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Natural Awakenings

Mindful Breathwork: Managing Stress and Heart Health

Jan 31, 2024 09:24AM ● By Sheila Julson
Man breathing the fresh air practicing breath work

Jordi Calvera /CanvaPro

The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are key partners in regulating heart rate, stress levels and breathing. Stressors such as traffic jams, work deadlines, financial limitations and family conflicts can disrupt this synchronized partnership and lead not just to emotional anguish, but also to high blood pressure, inflammation and increased cardiovascular events.

An inquiry into how breathing relates to the nervous system begins with the vagus nerve, the largest highway within the parasympathetic nervous system. The vagus nerve runs from the brain and through the body, down to the gastrointestinal system. “It is the most complex of the cranial nerves and regulates heart rate and the body’s stress response,” says Poonacha Machaiah, CEO of The Chopra Foundation.

Machaiah suggests breathwork as an effective mind-body practice to balance the nervous system and instill calm. It can serve as a pillar, along with nourishment, movement, restful sleep and connection with community and nature, toward maintaining homeostasis in the body. “Breathing is free medicine,” he asserts. “It is your anchor, and every breathwork technique starts with observing your breath and connecting with yourself and your body.”

Stress or anxiousness sends the sympathetic nervous system into overdrive, affirms Meena Malhotra, M.D., a functional medicine practitioner and founder of Chicago-based Heal n Cure integrative clinic. The goal of breathwork, a catchall term for a variety of breathing practices, is to balance the autonomic nervous system. Many breathing techniques involve holding the breath, which stimulates the vagus nerve.

“Deep breathing is the best way to stretch and stimulate the vagus nerve,” Malhotra explains. “When the vagus nerve is stimulated, the parasympathetic nervous system is activated. Stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system is calming, which helps bring the body into balance.”

Just like how there are various types of yoga to achieve different goals, the same holds true for breathwork. “There’s something for everyone,” notes Sandy Abrams, the Los-Angeles-based founder of The C.E.Om and author of Breathe to Succeed: Increase Workplace Productivity, Creativity, and Clarity Through the Power of Mindfulness. “Breathwork is the love language of the nervous system. Being in a state of frequent, chronic stress—even low-grade—makes it difficult to enjoy any experience. Breathwork can calm, balance or boost the nervous system. Simply by breathing in ways that calm the nervous system, you can immediately shift from stressed to calm.”

Abrams recommends simple breathing practices that don’t take a lot of time. “The nervous system can become more balanced and relaxed with even just one slow, light, nourishing breath,” she remarks. For beginners, she suggests shifting from shallow, rapid chest breaths, which can induce stress, to deeper ones that activate the diaphragm. “It helps to place one hand on the belly and feel the expansion outward as you inhale for about six seconds, tracing the breath up to the chest and then slowly exhaling for six seconds.”

The popular “four-seven-eight” method involves inhaling for a count of four, holding the breath for a count of seven and exhaling for a count of eight. “Four-seven-eight is a very effective stress reduction tool,” Malhotra says. “I suggest that everyone do it while stuck in traffic or while that hourglass cursor on the laptop is spinning. Instead of checking your email or fidgeting with your phone, do a breathing exercise.” 

Other techniques may employ longer or shorter counts, but Abrams notes that there is no need to obsess over counting—just go by feeling. “Relaxation comes with extended exhales that are about twice as long as the inhale,” she asserts.

Abrams also uses the “bumblebee” technique, which increases nitric oxide to the nasal cavity. Simply inhale lightly and deeply through the nose and during the entire exhale, make a humming sound. The hum can be amplified by gently closing the ears.

The kid-friendly “lion’s breath” helps release stagnant energy. “Close your eyes and inhale through your nose. During the exhale, open your eyes wide, stick out your tongue and shake your hands. Hiss like a fierce lion,” Abrams advises. “Adding movement feels good and makes everybody laugh; laughter is breath, too.” Parents can use the lion’s breath to calm rowdy children in the car or while shopping. It can also help children learn to control their emotions.

Abrams notes that her breathwork techniques are for relaxation and balancing the nervous system; those with contraindications should consult a physician. Malhotra adds that there are other ways besides breathwork to stimulate the vagus nerve, but some are not safe to do at home and should be done only under the guidance of a medical doctor.

“These breath tools are free and accessible to anyone,” Abrams says. “They can be used in so many different ways, at different times. I encourage everyone to play around with their curiosity about these different breath tools.”

Sheila Julson is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Natural Awakenings.

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