Yesterday I mentioned that science has something to teach us about breathing. We’ll explore that idea a bit further.
When someone is stressed or anxious, we often suggest they take a deep breath. We instinctively know that this will help them calm down. And we watch them inhale deeply. And for a long time, that’s all I knew. When I began to study yoga I was interested to learn for that deep breath to work, it’s not the inhalation that’s important, it’s the exhalation.
Try it yourself, take a deep breath and hold it. If you continue to hold it, you will soon realize this is not relaxing at all. In fact, it can cause anxiety. After all, we need to keep breathing. But there’s more going on here than wanting to take that next breath. It has to do with our autonomic nervous system. Anxiety turns on the ‘sympathetic nervous system’ which can increase our heart rate, our breathing rate, and blood pressure. Our inhalations trigger the sympathetic nervous system and tell our heart to speed up a bit. Conversely, during the exhalation, the parasympathetic responds by slowing things down. It’s nothing we notice as we go about our days, but yoga teaches us to increase those effects.
There are breathing practices that focus on inhalations which create energy, raise the heart rate, and can leave us feeling a bit wound up. But when we are saying ‘Take a deep breath’ to the person who is anxious what we are really encouraging them to do is exhale deeply. It’s the exhalation that helps us relax. There’s much more to it and there’s a link below to the article I’ve referenced here. But as I said yesterday, I think we intuitively know this.
What is a sigh but a deep exhalation? “Whew,” an expression of relief is an exhalation. When we fall into a chair tired, we exhale. We have the ability to help ourselves relax anytime we want to. It’s a simple equation, whatever the length of our inhalation, extend our exhalation slightly. That extra time activates the parasympathetic nervous system which sends signals to numerous body systems to help us relax. Today’s meditation is a guided breath practice that asks you to extend your exhalations slightly. Over the meditation, the breaths will extend slightly. Pay attention to your body’s reaction. It’s possible to get slightly light-headed doing this. If you experience that, stop following my directions and let your breath return to a more usual pattern. When you are ready, inhale a comfortable amount and then let your exhalation be one count longer. Enjoy.
The meditation is below.