When we bring awareness to our breath, we connect with our autonomous nervous system, which in turn can help us find balance, even when we’re facing challenges or stressful situations. Recent research also seems to suggest that mindfulness of breath may actually change the way our minds work.
If we bring kind and curious awareness to our breath, we can get clear information about how we’re feeling. Think of the way your breath shifts when you’re facing a challenge, are excited or nervous, or are sleepy or energized. Oftentimes, our breath can help us know how our nervous system is responding to stimulus, because our breath is part of the autonomic nervous system, which has two main divisions: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
In the NPR article “Just Breathe,” the breath-stress connection is explained: “[R]apid breathing is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system. It’s part of the ‘fight or flight’ response—the part activated by stress. In contrast, slow, deep breathing actually stimulates the opposing parasympathetic reaction—the one that calms us down.” Physician and author Esther Sternberg is cited as saying, “The relaxation response is controlled by another set of nerves—the main nerve being the Vagus nerve. Think of a car throttling down the highway at 120 miles an hour. That’s the stress response, and the Vagus nerve is the brake. When you are stressed, you have your foot on the gas, pedal to the floor. When you take slow, deep breaths, that is what is engaging the brake.” This highlights the influence our breath can have on the way we respond to stressors.
In a New York Times article about controlled breathing, Columbia University associate clinical professor of psychiatry Richard P. Brown, MD, is cited as stating, “When you take slow, steady breaths, your brain gets the message that all is well and activates the parasympathetic response.... When you take shallow rapid breaths or hold your breath, the sympathetic response is activated.”
Brown and Patricia L. Gerbarg, MD, in the The Healing Power of the Breath, describe a specialized breath practice called Coherent Breathing. The authors explain that Coherent Breathing supports a higher heart rate variability, which “is associated with a healthier, more flexible cardiovascular system, a more balanced and resilient stress-response system, and overall greater health and longevity.” In other words, our breath supports resiliency, which helps us bounce back even after we encounter challenging or stressful situations. Not surprising, the first step to learning Coherent Breathing is mindfulness of breath.
The Zen poet, and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh, in Peace Is Every Breath, writes, “The practice of mindful breathing may be very simple, but the effect can be great. Focusing on our in-breath, we release the past, we release the future, we release our projects. We ride on that breath with all our being. Our mind comes back to our body, and we are truly there, alive, in the present moment.” By connecting to our breath, we help our mind and body to more effectively attuned to the present moment and be, as Hanh mentions, “aware of what’s going on inside us and around us.” Having a fuller awareness of what’s going on internally and externally helps us gain greater perspective and find equanimity in the midst of challenges.
By bringing moments of awareness to our breath, we “engage different parts of our brain,” according to Northwestern University associate professor Moran Cerf. He summarizes the research of a recent study that shows that choosing to control our respiration, “even merely focusing on one’s breathing, yield[s] additional access and synchrony between brain areas.” This greater connection happening between different parts of our brain, and our mind and body, Cerf argues, “may lead to greater control, focus, calmness, and emotional control.”
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ABOUT ARGOS GONZÁLEZ:
Argos Gonzalez is a teacher, lecturer, and mindfulness and yoga instructor. He has 13 years of experience teaching high school in the Bronx and teaches pre-service and in-service teachers at Hunter College School of Education in NY. Argos is certified through both Mindful Schools and Little Flower Yoga (LFY), and currently serves as the director of professional development for The School Yoga Project, a program of LFY. For more information about Little Flower Yoga and The School Yoga Project, visit www.littlefloweryoga.com. Contact Argos by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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