided to do some hiking recently on a trip to Lancaster, Ohio. The terrain in that part of the state is moderately hilly, and there are some steep climbs. On one particularly grueling hill, I had to stop a few times to catch my breath.

"I need to get in shape," I said between gulps of air.

Breathing impacts our entire life, even more than being physically fit or unfit. Did you ever notice how we tighten up when we feel afraid or in danger? That's because breathing changes in the face of real or perceived threats. When we think about some future events where we notice anxiety or fear, we breathe faster and shallower. Did you ever think that to be able to smell, we inhale through the nose?

Of course, in mindfulness meditation, we are told to watch our breath, which most of us find a bit boring until we understand the science behind the practice.

Breath of Life

In the October edition of Mindful Magazine (Thank you, Donna Dickman, for the subscription), the feature article is devoted to the topic of breathing, "Breath of Life." The author, Hugh Delany, interviews experts in the field. Who guessed there is a whole field devoted to breathing?

One psychologist, Bellisa Vranich, found that helping her patients learn how to breathe helped them relax and step back enough so that they could lean into the therapy session. Richard Brown, an associate clinical psychiatry professor at Columbia University and, Patricia Gerbarg, an assistant clinical professor at New York Medical College, work with victims of trauma like the survivors of the 9/11 World Trade Center attack and Sudan and Rwanda genocides. They teach the survivors breathing practices. These practices not only improve health but also helps people to step back a moment so they can see the problem more clearly.

For anyone who has experienced trauma, it may even help in the healing process. Delany asked Brown and Gerbarg what the impact of breathing practice is on trauma.

Trauma

"What trauma does is disrupt the healthy balance of different parts of our nervous system, which are meant to work together. . . When people have to strive to survive, their stress response becomes overactive, and the soothing part of the system declines. But we've found that you can bring it back into balance by shifting the way you breathe, our feeling is that breathing breaks the link between negative emotions and the memory of events. It kind of washes away the stored pattern of the incident and reformats your cerebral cortex."

So many of us have memories of terrible events; these traumatic thoughts get stuck in our consciousness and impact our emotional and physical well-being for decades. It could be a memory of violence, neglect, a significant loss, or an accident. These experiences create real suffering.

These experts say there is research we are not helpless victims in the face of these events but can actively do something here and now that could lead us to get help or to help relieve the distress we feel in the moment. Inserting a breath between the unwanted feelings and the memory that is the source of the emotions is a huge first step toward healing and creating resilience.

The Mechanics

Let's look at the mechanics of good breathing and bad breathing. The sympathetic nervous system is in charge of the fight, flight, or freeze response while the parasympathetic nervous system regulates the rest and digest, restore and repair response. Breathing from the neck and shoulders sends a signal to the vagus nerve (the body's communication link to the brain) that there is a danger, send in the troops or sound the retreat. While deep breathing from the abdomen/diaphragm sends the signal to the brain that all-is-well message. We can relax, become creative, and feel safe enough to look at difficult situations or memories with newfound courage.

Think of that - just the way you breathe can make the difference from feeling fearful and stressed all the time to feel more relaxed and energetic. And there's even more! Deep breathing done regularly oxygenates the blood, which results in more excellent health and overall physical well-being. Who would have guessed?

Dad’s Yogic Breathing

There are ancient breathing traditions in Yoga, for example. When I was a teenager, my father would take me to school on cold mornings. One day as we were in the car, I noticed he was breathing funny, "Are you all right, Dad?"

"Oh, yea. I am just practicing yogic breathing."

“What?”

"I got a book on yogic breathing, and I practice breath techniques on the drive to and from work. It makes me feel a lot better."

My Dad was in a tank during World War II, and his nickname at work was "hard arms." He was a church-going, rosary rattling catholic who had a lingering aroma of beer, sausage, and sauerkraut. Here he was practicing yogic breathing. I was in shock. It only took me fifty years to realize he might have been on to something.

Benefits

Here are some of the benefits to a breathing practice involving lengthening your inhale and exhale; abdominal breathing:

  • A boost in immune health and reduced inflammation

  • Less stress and a greater sense of inner peace

  • Stabilizing blood pressure, improving circulation, and slowing the heart rate

  • Release of tension

(The Healing Power of Breath; Brown & Gerbarg)

So what’s not to like about a breathing practice? Why not start right now?

Two Practices

My Dad practiced yogic breathing driving to and from work every day. Here's the one you can practice anywhere.

#1. Anyone - Resonant or Coherent Breathing

It's never too early to start a breath practice. With the stress and anxiety that young people experience at school and in social media, one excellent parenting practice is to invite your children to a simple breath practice. It will be weird at first, depending on how old your children are.

#2. Children - Bee Breath

Sometimes it seems too easy. Why not stop right now and practice Resonant Breathing? It only takes three minutes. What have you got to lose? And imagine what you have to gain.

- Mike Schoenhofer

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