The science and practice of mindful breathing

Jun 12, 2020 — Dr. Ananya Awasthi
The science and practice of mindful breathing

How do you learn to breathe? Many of us may wonder, if that is even a question. But age-old traditions and volumes of scientific literature are increasingly converging together to show that your breath might just be the single biggest predictor of health and wellbeing. Moreover, trials with mindful breathing have been scientifically shown to reduce symptoms of stress, anxiety, depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)[1], which may be very relevant in the context of coping with the Corona crisis.

This goes back to how our bodies function. The depth, rate and nature of breathing are strongly correlated with our emotions[2]. Since, emotions can put us in a spiralling vortex of stress, hyper-reactivity, self-doubt, depressive states and impaired decision making, while also impacting our blood pressure and heart rate; it might be worthwhile to control what affects our emotions - breathing!

1. Know your science (What is the science behind breathing?)

Before we learn how to practice healthy breathing, we should know the science behind it. All our internal body processes like the pumping of heart, breathing through lungs or digestion of food, are controlled by what we call as the Autonomic Nervous System. It has two complimentary parts. The first part (sympathetic nervous system) is what drives us to “fight” or “flight”, making us anxious and reactive. On the other hand, the second part (para-sympathetic nervous system) promotes a state of “rest” or digest”.

Mindful breathing or Pranayama are a set of breathing exercises designed to promote the regulation of these sympathetic reflexes. These practices can modulate our physiological parameters like blood pressure and heart rate which in effect can improve our control over negative emotions like anger or rage; manage stress, anxiety and depression and finally improve our emotional and physiological health.

2. Mindful Breathing (How are mindfulness and breathing related?)

The first step in practicing mindfulness, is to become conscious of your breath. And to do that you need not be sitting in deep meditation. Even while you are brushing your teeth, working on your laptop or cutting vegetables, just take a moment and observe your breath. Start focusing on how your body feels as you inhale and exhale. Even the awareness of breath in our day to day lives can go a long way in improving our mental and physical health.

A simple behavioural technique to train yourself in mindful breathing, is to count the number of breaths. The focus here is not on the numerical counting itself but on providing you with a tool for experiential awareness of breath[3].

3. Learning how to breathe correctly (How not to breathe?)

Stop incorrect and unhealthy ways of breathing. Here are three of the most common and unhealthy breathing patterns:

  • Pause and check - are you breathing from your mouth?
    Try not to breathe through your mouth and gradually move towards breathing only through your nostrils, which is a healthier way to breathe.

  • Keep a hand over your tummy - does it contract when you inhale?
    The correct way of breathing through the abdomen is when your tummy expands as you inhale, and contracts as you exhale.

  • Does your shoulder rise up as you breath in and go down when you breathe out, especially when you are anxious?
    This is called collarbone/clavicular breathing which is the most inefficient way of oxygenating your body. It uses only the upper part of your chest to pump in the air and gives you the least amount of oxygen per breath.

4. Deep breathing (How can you learn the art and practice of Deep Breathing?)

Originally advocated as a yogic breathing practice, in modern science it is known as “Abdominal Breathing," "Deep Breathing," or "Diaphragmatic Breathing. Evidence shows that this practice can regulate blood pressure, improve physiological efficiency and, reduce the symptoms of asthma[4] and obstructive lung diseases[5]; which is especially helpful for smokers.

To practice this breathing exercise, you need to first visualize how your diaphragm is positioned. The diaphragm is an arch shaped muscle which separates the thorax from the abdomen. Picture it as a concave umbrella sitting on top of your tummy. Now, take a deep breath, without explicitly moving your chest or abdomen, and try pushing this umbrella down against your abdomen. This allows your lungs to expand completely and you can inhale the maximum amount of air possible, as per your ventilatory capacity. And when you exhale, the umbrella gets relaxed again and its arch moves back to its resting position sitting atop the abdomen.

5. Cleansing your body energy (What is Alternate Nostril Yoga Breathing-ANYB?)

ANYB, also known as Anuloma Viloma in study of Pranayama, is the practice of breathing alternatively through your right and left nostrils. Research has shown that ANYB can significantly reduce your blood pressure and heart rate which is the root cause of all cardiac diseases and metabolic disorders[6].

Follow the simple four step process described below to initiate yourself into the practice. Sit cross legged with an upright spine and exhale completely with both your nostrils open. Now use your thumb to cover the right nostril and inhale through your left nostril. Next use your ring finger to slowly cover your left nostril and exhale through right nostril. Now inhale again from your right nostril, keeping your left nostril closed. Finally exhale through your left nostril, again closing your right nostril with your thumb.

Try out some of these tips described above to practice the healthy way of breathing and experience the change. Conclusively, as the leading exponent of mindfulness, Dr. Richard Davidson says, "The cool thing is we always are breathing, so we can do this anytime, anywhere.”

Dr. Ananya Awasthi
Masters in Global Health from the Harvard School of Public Health

[1] Richard P. Brown and Patricia L. Gerbarg.The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.Aug 2005.711-717.
[2] Philippot, P., Chapelle, G., & Blairy, S. (2002). Respiratory feedback in the generation of emotion. Cognition & Emotion, 16(5), 605-627.
[3] Levinson, D. B., Stoll, E. L., Kindy, S. D., Merry, H. L., & Davidson, R. J. (2014). A mind you can count on: validating breath counting as a behavioral measure of mindfulness. Frontiers in psychology, 5, 1202.
[4] Girodo, M., Ekstrand, K. A., & Metivier, G. J. (1992). Deep diaphragmatic breathing: rehabilitation exercises for the asthmatic patient. Archives of physical medicine and rehabilitation, 73(8), 717-720.
[5] Miller, W. F. (1954). A physiologic evaluation of the effects of diaphragmatic breathing training in patients with chronic pulmonary emphysema. The American journal of medicine, 17(4), 471-477.
[6] Telles S, Sharma SK, Balkrishna A. Blood pressure and heart rate variability during yoga-based alternate nostril breathing practice and breath awareness. Med Sci Monit Basic Res. 2014;20:184–93

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