The book Breath (2020) written by James Nestor is circulating among the yogis, and it may be because it’s discounted on Amazon and we love a good deal, or because science continually releases “groundbreaking” research on why the quality of our breath directly correlates to the quality of our lives. I l o v e when science catches up with yoga.
This book is not a marketing tactic for yoga, although it should be because one of the eight limbs of the yogic path, as written in the Yoga Sutras (500 BCE), is pranayama or breath. Over two-thousand years later and scientists and yogis meet to discuss this ancient tool.
For the purpose of this journal entry I will stick to two points inspired by this book, my studies and the state of our world today.
Your breath is a reflection of your well-being in that your breath directly affects your heart rate variability.
Harvard Health published an article about how heart rate variability is a key indicator to our well-being.
Heart rate variability (HRV) is, simply put, the period of time between each heartbeat. This HRV reflects the balance we have within our autonomic nervous system namely between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system.
When we breathe in, our sympathetic nervous system (SNS, or “effort”) is stimulated. When we breathe out, our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS, or “ease”) is stimulated.
In yoga, we practice finding a balance between the inhale and exhale to balance the nervous system.
However, with a society in sensory overload, a constant need to produce and move, and an overwhelming sense of guilt around rest or time-off - I tend to place more emphasis on focusing on your exhales.
Even now, when asked to count to x amount of breaths, I find myself coming into a state of hyperventilation trying to reach x, only focusing on the next inhale, and forgetting about the importance of a full exhale.
So when pain, chaos or struggle arises in your life:
Count to 5 on the inhale, and count to 5 on your exhale
Then, begin to increase the count of your exhale by 1 each round as it feels comfortable
Practice until you feel more ease
HRV changes as you incorporate more mindfulness, meditation, sleep, and especially physical activity into your life. Yoga holds space for mindfulness, meditation, physical activity, and even sleep (if your savasana is extra yummy); which is why a lot of people turn to yoga.
There will be a whole other journal entry about the power of mindfulness, but for now, we can focus on the power of the breath.
Your breath can relieve inflammation.
In 2016, research was released stating, for the first time “that a single 20 min session of yogic breathing practice could reduce the levels of key pro-inflammatory biomarkers in saliva.” This is huge.
Stress begets inflammation and inflammation begets stress.
Have you ever felt pain in the morning and become stressed, anxious or guilty about it, and the pain becomes worse? I definitely have, especially when my mind had other plans.
This is a perpetual cycle of stress-induced pain. Feeling pain, doubling down on the feeling of the pain sucking, and creating more stress for more pain. But you can end this cycle.
And your ability to shift away from the pain starts with the breath and a little hope.
Neuroscience research suggests an “anatomic overlap in the pathway of chronic pain and depression. Positive psychological factors, namely hope, pain acceptance, and optimism, affect the adjustment to persistent pain.” In other words, our psychology (the way we think) affects our pain.
One of the greatest ways we can address inflammation in your body is by:
addressing the inherent stress of our minds about the pain in our bodies,
having compassion for our bodies and the pain we’re experiencing, and
coming back to the breath, knowing that you can breathe through your pain
By no means am I recommending to suspend your medical professionals advice about how to manage your pain, but I do recommend taking a breath the next time you are experiencing pain.
In a moment of pain, struggle or anxiety:
Notice your mind’s judgment of your pain
Is the mind showing ease, compassion v. hopelessness, guilt or shame?
Choose to make the shift toward ease and compassion
Mantras you can repeat to yourself:
I can breath through this pain
I can feel this pain, and I can move through this pain
Whether you are tuning into your well-being (finding balance within the breath), or working to reduce stress and inflammation in your life (utilizing your breath), the breath is your answer.
Modern science has proven over two-thousand years later that breathing is the “power switch” to our autonomic nervous system that has “been inside us all this time, just waiting to be tapped” (Nestor, 202).
Breathing is the single most important act that we do every day. Tune in and reap the benefits.
“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.” ― Thích Nhất Hạnh
Breath: the new science of a lost art by James Nestor (2020)
Pain and Psychology—A Reciprocal Relationship. The Oschner Journal. Nalini Vadivelu, MD, Alice M. Kai, BA, Gopal Kodumudi, BS, MS, Karine Babayan, BA, Manuel Fontes, MD, and Matthew M. Burg, PhD.
Yogic breathing when compared to attention control reduces the levels of pro-inflammatory biomarkers in saliva: a pilot randomized controlled trial, BMC Complementary Medicine and Therapies, Waleed O. Twal, Amy E. Wahlquist & Sundaravadivel Balasubramanian.
Heart rate variability: A new way to track well-being. Harvard Health Medical Publishing. Marcelo Campos, MD