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At the Heart of the Breath

Updated: Sep 22


If you’re looking for an avenue which allows you to voluntarily tap into the autonomic nervous system, or that part of the nervous system you have little control over, you will find it in the breath. Not surprisingly, functional breathing can vastly improve health and happiness; I hope to explain the importance of the breath while sparking some interest about the amazingly mysterious power ingrained in every breath.

Pranayama is the Sanskrit word meaning extension of the life force, or control of the life force. It is also one of the 8 limbs of Yoga (the postures, or Asanas, are another limb). When your Yoga teacher says “we are going to start with some Pranayama”, you are going to practice breathing exercises. Breathing exercises go back thousands of years for their ability to enhance health and happiness.

Breathing exercises are used to promote functional breathing, which results in healing along both the emotional and physical spectrums. In Winter 2014, I took a life changing class called Biofeedback where I learned the easy-to-follow components of functional breathing. They are:

  • Diaphragmatic breathing to increase gas distribution in the lungs

  • Breathing through the nose to warm, moisten and filter the air

  • Slower breathing

  • Time to inhale is less than or equal to time to exhale

  • Volume – now this may be surprising – is shallow, or a small amount of air. Don’t stress out about breathing deeply.

  • Breath is silent

  • Posture is upright with relaxed shoulders and jaw.

In school, I learned the normal respiratory rate for adult humans is 12-20 breaths per minute when at rest. Yoga and other practices involving meditation recognize this optimal number to be less than 10, most optimally 6, breaths per minute. The rate of six breaths per minute is thought to contribute the following:

  • Promote mental and physical relaxation

  • Slow the heart rate

  • Lower blood pressure

  • Increases heart rate variability (HRV)

Respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) is a measurement of autonomic nervous system health. It is the term used to describe the variation in an electrocardiogram (ECG) R-R interval (this is interesting information, but don’t worry about understanding it if you don’t want to. Lots of information available on google) accompanying our inhales and exhales. It corresponds to heart rate variability (HRV), which is variation in heart rate measured over the span of a breath. When this variation is at its highest, or more than 10 beats per minute, it is has been shown our heart health is optimized.

The vagus nerve, AKA the great wanderer or cranial nerve X, is the parasympathetic boss of the sino-atrial node (SA Node), the pace maker of the heart. When we inhale, our heart speeds up because the vagus nerve’s impulses are suppressed. When we exhale, our vagus nerve is stimulated and it puts the brakes on the intrinsic heart rate of 100-120 beats per minute via its influence over the sino atrial node. When we have maximal HRV, we are thought to be in optimal heart health. The term describing this is vagal tone, and vagal tone is positively correlated with parasympathetic nervous system activity. HRV is thought to decrease with sympathetic nervous system dominance, which is one of the results of either acute or chronic stress. When stress is chronic, HRV is decreased much of the time.

To practice functional breathing, do a breathing exercise! Start by sitting in the most comfortable position you know. In finding your seat, remember every action has an equal and opposite reaction – pressing down will lift you up. If you chose the floor, you may want to sit on a cushion to lift the hips a few inches. Let your sitz bones (your ischial tuberosities) fall down evenly, move your shoulders back and your blades away from your ears, lift your collar bones and send your heart/chest forward, keeping mind not to let the ribs jut out. Separate the top and bottom teeth to relax the jaw. (Aside: My dentist once told me the only time my teeth should touch are when chewing or swallowing.) Let your lower extremities be heavy and relaxed. Place one hand on your belly, and one hand on your chest. Have your eyes closed or open, whichever allows the most comfort. Begin to focus on your breathing. Breathe into the hand on your belly, feeling it move before you feel the hand on your chest move, as if you are filling up with air from the bottom-up. This is diaphragmatic breathing.

Try to hold yourself in this position with minimal tension. You will eventually find a seat and breath pattern that is dynamic yet static. Length of time practicing varies from 5 minutes to 60 minutes. Remember, although it sounds simple, this is hard work and takes years of practice. Personally, I have only scratched the surface.

Many people prefer guidance when beginning breath work, and I recommend using an app. Breathing Zone (http://www.breathing-zone.com/) has both a free and $3.99 version for iPhone and Android. Furthermore, the FDA has approved breathing exercises to treat high blood pressure and there is now an FDA approved medical device called the Resper-ate, a breath-training machine. It uses melodies and other guides to help patients find a pattern that is less than 10 breaths per minute. This is a pricier option at about $100.00/device, but I would sure love to get my hands on one! I am not sure if there is insurance coverage.

Group meetings are helpful for many people, and most cities and towns now have Yoga, tai chi, meditation, and other mind/body classes.

If you have a breathing exercise you love, please let me know about it. I am always interested in learning how others breathe.


1. These notes courtesy of Brad Lichtenstein, ND. Watch him discuss the breath here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KiyikxA29ck&feature=kp

2. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3233900/

3. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24380741

4. http://circ.ahajournals.org/content/93/5/1043.full

5. http://www.webmd.com/hypertension-high-blood-pressure/news/20041015/resperate-device-may-lower-blood-pressure

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