The Health Benefits of Slow BreathingTips & Tricks
You may have been in a Yoga class and have heard the teacher say various things such as “let the breath lead the movement,” or, “if you’re not aware of the breath, then you are just doing calisthenics!” You have probably also been invited by your teacher to do some Pranayama, or conscious breathwork, things like Ujjayi breath, breath retentions and alternate nostril breathing. Maybe it seems strange, especially when you just want to move and sweat. But conscious breathing is an integral part of the Yoga Sutras and now, more and more western scientific research is connecting the positive health benefits of slow breathing onto specific body functions and mental well-being.
Maybe this is to prove what the Yoga Sutra’s knew all along, but if you need more reasons to breathe deeply, read on. We also offer a guide to practicing Sama Vritti (square breathing) at the end.
Conscious breathing is an essential aspect of many meditative practices. In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali referred to the breath as ‘Prana’ which also means energy. Pranayama is a set of Yogic breathing techniques aimed at regulating the breath. Pranayama is considered an intermediary between the mind and the body.
These predominantly traditional eastern practices that focus on consciously controlling the depth of breath, the frequency and the fullness of inhalation and exhalation are now also included in a growing number of scientific studies, particularly in the area of Neuroscience.
In western culture, it is generally believed that breath control has positive impacts on wellness, reducing stress and relaxation. Breathing techniques are often created with specific therapeutic aims in mind, are based on slowing breath frequency and are sometimes referred to as “paced breathing.”
New studies are digging deeper into the specific correlations between mental functions, psychological behaviour and breath work.
Studies show that slow breathing techniques improve the interactions between our Autonomic Nervous System (the system responsible for body functions that happen without our conscious awareness, such as heartbeat, breathing and digestion), the brain, the Central Nervous System and parasympathetic activities that are related to well-being and emotional control.
Common findings include the interaction between slow breathing techniques and the cardio-respiratory system and the Parasympathetic Nervous System – a division of our nervous system known as the “rest and digest” system that conserves energy, slows the heart rate and relaxes digestion.
Slow breathing practices promote the parasympathetic system over the sympathetic one. The sympathetic system is responsible for our “fight or flight” response, that is our stress response that increases blood flow and heart rate. Great for when we have to run away from a tiger, but not always suitable in everyday life! However, a lot of us in our modern lives are operating in fight or flight mode too often, dealing with work stress, financial stress, family, anxiety etc.
The vagus nerve controls the parasympathetic system. It runs from the brain all the way to the abdomen and sends out sensory fibres from your brainstem to organs. In basic terms, when breathwork stimulates the parasympathetic system, the vagus nerve sends these responses to various areas of your body, such as the gastrointestinal and cardiovascular systems. This can have a profound effect on heart rate.
The other thing the vagus nerve does is counter-balance the sympathetic nervous system response. When we go into fight or flight mode, stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline are pumped around our body. The vagus nerves will tell the body to calm down by stimulating the release of acetylcholine, prolactin and oxytocin. A strong vagus response may mean better recovery time from stress, injury and illness.
Health benefits associated with slow breathing techniques:
- Decreased anxiety
- Increased ease and comfort
- Positive energy
- Emotional control strategies
- Psychological flexibility
If you ever needed a reason to focus on your breath, here are a few proven reasons. You don’t have to be in a yoga class to practice Pranayama. Try a meditation app that has free breathing exercises, such as CALM. Or first thing when you wake up in the morning, or at the traffic lights, or waiting for your tea to brew, place your hand on your heart and take three deep and even breathes. Easy.
A Simple breathwork practice: Sama Vritti (square breath or equal movement)
A calming and balancing pranayama, you can practice it like this:
- Find a comfortable seated position with your spine upright. Use a pillow or a block to support your sit bones if it makes it more comfortable.
- Rest your hands gently on the knees.
- Breathe in for a count of 4 (inhalation)
- Hold the inbreath for a count of 4 (retention)
- Breathe out for a count of 4 (exhalation)
- Hold the outbreath for a count of 4 (retention)
You can make the count shorter or longer, up to 6 is recommended, but stick with what feels best for you. Keep each breath and retention even. The breath should not be strained, try and keep it smooth.
Do several rounds and then sit for a while just watching the breath without controlling it.
If you find the breath retentions too much leave them out. If you are pregnant leave out the breath retentions.
How Breath-Control Can Change Your Life: A Systematic Review on Psycho-Physiological Correlates of Slow Breathing. Frontiers in human neuroscience. A. Zaccaro et al. 2018.
The science of breathing. S. Novotny & L. Kravitz. University of New Mexico