I have a Superpower. I can make myself feel euphoric and calm, restore my peace. I can make myself sleepy, slow my heart rate, wake myself up, focus my mind. I can heal myself.
To find out if you have the same Superpower as me, just follow your nose; and breathe.
The movement of the breath can regulate the body. We can change our mental, physical, and emotional responses with our breath. How’s that for power?
Let’s get scientific for a moment.
Have you ever taken a deep, cleansing breath and felt an instant calm – almost sedative feeling? Or taken rapid, shallow breaths and felt panicked or frantic? This is because the nerves in the brain connect our breathing to different states of mind.
I came across an interesting article on a recent study, where researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine have explained what’s happening between the brain and lungs.
There is a tiny cluster of neurons deep in your brain stem that link the body’s respiration to relaxation, attention, excitement and anxiety.
If you think about it, we have different types of breaths; normal, excited, sighing, yawning, gasping, sleeping, laughing, sobbing; these neurons within the respiratory control or “breathing center” are in charge of generating the different breaths which then stimulate or arouse the brain.
Our brain is processing a response based on information gathered from our breathing. Just by being aware of what’s happening, we have power over the brain with our breath.
Now let’s get physical, because how you breathe does alter the body along with the mind.
Inside you is a cranial nerve, called the Vagus Nerve. It wanders all over the body handling important business. In fact, in Latin, the word Vagus means wanderer. This nerve runs from the brain to the ears and tongue; down the neck to the heart, stomach, liver, pancreas, gallbladder, kidney, spleen, lungs, and other organs. It’s a pretty big deal.
U.C.L.A. Scientists have discovered that 90 percent of the Vagus nerve fibers are carrying information from the stomach to the brain. Ever had a gut feeling? You might think twice next time before ignoring it.
Within our nervous system there are two branches; sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system is what you know as “fight or flight”, while the parasympathetic nervous system handles “rest and digest” or “feed and breed” parts of the body.
The vagus nerve is part of the parasympathetic nervous system.
Now imagine you are feeling physically anxious, your blood pressure is rising and your brain is firing off “fight or flight” signals as the whole body feels under attack. It’s important to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system in order to reduce the sympathetic nervous system.
To stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, take deep and slow nasal breaths; Darth Vader style (imagine a slight snoring sound on the inhale and exhale) The vibration and breath stimulates the vagus nerve through baroreceptor neurons in the neck and heart. Which then signal back to the brain to lower your blood pressure, calm itself down, and reduce the anxiety; so that we no longer feel threatened or physically stressed.
Breathing rushes in to save the day!
I use my Superpower all day every day. Allow me to take you through a day in the life, and the different styles of breathing I use.
My Day in Breaths:
5:30 AM – Time to wake up! (Groan) – Without moving, I start inhaling big breaths of air through my nose; getting the blood flowing to my brain preparing my body for the day.
5:45 AM – Once I’m up, I keep the nasal breaths going during my morning stretches. If I didn’t take time for this, I would drag my feet well into the middle of morning.
Anytime AM or PM – Uh oh, whether I’m recovering from sitting in traffic or I’m feeling a shift in mood from daily stress; it’s time to reset my mind and restore balance. With my eyes closed I take deep breaths through my nose, releasing the breath out of my mouth. I can feel positive energy clearing my mind and neutralizing my body.
6:30 PM – Preparing for that workout – I take steady breaths paired with rolling the neck and stretches to warm the muscles. Never workout with cold or stiff muscles! Always use the breath to power your workout and oxygenate the muscles. For aerobics or strength training; inhale during the most effort and exhale on the least effort. Runners often take one breathe for every 2 footsteps, or a 2:2 rhythm. Find what feels comfortable, nose or mouth, but don’t hold your breath while working out.
7:30 PM Cool down from workout – By the time I’m finished, my heart is racing and my breath is rapid. To bring my body back to a state of rest, I breathe in for 5 seconds, hold it for 5 seconds, then exhale slowly for 5 seconds; to regulate the heartbeat. This is paired with deep stretching and a foam roller. Don’t forget to exhale into each stretch!
10:00 PM Bedtime relaxation – Time to get sleepy. No more phone, TV, or visual stimulation. While laying down with my eyes closed, I breathe normally but focus on every inhale and every exhale 10 times. Repeating if needed. Sometimes by the 10th breath, I’m gone!
Let’s wrap this up with some other breathing styles:
Diaphragmatic breathing or “belly breathing”
To understand this type of breathing, we’re going to take a breathing test. You ready? Don’t worry, no matter how you score, that means you’re alive so you must be breathing!
Place one hand on your stomach, take a deep breath. Does your hand rise or fall with your inhale? If it rises on the inhale, you have achieved belly breathing! If your stomach sinks in with your inhale, don’t worry… this is called instinctual breathing, but it can cause a more shallow breath.
What happens when you inhale and the belly rises is your diaphragm muscle expanding and contracting, allowing the lungs to fill with air.
Dr. Andrew Weil (an M.D. & guru on holistic health) has a breathing technique called the 4-7-8 Breath.
1) Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound. 2) Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four. 3) Hold your breath for a count of seven. 4) Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight.
Pranayama is a breathing practice most commonly used in Yoga & meditation; which brings harmony between the body, mind and spirit, making one physically, mentally and spiritually strong. In Hindu/Sanskrit, Prana means life giving force, or breath; while ayama means restraint; or to regulate. Controlling the breath through various styles of breathing, often combined with body movement in a “flow”; most of the breathing styles I have mentioned at some point in this post. There’s an awesome book called ‘Yoga Cures’, written by Tara Stiles. She covers the pranayama breathing techniques in the beginning; the rest of the book is structured to show poses that remedy all types of ailments, both physical and mental.
You don’t have to practice yoga or meditate to use your Superpower. In fact, my favorite way to reset my body is to empty my mind completely by focusing on the breath.
To do this; start in a comfortable seated position. Rest your hands on your knees or legs, palms up. Lotus posture is my favorite.
Close your eyes, inhale through the nose. Individually touch each finger tip to thumb – start pointer finger to thumb, middle to thumb, ring to thumb, pinky to thumb. Exhale and repeat; starting over with pointer to thumb. Repeat this several times, 4 touch inhale, 4 touch exhale. As everything outside starts to melt away, be aware of every breath; reconnecting the body and mind.
Feeling your superpower yet? If you tried any of these techniques along the way, then I know you’re aware of the benefits and instant healing of a synchronized breath and body.
Thank you for reading! I hope you find power in the breath the way I have. Take a few seconds for yourself and focus on your breath. Don’t leave that moment until you feel strong and peaceful in your mind.
Do it for the health of it!
Shout out to my resources:
Stanford Medicine News Center , Article – Breath Induces Tranquility (by Bruce Goldman)
Greatlist , Article – Breathe for every exercise (by Jordan Shakeshaft)
Scientific American , Article – Second Brain (by Adam Hadhazy)
Ellie Drake , Video – Vagus breathing exercise (by the Ellie Drake Team)
Dr. Weil , Video – 4-7-8 Breath (by Dr. Weil)
Tara Stiles blog , Blog & Book – Yoga Cures (by Tara Stiles)