How many of us take time each day to focus on our breath? Breathing is one of those subconscious body responses we don’t tend to pay much attention to. This is a mistake; we want to be conscious of our breath because it’s the master key to good health. Through conscious breathwork we can reduce our stress and optimize our health.
Many of us think that breathing is related solely to our respiratory system, but this is untrue. According to breathwork expert Shelly Atwood who leads workshops on breathwork and is owner the of B-R-E-A-T-H-E, breathwork is more about the nervous system than the respiratory system. Atwood, who holds a double B.S. in Cardiopulmonary Science and has practiced in the field of Respiratory Care, says, “the science is just now catching up with the ancient wisdom of breathwork.” Thanks to important research out of China, the healthcare profession is now learning that there’s an important connection between the nervous system and the immune system, and furthermore how we breathe affects our health.
The nervous system has two components – the voluntary nervous system and the involuntary nervous system. The voluntary nervous system controls our muscular system. The involuntary nervous system controls every other system. The respiratory system is unique because it’s controlled by both the voluntary and involuntary nervous system. Breathwork is powerful because it’s the only doorway in which we can get at our involuntary nervous system and impact the vast majority of systems within the body.
“Breathing is the only automatic function in our body that can also be voluntarily controlled. This voluntary control over our breathing is where it becomes a powerful tool,” says Atwood.
The way we breathe directly affects how our nervous system responds to situations. Atwood explained that stressed breathing high up into the chest stimulates our fight or flight response (aka our sympathetic nervous system) while slow, deep breathing with the diaphragm activates our rest and relaxation state (aka our parasympathetic nervous system). Both systems are important and they need to be in balance for optimal health.
Atwood thinks of the interplay between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems like the RPM of a car. She said that the engine of a car is operating well when the RPM is at a number appropriate for the situation. At rest it should be somewhere around one and be able to quickly reach eight when appropriate to the situation.
Our bodies are the same way. There are times when we need to be revved up (think of a boxer entering the ring – he wants his body to be ready to fight), but we are made to spend the majority of our time like a car would at rest, which is where the body needs to be in order to restore itself. Unfortunately, says Atwood, many of us who are stressed are operating at an RPM between three and five at rest. This essentially means we’re chronically stressed.
According to Dr. Andrew Weil, M.D., one of the world’s foremost experts on breathwork and integrative health, the sympathetic nervous system tends to be overactivated in our bodies. A continually overactive sympathetic nervous system triggers chronic inflammation. Atwood and Dr. Weil shared that chronic inflammation is either the cause of or a precipitating factor in most all diseases. Conscious breathing is the tool that allows us to calm our nervous system down, return us to an RPM of one, and activate the parasympathetic nervous system. Dr. Weil said our breathing needs to be “deeper, slower, quieter and more regular.”
Using the calming breath is the best way to achieve deeper, slower, quieter and more regular breathing. This type of breathwork activates the parasympathetic nervous system and helps us achieve a rest and relaxation state. It involves breathing slowly in through the nose and engaging the diaphragm, holding the breath for a few seconds, and exhaling slowly through the mouth. Ideally, you want to take between six and 10 breaths per minute with the calming breath.
Breathwork is the oldest healing tool we have and it’s part of our human blueprint. Through breathwork, we can calm our nervous system down naturally, lower our stress, and reduce the risk of inflammation, which optimizes our health and well-being.