Why “Just Breathe!” is my universal advice

 In Science of Yoga

Slow breathing helps to decrease anxiety 

One afternoon I received a phone call from my friend, broken by anxiety. Her son went to an emergency surgery after a spine injury. She called me from a waiting room in the hospital as the surgery started. How could I help her from a thousand kilometers away? The only thing I could do was to stay with her on the phone and tell her to breathe slowly. The surgery went fine.

“By Exhaling And Restraining The Breath Also (The Mind Is Calmed).”  Patanjali Yoga Sutra, Chapter 1, Sutra 34

Ever since I use this as an all-purpose advice: breathe! Slow breathing helps to decrease anxiety, and increase feelings of relaxation, ease and comfort. How does this work?

4 mechanisms by which slow breathing changes emotions

1) Vagus nerve: The heartbeat speeds up when we inhale and slows down when we exhale. Imagine what happens when you practice slow breathing for a few minutes: the heart slows down, then speeds up on every breath cycle. This oscillation of heart rate depends on the parasympathetic system: the vagus nerve. Slow breathing increases the vagus activity. Information from the vagus transmitted to the brain  brings you to the state of relaxation, safety and calm.

2) Cerebral blood flow: A recent article in Current Opinion in Behavioral Science suggests that oscillations in the heart rate during slow breathing results in oscillations in the flow of blood to the brain. Brain regions associated with emotion regulation are among those that are mostly affected by the changes of blood flow. The rhythmic alterations of blood flow affect how these brain regions talk to each other. This results in a change to your emotional state.

“Positive feelings such as love, compassion, kindness and wonder often come with deep, comfortable and energizing breathing and open, affirming and enthusiastic feeling throughout the body.” Dough Keller, Refining the Breath

3) Olfactory nerve: A study published in the Journal of Neuroscience shows that direct stimulation of the olfactory nerve during nasal breathing results in a change of brain activity and optimizes information processing in emotion areas. The breathing cycle changes how people solve an emotion recognition task, such as categorizing faces expressing either fear or surprise.

4) Attention: Finally, slow breathing practice can be seen as a meditation. By focusing on the breath, we shift attention away from worry and negative thoughts.

“Movement of thought in the mind arises from the movement of prana; and movement of prana arises because of the movement of thought in consciousness.” Yoga Vasistha

How to slow down the breath

Modern studies, as well as ancient texts, recommend slow breathing at a pace of ten breaths per minute or less. Six breaths per minute is a rhythm that is often used in pranayama guidelines and research studies. This roughly means 10 seconds per one breath cycle. 

Practice Now!

Counting:  Sit in a comfortable position and inhale through your nose while counting slowly up to four. Feel how your lower ribs expand on the inhalation. Without pausing to hold the breath, exhale slowly through your nose while counting at the same speed. Engage your belly muscles gently with your exhalation.  Gradually increase the time of the inhalation and exhalation until you find a comfortable rhythm. You may use uneven counts, but in that case, see if you can make your exhalations a little longer than the inhalations. 

Paced breathing: Sometimes it might be easier to rely on an external rhythm, rather than do the counting. There are hundreds of mobile apps and youtube videos, offering sounds for paced breathing.  Find what works for you!

Heart-rate variability biofeedback: You could bring your slow breathing practice to a whole new high-tech level by using a biofeedback device. It measures your heart rate and transforms the data into a game for you to play on a computer or a phone. The goal of the game is to slow down the breath to maximize the heart-rate variability. 

Whether you count to yourself, use an app or a device, you can practice slow breathing anywhere, anytime. Do it while standing or sitting, in the office or on the train. Regular slow breathing improves cardiovascular health and emotional wellbeing. And it can really help in emergency situations.


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hi, i am IRINA

I am a yoga teacher and a scientist. In this blog I write about the most recent scientific research about yoga/meditation/mindfulness. Please leave comments and share your thoughts!

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