How breathing deep calms your mind

What’s the first thing that people tell you to do whenever you’re upset or anxious? Take a deep breath.

We know that slow, deep breaths can help us calm down. Pranayama, or yoga breathing, is a practice that has been around since at least the fifth or sixth centuries B.C. It focuses on using breathing techniques to calm and center the mind. The Sanskrit word pranayama translates to (prana,) “vital force” and (ayama) “to extend or draw out.” So for thousands of years, humans have known that by controlling our breathing, we can control our moods.

New findings from researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine may shed light on why it works.

The research team, led by biochemistry professor Mark Krasnow, looked at the neurons in the brains of mice. They found that of the 3,000 neurons that control breathing — also known as our breathing pacemaker — roughly 175 of those neurons also appear to control the part of the brain that regulates attention, arousal and panic. This would explain why we hyperventilate when we are anxious and why deep, controlled breathing helps us calm down.

For the study, which was published in the journal Science, researchers isolated the 175 neurons that they suspected acted as communications highways between breathing and arousal and then “turned them off” to get a better idea of their precise function. Researchers theorized that without these neurons, the breathing of the mice might be affected such that they would cough or sputter. But that’s not what happened. In fact, the breathing patterns of the mice initially appeared unchanged.

Mellow mice

The team originally thought that they had been off base with their theory. But after a few more tests, they noticed something odd about the mice. Unlike the control mice who spent the majority of their time in the test chamber exploring and sniffing, the mice in this experiment appeared more calm, spending most of their time grooming themselves and relaxing. They also breathed more slowly than they did prior to the experiment.

Of course, these are mice. So it’s unclear whether or not similar communication highways exist in the neurons of human brains. Also, it’s up for debate as to whether or not the mice were actually more relaxed after the neurons were turned off or if this was just a subjective assumption on the part of the research team. It’s hard to know for sure since the mice aren’t talking.

Still, this is a good start for researchers hoping to better understand the connection between breathing and arousal. If a similar pathway does exist in humans, medication that targets these neurons might help to control anxiety when the system goes into overdrive.

For now, the research just confirms what humans have known for thousands of years. If you’re stressed out, take a deep breath. And let those neurons in the brain work their magic.

Credit: Jenn Savedge

7 steps to a longer life

Earlier this summer, I attended a conference on “life extension” at Cambridge University in the U.K. Scientists from around the world had descended on this small English city to discuss ways of making immortality a reality.

Some claimed that we could be genetically engineered to make us live forever, while others insisted that progressively replacing worn-out body parts with new ones grown in a lab was the way forward.

Although the field of human life extension is making rapid progress, it struck me that the scientists at the conference had missed one of the most obvious ways of extending human life: mindfulness meditation.

Although mindfulness extends human life by reducing anxiety, stress and depression, it also lengthens subjective life span. That is, because mindfulness helps us live “in the moment” rather than trapped inside a foggy daydream, we fully experience more of life, and therefore our life span is effectively increased.

Let me explain. Without realizing it, most of us spend much of our time trapped inside the “busy-ness” of daily life. We are effectively unconscious to the world and sleepwalk through our days. Being locked inside such busyness can erode a vast chunk of our life by stealing our time. Take a moment to look at your own life:

Do you find it difficult to stay focused on what’s happening in the present?
Does it seem as if you are “running on automatic,” that is, without much awareness of what you’re doing?
Do you rush through activities without being really attentive to them?
Do you get so focused on the goal you want to achieve that you lose touch with what you are doing right now to get there?
Do you find yourself preoccupied with the future or the past?
In other words, are you driven by the daily routines that force you to live in your head rather than in your life?
Now extrapolate this to the life you have left to you. If you are 30 years old, then, with a life expectancy of around 80, you have 50 years left. But if you are only truly conscious and aware of every moment for perhaps two out of 16 hours a day (which is not unreasonable), your life expectancy is only another six years and three months. You’ll probably spend more time in meetings with your boss!

If a friend told you that she had just been diagnosed with a terminal disease that will kill her in six years, you would be filled with grief and try to comfort her. Yet, without realizing it, you may be daydreaming along such a path yourself.

If you could double the number of hours that you were truly alive each day, then, in effect, you would be doubling your life expectancy. It would be like living to 130. Now imagine tripling or quadrupling the time you are truly alive. People spend hundreds of thousands of dollars — literally — on expensive drugs and unproven vitamin cocktails to gain an extra few years of life; others are funding research in universities to try to extend the human life span. But you can achieve the same effect by learning to live mindfully — waking up to your life.

