Last year I attended breathing school. You would have thought that after 38 years of being alive I would know how to breath by now but apparently not.
Well, that’s not quite true. I do know how to breath, we all do. We don’t even think about it, we just do it. Our body does it for us. I guess the point of this is that we don’t know how to breath optimally for our health and wellbeing – or at least if we do know how, we don’t do it regularly. So that’s what I learned. For two mornings, we talked breath, science and breathed together. And it was fab.
Some people say that it’s the slow diaphragmatic breathing that is responsible for all the benefits of mind–body practices like yoga, tai chi and qi gong. It’s just a hypothesis of course, or rather a theory as I’m not sure how you could even go about testing this.
But even so, I decided it was worth having a look at the literature to see what evidence there is on how different breathing practices contribute to wellbeing. I say I decided – to be perfectly accurate, one of my teachers asked me for some help in putting together her pranayama (yoga breathing) course, and given that I haven’t written anything in ages, I figured it was a good opportunity to use the research for something productive too.
It turns out, there are benefits to breathing, beyond staying alive
So whether you fancy some traditional pranayamas, with kumbhakas and chasing samadhi, whether you are a devoted practitioner of coherent breathing at 6 breaths per minute at the annoying sound of a metronome, or whether you simply want to take a couple moments every day to take a few of deep breaths, there are definitely health benefits to starting a breathing practice.
Slow breathing has a calming effect
We all say “take a slow, deep breath” when something has angered us or upset us, or when we are stressed. This isn’t just an old wives’ tale – there is evidence that slow breathing practices can have a calming effect. One of the ways the slow breathing does this is by stimulating the vagus nerve, the long nerve that connects the brain with the internal organs. The vagus nerve is also the main contributor to the parasympathetic nervous system and can therefore bring back balance when the sympathetic system is in overdrive during stress (disclaimer: this is an incredibly simplistic explanation, for which I apologise! but a topic for another time perhaps).
Slow breathing can lower blood pressure
Together with the stress-busting, calming effects of slow breathing come benefits for our hearts too. There is ample evidence, including two systematic reviews, showing that slow breathing practices can lower blood pressure. This applies to all slow breathing practices, including ocean breath (or ujayi), alternate nostril breathing (or nadhi shodana), but most of the research seems to be on coherent breathing, ie breathing at 6 breaths per minute (see here and references within). This means that a breathing practice could be a great way to tackle hypertension alongside any medication you are taking.
Slow breathing may improve your mental health
Beyond the calming benefits on everyday stress, there is also evidence that breathing practices (either alone or in conjuction with a physical yoga practice) can also help alleviate the symptoms of depression and anxiety (eg here and here). The bulk of what I came across is again on coherent breathing, or breathing at 6 breaths per minute, although presumably the benefits are likely to apply to other slow breathing practices too.
Slow breathing could support your immune system
Our emotional wellbeing directly influences our immune system – you know how you tend to get sick after a stressful event? That’s probably why. How exactly this works is a topic for another time, but the vagus nerve is again involved in this. So while I did not come across any direct research directly linking slow (or any) breathing practices to immune function, it is a reasonable hypothesis that, by stimulating the vagus nerve, slow breathing practices could tackle the detrimental effects of stress on our immune system, which include high levels of inflammation and, confusingly, an ineffective immune response (I did say this was a topic for another time!).
May help you think more clearly and improve memory
This is a fun one – there’s a few, albeit dodgy-looking, studies (1, 2) suggesting that alternate nostril breathing can improve our ability to think and to perform certain tasks, and even enhance our memory.
Breathing from one nostril at a time may, apparently, activate the opposite part of the brain (so left nostril activates right side of the brain and vice versa), which could come in handy for particular tasks (1, 2, 3). Although you would then have to think about what the task at hand is, which side of the brain is mostly involved and then practice breathing from the opposite nostril, which sounds like too much effort and commitment for my laziness.
What about fast breathing practices, I hear you ask? There may be times when you need a little buzz of energy, a little injection of stress in your life – those are the times to try a fast breathing practice like Kapalabhati or Bhastrika. Unsurprisingly, fast breathing has the opposite effect to slow breathing, increasing heart rather and causes blood vessels to constrict, which reduces blood flow to the brain and therefore levels of oxygen.