In yoga we use breathing as a fundamental tool in both posture work and more overtly through the practice of pranyama (breathing practices). There is a way to breathe – known as coherent breathing – where we can synchronise heart rate and even blood flow, with respiration. This process happens when we are breathing slowly and deeply. Specifically, this needs to happen at a rate of 5 breaths/minute (yes that is a 12-second long breath!!). The average person breathes at 15-20 breaths/min (some are at 30 or more!!). This rate of 5 breaths/min brings about emotional and physiological coherence. However, it can only happen if we breathe using our diaphragm.
Unproductive breathing is the human condition
When we don’t breathe coherently we become incoherent (in thought, behavior etc). For many of us incoherent, unproductive breathing is a lifetime habit, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) becomes dominant. We’re in the realm of fearing, fleeing or fighting. And the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) becomes redundant. The PNS is the side of our nervous system that induces the ‘relaxation response’. Without a doubt we all have inherent access to this deep internal calm state. However, through unproductive breathing habits our system becomes dysfunctional and is no longer able to counteract the stressed nervous system. This leads to a pretty negative and unpleasant way of being in the world.
Our terrible experience
With sympathetic nervous system dominance, caused by unproductive breathing, we experience:
- poor circulation (cold hands, feet, tingling, numbness)
- muscle tightness (particularly trapezius in neck and shoulders)
- pain (can lead to chronic pain)
- increased rate of ageing
And a myriad of other symptoms!
Learn how to breath coherently
We can learn how to breathe coherently. This involves the following:
- Diaphragmatic action – the diaphragm is a strong sheet of muscle that sits in the torso separating the abdominal organs from the thoracic cage. It is the most important breathing muscle. It can move in a range of 10 cm. Yet in many people its range may be 1 cm or less. When the diaphragm is used to at least 60% of its capacity in breathing it brings mind and body into balance.
- Effect on the Heart – the diaphragm is connected to the heart and its action massages the heart. As much as 65% of heart cells are neural cells, identical to those found in the brain, your heart has thoughts and a ‘mind’! In addition, the heart is a powerful EMF energy generator (the electromagnetic energy that a coherent heart kicks out can be measured up to 15 feet outside of the body!!), and can affect the energy of brainwaves (a process called entrainment) and also of other people.
- Engage the parasympathetic nervous system – the diaphragm is connected to the vagus nerve, part of the PNS, and its action serves to increase the functionality of the PNS
- Entrainment – through coherent breathing we can entrain the heart into coherence (high HRV), and the brainwaves into alpha or even theta.
These four points mean that when we learn how to breathe coherently, we notice changes in both body and mind. Nevertheless, it is important to realise that for some, to begin with we may simply feel MORE pain, more tiredness or exhaustion. This won’t last, it will pass quickly. Indeed this only happens because we are actually really exhausted and/or in pain. But this experience has been ‘hidden’ by the over active SNS. Stress hormones such as cortisol are at permanently elevated levels and serve to mask this. Without a doubt, in the long run this state of elevation will reduce our immune response.
Constant and consistent effort
But if we practice consistently and regularly these problems will diminish and we will start to feel the many benefits of coherent breathing:
- reduced pain
- more energy
- improved sleep
- reduced blood pressure
- reduced symptoms of depression and/or anxiety
- increased performance
- improved emotional control
- increased resilience and less stress
- better decision making
Coherent breathing is the key to increasing our immunity. building our confidence, and achieving happiness and bliss.
You can find even more resources for accessing your most resourceful self on my Embodied Living podcast site.