Quantity isn’t everything, of course. But those who practice mindfulness are also less anxious and stressed, as well as more relaxed, fulfilled and energized, so not only does life seem longer as it slows down and you begin to “show up for it,” but it seems happier, too.

In our book “Mindfulness,” Mark Williams and I map out a path to living a happier and more harmonious life using mindfulness meditation. The technique is based on Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, which professor Williams developed at the U.K.’s Oxford University and with his colleagues at the universities of Cambridge and Toronto.

Although the full program lasts eight weeks, here are seven steps that will help get you started:

1. Go for a walk. Walking is one of the finest exercises and a brilliant stress reliever and mood booster. A good walk can put the world in perspective and soothe your frayed nerves. If you really want to feel alive, go for a walk in the wind or rain!

2. Take time to breathe. Whenever you feel tired, angry, stressed, anxious or unhappy, take a three-minute breathing space. It acts as a bridge between the longer formal meditations in our book and the demands of daily life. See it as a breath of fresh air.

3. Change chairs. Stress tends to drive us in ever-decreasing circles. It’s easy to end up like a hamster trapped in its wheel, forever running but never getting anywhere. You can step outside such stressful cycles by consciously breaking some of your most ingrained habits. So why not see if you can notice which chairs you normally sit on at home, in a café or bar, or at work (during meetings, for example). Make a deliberate choice to try another chair, or to alter the position of the chair you use. You’ll be surprised by how different the world looks and feels.

Mindfulness and appreciating the here and now
4. Appreciate the here and now. Happiness is looking at the same things with different eyes. Life only happens here, at this very moment. Tomorrow and yesterday are no more than thoughts. So make the best of it.

Which activities, things or people in your life make you feel good? Can you give additional appreciative attention and time to these activities? Consciously write them down and gently resolve to pay them more attention. Can you pause for a moment when pleasant moments occur? Help yourself pause by noticing:

What body sensations you feel at these moments?
What thoughts are around?
What feelings are here?
5. Set up a mindfulness bell. Pick a few ordinary activities from your daily life that you can turn into “mindfulness bells,” that is, reminders to stop and pay attention to things in great detail. Consider turning these moments in your day into bells:
When preparing food. Any food preparation is a great opportunity for mindfulness — vision, hearing, taste, smell, touch. Focus on the feel of the knife as it slices through the different textures of different vegetables, or the smell released as each vegetable is chopped.
When crossing the street. Become a model citizen and use the pedestrian signals as an opportunity to stand quietly and focus on your breath, rather than an opportunity to try to beat the lights.
When listening. Notice when you are not listening, when you start to think of something else, such as what you are going to say in response. Come back to actually listening.
6. Do the Sounds and Thoughts Meditation. Sounds are as compelling as thoughts and just as immaterial and open to interpretation. For this reason, the Sounds and Thoughts Meditation is my personal favorite; it elegantly reveals how the mind conjures up thoughts that can so easily lead us astray. Once you realize this — deep in your heart — then a great many of your stresses and troubles will simply evaporate before your eyes. (You can download the meditation from franticworld.com.)
7. Visit the movies. Ask a friend or family member to go with you to the movies, but this time, with a difference. Go at a set time (say, 7 p.m.) and choose whatever film takes your fancy only once you get there. Often, what makes us happiest in life is the unexpected, the chance encounter or the unpredicted event. Movies are great for all these.

Most of us only go to see a film when there’s something specific we want to watch. If you turn up at a set time and then choose what to see, you may discover that the experience will be totally different. You might end up watching (and loving) a film you’d never normally have considered. This act alone opens your eyes and enhances awareness and choice.

And when you watch the film, forget about all this and simply enjoy yourself!

Credit: Danny Penman

Acupuncture may relieve COPD

Relief may be on the way for some of the roughly 24 million Americans who suffer from COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. A new study has found that acupuncture may improve breathing problems in people with COPD, making it easier for them to complete physical tasks and minimizing the feeling of breathlessness that often accompanies exertion.

The study, conducted in Japan and published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, followed patients who had received three months of acupuncture. Researchers found the benefits from the alternative treatment were equal to, or better than, what’s been reported for conventional drugs and exercises.

