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Through breathing practices, we increase our stress resilience. Stress resilience is the ability to recover and rebound from challenging events. Everyone has the capacity to increase their stress resilience.
When people experience more stress than their system can handle, there will be adverse effects on their emotional and physical health. An individual can experience anxiety, obsessive worry, insomnia, daytime fatigue, irritability and muscle aches. During this time, the stress-response system is doing its best to cope. If this goes on too long, the system may become exhausted, leading to depression, chronic fatigue, feelings of being overwhelmed, and the progression of physical illness such as cardiovascular disease. It is possible to prevent or even reverse this progression by increasing the strength, balance and resilience of the stress-response system.
In order to cultivate stress resilience, we begin with breathing techniques that shift the stress-response system into a healthier balance by activating the healing nervous system while quieting the defensive part. The healing, calming part of the nervous system is the parasympathetic nervous system. The level of activity of this system can be measured using the fluctuations in heart rate that are linked to breathing; the fluctuations are used to calculate heart rate variability, or HVR. Changing the rate and pattern of breathing alters HVR, reflecting shifts in nervous system activity.
You can do a simple test of this on yourself. Sit comfortably and place two fingers on your pulse, either on the side of your neck or on your wrist, whichever is easier. Now breathe slowly and deeply. Continue the slow deep breathing as you count your pulse. Count the number of beats when you breathe in, and compare it with the number of beats when you breathe out. What do you notice? If you found that your heart beats faster when you breathe in than when you breathe out, you are correct. You have discovered that every breath you take affects your heart rate. Heart rate variability not only responds to breathing in and breathing out, it also changes with the overall rate of breathing. For example, breathing slowly increases HRV. Is that good? When the HRV is higher, it means that the system adjusting the heart rate, as you breathe in and out, is responding more robustly and more flexibly to changes in your breathing. When HRV is low, it means that either something is impaired, or the system is aging and becoming more rigid. So the answer is yes, increasing heart rate variability is very good, because having a higher HRV is associated with a healthier, more flexible cardiovascular system, a more resilient stress-response system, and overall health and longevity.
Coherent Breathing is a simple way to increase heart rate variability and balance the stress-response system. Coherent Breathing is breathing at a rate of five breaths per minute, around the middle of the breathing rate range. These rates are used because they maximize HRV for most adults. Although most adults can learn to breathe at five breaths per minute easily, some people have more difficulty due to physical issues such as asthma or obstructive lung disease. High levels of body tension can also impede attempts to slow down the breath.
In learning breath practices the most important thing to remember is to relax. This may sound obvious, but it is not. As you are learning a new practice, it may feel awkward or unnatural at first. You may begin to worry about whether you are doing it correctly, whether it is working, whether you need to try harder. All this thinking and worrying will make you tense up. Self-judgment adds another layer of stress. The less you judge yourself, the easier it will be to relax and experience the benefits of Coherent Breathing.
The best way to become aware of your breath is to sit comfortably, close your mouth, and breathe through your nose. If you cannot breathe through your nose, you can still do the practice by breathing through your mouth with your lips slightly parted. Close your eyes. Feel the air as it moves in and out of your nose. Breathe slowly and deeply. Feel the air move down into your lungs, then back up and out again. Feel the rise and fall of your belly and chest, the movement of your ribs. Now, you are becoming aware of your breath.
This part will be easier if you lie down. Make sure your neck and back are comfortable. Use whatever pillows or cushions you may need. Close your eyes, close your mouth, and breathe through your nose. Take a deep breath, relax your belly muscles so that your belly rises each time you breathe in. It is not necessary to actively push your belly out. Let the breath fill you, causing your belly to rise naturally, like a balloon filling with air. Then, let your belly come down naturally as you breathe out. Repeat this slowly several times. All breathing should be slow and gentle without straining. Take these deep belly breaths in and out several times as you relax the muscles of your face and let your whole body relax. When you are comfortable belly breathing with your eyes closed, move on to Coherent Breathing.
