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Although breathing is automatic, it’s also a function you can control. Controlling the breath takes conscious effort, but is worth it when you understand how it can change your life.
Controlled breathing, according to Dr. Mercola, has many benefits including triggering a relaxation response, improving insomnia and anxiety, and even depression. He says we can trigger the parasympathetic (relaxation) response in the body through deep breathing.
“Slow, steady breathing activates your parasympathetic response,” he says, “while rapid, shallow breathing activates your sympathetic response, which is involved in releasing cortisol and other stress hormones.”
This explains why people with asthma can’t catch their breath during an attack. The flood of stress hormones makes it difficult to breathe, and the shallow breathing releases more stress hormones; it’s a vicious cycle.
Unconscious breathing is shallow
Most people unconsciously take in shallow breaths and only fill up the top of the lungs, ignoring the diaphragm. This shallow breathing doesn’t fully satisfy the body’s need for oxygen. Aside from habit, many people breathe this way because of the way they sit during the day; slouching over a computer or desk prevents them from taking full breaths.
It’s not just slouching that prevents you from breathing effectively. Your ability to take a full, deep breath is affected by the subtlest positions of your body.
Try this experiment to see for yourself
Sit in a chair with your feet flat on the floor. Place your hands on your thighs with palms facing up. Breathe as deeply as possible several times and notice your experience. Now, turn your palms face down on top of your thighs and breathe deeply several more times. Notice your experience.
If you followed the instructions, you were able to breathe deeply and more easily with your palms facing down. This is just one way to increase oxygen to the brain.
Have you ever wondered why great yogis place high importance on breathing properly, much of which happens only through the nose? It’s said that breathing in through the nose allows the body to absorb not only oxygen, but vital energy known as chi.
There are plenty of benefits to breathing through the nose, including the absorption of nitric oxide.
Rodney Yee, one of the more popular yoga and pranayama teachers, became interested in pranayama when he experienced it first hand in 1985. He began attending a weekly pranayama class taught by Ramanand Patel, and felt the effects quickly. His teacher told him from that day forward he was to commit himself to pranayama every day or drop it entirely. He committed to it every day, and now teaches others.
Pranayama isn’t a quick fix, however. Yee understood the importance of continued practice and wants to make sure his students understand it, too. “The pranayama practice is subtle,” he says, “but it affects us at the root of our physical and mental existence. Only when it is done daily do we build up the sensitivity that is necessary to understand the language of the breath and prana.”
The idea of taking in vital energy through the nose might be too far out for some people to believe, but our own science tells us there are health benefits to nose breathing.
To learn the basics of pranayama, get familiar with the basics by following a pranayama yoga routine like this one. You’ll feel the benefits quickly, and you won’t need any further proof that it works.
Nose breathing activates cognitive function
Science has proven that breathing through the nose activates areas of the brain associated with cognitive function. Specifically, the hippocampus and amygdala.
Dr. Christina Zelano and her colleagues from Northwestern University found several epilepsy patients already having electrodes implanted in their brains to identify the sources of their seizures. These patients agreed to also have electrodes placed near their amygdala and hippocampus – two regions of the brain associated with memory and emotional processing.
During their hospital stay, the patients were asked to breathe only through their mouth or nose while researchers monitored their brain activity under each circumstance.
When patients breathed exclusively through the nose, “they found that activation in the amygdala and hippocampus also appeared to sync with breathing but, again, only when patients were breathing in through their nose.”
Be conscious of how you breathe
Your breath is powerful enough to supply your body with the oxygen that keeps you alive, yet it’s capable of so much more. If you’ve never considered being conscious of your breath, now is the time to start.