COPD — a disease categorization that includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis — is irreversible lung damage that is often caused by smoking. The primary symptom of the condition is shortness of breath. At present, the disease is typically treated with medications such as steroids and inhalers as well as breathing exercises.

For this study, doctors followed 68 COPD patients, half of whom were given weekly acupuncture sessions, while the other half received “fake” acupuncture sessions with needles that don’t actually pierce the skin. Prior to the treatment and at the end of the 12-week trial period, patients performed a standard six-minute walking test during which researchers measured the distance walked and shortness of breath during walking (on a scale of 1 to 10.)

In the real acupuncture group, shortness of breath was initially rated at 5.5 out of 10 after walking. After 12 weeks of treatment, that fell to 1.9. The average distance those patients were able to walk in six minutes also improved, from about 370 meters to 440 meters.

The comparison group did not see these improvements. Breathlessness scores held steady — they were 4.2 before treatment and 4.6 after — and there was no improvement in patients’ walk distance.

While the researchers don’t recommend using acupuncture in lieu of conventional treatment, they do think the benefits noted by the survey warrant more research — and for those who can afford it, it certainly can’t hurt to try it.

SOURCE: Jenn Savedge

5 breath exercises for energizing the spirit

1. Alternate Nostril Breath

My absolute favorite form of pranayama (breath control) is Alternate Nostril Breathing. It’s simple to do and in just a few moments can completely calm and balance the monkey mind.

Alternate Nostril Breathing is traditionally done in a seated, cross-legged meditation posture, though it’s fine to sit in a chair if you’re not comfortable on the floor. In either case, sit up with a tall spine and relaxed face and shoulders.

The mudra (hand position) is done with the right hand. Fold the index finger and middle finger down to touch the palm. Begin with the thumb lightly closing your right nostril. Inhale through the left nostril, to the count of four, six or eight. Hold the breath in for four, six or eight seconds. Then, lightly close your left nostril with your ring finger and release the thumb from your right nostril. Exhale through the right side. Inhale again through the right side. Retain the breath here in the middle only if you feel comfortable doing so. Exhale through the left.

That is one cycle.

To summarize: inhale left, exhale right, inhale right, exhale left. Optionally retain the inbreath in and the outbreath out. Continue for five cycles or more. You can work up to doing this breath exercise for five or more minutes at a time.

Alternate Nostril Breathing works like a charm to clear and calm the mind. It’s a terrific technique to incorporate at the beginning and/or end of your yoga session.

2. Bumblebee Breath

Use your fingertips to lightly cover your closed eyelids. Using your thumbs, close your ears. Inhale deeply through the nose and as you exhale, let out a long, low humming sound. With the eyes and ears closed, the hum will reverberate in your head and sound like a buzzing bee. Repeat three, four, or more times.

As you do this breath exercise, bring your inner gaze to the third eye, the point between your eyebrows. The Bumblebee Breath is purported to calm the mind and inspire new creative ideas.

Next time you are feeling overstimulated or uninspired, give it a shot.

3. Dog Breath (a.k.a. Breath of Fire)

You need to get in touch with your inner child for this one. (It’s great for kids yoga, as is Bumblebee Breath.) For Dog Breath, pant like a dog, first through the open mouth. Then, close your mouth and continue the panting breath through the nose. Do two sets of thirty seconds each, pausing between the sets and taking deep breaths. This technique brings oxygen to the brain and help you wake up and feel more alert.

4. Ocean Breath

“You and I are all as much continuous with the physical universe as a wave is continuous with the ocean.”

~ Alan Watts

Ocean breath is super simple and calming yet energizing. Take deep, slow, long, active inhales and let the exhale out naturally and passively. Close your eyes and notice how this creates a sound like the waves in the ocean.

5. Just Sit

“There is no success or failure, no great place you are going. You are “just sitting.” To wander, to obsess, to lust—you get a flavor of the mind, a direct meeting. Without acting on any of the thoughts, you get to see how they rise up and—if you’re lucky–pass away. Sometimes we get stuck. You get to observe the nature of being stuck.”

~ Natalie Goldberg

Simple breath awareness is an excellent meditation technique. As you breathe consciously through the nose, recall that this magnificent function has been with you since the moment of your birth and will be with you until your final exhale of this precious life.

Credit; Elephantjournal.com