BEGINNING STEPS FOR COHERENT BREATHING
You may sit or lie down in a comfortable, supported position. Close your eyes, close your mouth, and breathe through your nose. Focus your attention on feeling the breath move in and out through your nose and airways to your lungs. When other thoughts enter you mind, just let them float through and refocus your attention on the breathing sensations. Breathing should be slow, gentle and comfortable – not forced in any way.
* Breathe through your nose with your eyes closed.
* Taking your time, count slowly and silently in your mind. As you breathe in… two… As you breathe out… two… Repeat this for two breaths.
* Taking your time, count slowly: As you breathe in… two… three… As you breathe out… two… three… Repeat this for three breaths.
* Taking your time, count slowly: As you breathe in… two… three… four… As you breathe out… two… three… four… Repeat this for four breaths.
* Taking your time, count a little more slowly: As you breathe in… two… three… four… As you breathe out… two… three… four… Repeat this for four breaths.
Once you learn to breathe at five breaths per minute, you will not need to use these learning steps.
Resistance breathing is any kind of breathing that creates resistance to the flow of air. Why would we want to create airway resistance? As you recall, Coherent Breathing refers to the respiratory rate of five breaths per minute. Resistance Breathing enhances the effects of Coherent Breathing. It slightly increases pressure in the lungs, which heightens stimulation of the parasympathetic system, the soothing, recharging part of the nervous system. Also, when the respiratory muscles have to work harder against resistance, they become stronger over time. Taking slower and deeper breaths also opens more of the lungs’ alveoli, the tiny air-filled sacs through which oxygen enters the blood and carbon dioxide is expelled. The results are healthier lungs and better oxygenation.
The body has a number of automatic or involuntary functions, including the cardiovascular, respiratory, digestive, hormonal, glandular, and the immune systems. Of all the automatic functions of the body, only one can be easily controlled voluntarily – breathing. By voluntarily changing the rate, depth, and pattern of breathing, we can change the messages being sent from the body’s respiratory system to the brain. Simply put, when we control our breathing, we control our mind. For example, when we feel anxious, just a few minutes of Coherent Breathing can calm our worried mind.
RESISTANCE BREATHING: OCEAN BREATH, OR “UJJAYI”
Resistance can be created by tightening the throat muscles and narrowing the space between the vocal cords. This is called Ocean Breath, or “Ujjayi Breath”. Ujjayi is Sanskrit for “victorious” or “victory over the mind through the breath”.
This breathing entails making a soft sound, like the sound of the ocean heard inside a seashell, by slightly tightening the muscles of the upper back of the throat. One way to learn to make the ocean breath sound is to begin with your mouth open. Breathing out, make the whispery sound “ahhhhh”, the sound you make after quenching your thirst on a hot day. Repeat this “ahhhhh” several times with your eyes closed while focusing your attention on the feelings in the muscles being tightened in the upper back part of your throat. Next, close your mouth and repeat the same sound.
STEPS FOR RESISTANCE BREATHING WITH OCEAN (UJJAYI) BREATH
* Close your eyes and your mouth. Try to make the sound of “ahhhhh”, as you breathe out through your nose.
* Once you think you have it, try to maintain the sound from the very beginning to the very end of the out-breath. It should be a steady sound.
* Now make the same sound but more softly and with less effort. It should be present throughout the out-breath but barely audible.
* With your eyes closed, breathe in and out through your nose, using Resistance Breathing (Ujjayi) on the out-breath.
* Continue breathing with the Coherent Breathing rate. (Five breaths per minute).
* Breathe slowly and gently with Resistance Breathing.
* Remember to relax your neck and shoulders.
* If it is going smoothly and easily, continue for another ten minutes. When you are finished, just rest.
* Notice how your body feels. Notice the quality of your mind.
If you are doing Resistance for five minutes as a beginner, and if your throat is hurting, then you are probably straining yourself by doing it too loudly or too forcefully. Remember, the sound does not have to be loud. It can be barely audible, and the breathing should be slow, gentle and even. What you are trying to achieve is just a soft, even sound, like ocean waves gently breaking on the shore.
Coherent Breathing and Resistance Breathing have a part in your daily life. It can become a part of most activities simply because it helps you to relax, to be fully present and aware, and to enhance your sense of peace, joy and connection to yourself and others.