Your Breath is a Portal to Your Nervous System

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    Pranayama is the yogic practice of controlling the breath. Prana means ‘life force’. In yogic philosophy, learning how to direct the breath in various ways is believed to rejuvenate the mind and body. Pranayama is central to the practice of yoga and its beneficial effects can be explained by modern science.

    Our breathing is a part of our autonomic (involuntary) nervous system that we consciously control. The respiratory system is directly connected to our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. These intricate systems connect the brain to all our vital organs via the vagus nerve; enabling us to fight, flee, or freeze in survival situations, or relax, play, and connect when we feel safe.

    Slowing down and deepening our breath elicits the relaxation response, which reduces physiological and psychological stress. Studies have shown that breathing slowly and deeply (diaphragmatic breathing) reduces blood pressure, cortisol, anxiety, and depression. This state of ‘rest and digest’ decreases negative effects of chronic stress caused by inflammation and free radicals that can harm cells and cause disease

    Most of us don’t think much about our breathing (unless we have a problem with it) because it happens on its own.

    However, we can improve the way that we breathe and reap many benefits, in addition to stress reduction (if that isn’t enough!). Increasing the capacity and function of our lungs can assist with respiratory conditions and recovery from respiratory illness. Diaphragmatic breathing also helps the organs and muscles in the abdomen and pelvic floor work better. A 2020 systematic review found multiple therapeutic benefits of yogic breathing for a variety of mental and physical conditions. 

    Singing isan accessible practice that has the advantages of breathing exercises, with added benefit if you sing with others! In my hometown of Kingston, a group of people are singing on-line as a choir to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 and help relieve loneliness and isolation. A recent uplifting story from the U.K.Singing lullabies breathes new life into those battling long COVID explains the mechanism very well!

    Breathing through the nose is optimal because the inhaled air is warmed, humidified, and filtered before it reaches the sinuses and lungs. Breathing through the nose has the added benefit of producing nitric oxide in the sinuses, which promotes the functioning of blood vessels and helps to destroy harmful viruses, bacteria, and fungi in the air.

    When engaging in a breath practice, start with attention to posture and breath awareness. 

    If you’d like to try this now, I invite you to take a few moments to notice the depth and quality of your breath e.g., is there any restriction or hesitancy? To align your spine, you can move your body to stack your sternum over the hips and then chin over your sternum. Next, relax your shoulders away from your ears. Imagine that the crown (top) of your head is being lifted towards the ceiling. Notice the depth and quality of your breath now. Has anything shifted? (BTW, this is an awesome mindfulness practice to incorporate into your day for better posture and breathing!)

    Shallow breathing and breath holding are prevalent and many people will be unaware they do either.

    Past trauma, stress, or anxiety are common factors. Habitual patterns of breathing and nervous system upregulation can be changed with practice, and in some cases, professional help. For some, simply wearing looser-fitting clothing will improve their ability to breathe fully!

    Some people may need individual guidance to find a breath practice that works for them. This includes people who find controlling their breath difficult or distressing (possibly due to a history of trauma), people with respiratory conditions or postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS). These individuals can benefit from a personalized approach to learning breath techniques at a comfortable pace. 

    I'm here to help, if you'd like assistance with breath, yoga or mindfulness practices. I offer in-person private sessions in Kingston and personal yoga coaching online throughout North America. 

    Click on the poster image below to access my restorative breath practices playlist!

    This article and video series was shared with my newsletter audience in February 2023. Sign up below!

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    Spiritual Lineage Acknowledgement

    Yoga's historical roots originated in India more than 5000 years ago.  I am evermore grateful to my teachers and for the ancient wisdom that informs my yoga practice and teaching. I strive to practice and uphold the ethics of yoga to create a more peaceful, just world. I commit to engaging in continuing education and self-reflection to avoid cultural appropriation.

    Land Acknowledgement

    I offer respect and gratitude to the First Peoples and caretakers of the land I call home: the traditional territory of the Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee and Huron-Wendat nations.