Breath Is The Key To Wellness

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

That breathing is essential for survival is common knowledge but proper breathing is a highly important key to mental and physical health.

However, there is a specialty of psychology called, "Respiratory Psychophysiology," which studies just that, the effect of breathing on body and mind.

Until two years ago, I had no idea that such a discipline even existed. Then a friend invited me to co-present a workshop with him at the international annual convention of the society. There I was exposed to a rich fare of state of the art research on breathing and its effect on such mind-body systems as heart, lungs and immune function.

You might want to specially note down the term, "Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia (RSA)." The word, "arrhythmia" sounds bad because it is suggestive of a dysfunction such as, "cardiac arrhythmia." Far from it, RSA is a good thing. RSA occurs in the tract from heart to brain, in the aorta and carotid arteries sinuses and the respiratory centers in the brain stem. This tract involves monitoring and regulation of the mechanisms related to heart activity and blood circulation.

The bigger the RSA, the better it is for your heart function and blood pressure. Here is the breathing news: RSA is connected with your breathing rate. Short and rapid breathing is associated with small RSA, and slow and long breath with larger RSA. Translation: Slow and long breath can be helpful in supporting your heart function and lowering blood pressure!

The moral of the story is, "Breathe slow!" You have nothing to lose. No extra charge for breathing slow. No prescription to fill from the local pharmacy and, to the best of my knowledge, no additional taxes or insurance premiums levied on slow breathing.

Do you know how fast or slow you habitually breathe? In order to answer this, you will have to count the number of breaths you take in one minute. Twelve to eighteen breaths per minute is the average breathing rate. Hopefully, your breathing rate is in the average range. Whatever is your present rate of breathing per minute try to slow it down even further. Simply paying attention to breathing helps to improve it. Count your breaths for a minute or two. Notice the flow of breath into your body. Such focus and awareness automatically tends to slow down the breathing rate.

In order to slow breathing even further, silently count while you inhale and exhale. Count at the rate of one count per second. For example, if you complete your inhalation in a count of four, it means, it means that the length of your inhalation is roughly about four seconds.

Likewise, count as you exhale. If you exhale to a count of 5 or 6 and inhale for a count of 4 or 5, you are doing really well! Most people can benefit from a breathing pattern in which exhalation is slightly longer than inhalation.

Slow and smooth exhalation is the key. It is the slow and long exhalation that directly affects RSA. Focus on exhalation. Inhalation will automatically improve unless an individual has some mechanical-medical problem. Be patient! It takes a long time to change life-long breathing habits.

Some scientists have specifically studied the breathing rate of six breaths per minute. Six breaths per minute amounts to 10-second breaths. Ideally, for a 10 second breath, inhalation should be 4 or 5 seconds and exhalation about 5 or 6 seconds.

The rate of six breaths per minute or slow breathing in general, does the following: promotes mental and physical relaxation; slows down the heart rate, lowers blood pressure, raises immune system activity and increases "Heart Rate Variability (HRV)."

HRV is another term which you might want to specially note. HRV basically refers to how much your heart rate fluctuates in response to various emotional and physical events. HRV is an indicator of the extent of the recoverability of your heart. For example, when an unexpected loud noise in the background startles you, your heart rate shoots up but then it settles down to your normal heart rate in a short while. However, if it takes your heart a long time to recover from the shock, it may not be a good sign.

Let's look at yet another example of healthy heart variability. During aerobic work out you bring your heart rate to the desired peak level and as you soon as you stop, your heart rate begins to slow down. In a short while, your heart rate gets to your normal. But for a person who has low HRV, it might take longer to recover from such elevation.

It appears that many mind-body disorders such as heart disease, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, depression and chronic stress are associated with low HRV. Preliminary evidence suggests that increase in the HRV may have a salutary effect on health.

Here is the good news: Routine practice of slow breathing over time may increase your HRV.

Measure your rate of breathing when you are not exerting yourself or emotionally charged. Don't be discouraged if your breathing rate is higher than 18 or 20 breaths per minute. What matters is that you form the intention of slowing down your breathing.

Don't waste your breath on worrying. Pay steady attention to your breathing pattern. Frequently measure the length of your breath by mentally counting numbers or a word. Allow the breath to do the rest!

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Copyright 2005, Mind Publications 
Posted September 2005


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